Former poet laureate speaks at Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society event

Don’t get Billy Collins started on the relative merits of poetry vs. prose.

The former Poet Laureate of the United States was the featured speaker at the April 22 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Grand Del Mar Resort (see page B10 for photos). Society members read his book, “Aimless Love,” a collection of previously published and new poems that came out in 2013.

In an interview before his talk, Collins didn’t hesitate to expound on what he considers to be poetry’s advantages over prose as a literary form. For one thing, he said, poetry has a much longer history, dating to ancient times, when it was used to store and communicate vital information. In contrast, he said, “the novel is an 18th-century creation.”

Then there’s the subject matter. While novels concern themselves with “bourgeois” issues, such as people marrying, jumping into bed with or killing each other, Collins said, “Poetry’s concerns cut closer to the bone.”

He once told a novelist friend that “poetry is a bird, and prose is a potato.”

In “Poetry,” Collins wrote:

“Let the portly novelist

with his noisy typewriter

describe the city where Francine was born ...

how Albert read the paper on the train,

how curtains were blowing in the bedroom.

Let the playwright with her torn cardigan

and a dog curled on the rug

move the characters

from the wings to the stage …

Poetry is no place for that …

We are busy doing nothing …”

Collins, a lifelong New Yorker who holds a doctorate in English literature, admits that his feelings spring from resentment “at poetry being the ‘poor little match girl’ of literature. It’s all sour grapes.”

Poetry may be less popular than fiction in America, but Collins is an exception to the rule. His books have sold well, and his work has been featured prominently both on National Public Radio and in civic life.

During his tenure as poet laureate, from 2001 to 2003, he read his poem, “The Names,” written for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their surviving friends and relatives, before a joint session of Congress.

The poem concludes,

“Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.”

Collins began his working life in academia; he taught English at Lehman College in the Bronx for 35 years, and is now a professor emeritus. He didn’t publish his first book until he was in his 40s.

“It was really the megaphone of NPR — Terry Gross and Garrison Keillor (who host shows on the radio network) — that brought to me an audience of 3 to 4 million people. That radically changed my career,” Collins said.

His topics range from a sketch of a foreign city he visited, to musings about whether different species of bird can understand each other’s songs.

“That’s what I get paid to think about,” he said.

In another poem, titled “Quandary,” the protagonist bites into an apple and finds it “fuzzy on the inside and lacking the snap of the ripe.” He thinks about the fact that some people would be grateful to have the fruit, or want it badly enough to kill him for it, while others are “shielded from anything as offensive as a slightly imperfect apple.”

The poem ends as the narrator takes a second bite and tosses the apple over a hedge, “hoping to hit on the head a murderer or one of the filthy rich out for a stroll.”

Collins said he doesn’t write every day, but also doesn’t go too long without putting pen to paper. His subject matter comes from things he notices or observes, from something he’s read in a newspaper, to a painting he’s seen in a museum. Or something his “literary persona” has seen while sitting in a chair by the window, while sipping a cup of tea.

“That’s part of his job description,” Collins said.

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