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Writing Is Act of Discovery For a Poetry Popularizer

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Billy Collins reads in La Jolla, Calif., in 2008. Marcelo Noah photograph

Billy Collins reads in La Jolla, Calif., in 2008. Marcelo Noah photograph

You may think writing poetry is all about gazing at the stars in the sky and the bluebells in the fields, then being struck by divine inspiration. But if you ask Billy Collins, he’ll tell you the process is more like a Wallace and Gromit cartoon.

“There’s a great one where the dog is on top of a locomotive,” says the two-term U.S. poet laureate. “He’s got a box full of track, and he’s frenetically laying down track in front of the train. That’s a good metaphor for writing a poem.”

Collins, 72, has been laying track quite proficiently. His latest collection, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random, $26), gathers work written since 2002, with selections from Nine Horses, The Trouble With Poetry, Ballistics and Horoscopes for the Dead.

A distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a senior distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College, Collins was U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003 and poet laureate of New York State from 2004 to 2006. He also filled in for Garrison Keillor this summer as host of The Writer’s Almanac.

As for his poems, well, they celebrate (as he writes in No Things): “(T)his love for everyday things,/part natural from the wide eye of infancy,/part a literary calculation.”

“I think he does a really good job of being smart and simple at the same time,” says P. Scott Cunningham, director of the O, Miami poetry festival. “When you read or listen to a Billy Collins poem, you’re getting a clear insight into the way his mind works. He’s a funny guy, and I look at the world as a pretty funny place. That humor makes poetry safe for a lot of people who haven’t read a lot of poetry or are intimidated by it or got it shoved down their throats in school. What he does is incredibly difficult to do.”

Going back through a decade’s worth of work to choose a sort of “literary greatest hits,” though, can be a challenge, Collins says.

“I don’t look back nostalgically and think, ‘Those are the poems of a younger man who had hope, and now there is no hope,’” he jokes. “One thing I have is a persona, the sound of the voice I’ve developed. When I write, I enter my persona’s character. It’s like getting into character as an actor, but the character is close to who the actor is. It’s not like me playing King Lear. I’m playing my idealized self, and he doesn’t change very much.”

Aimless Love covers a lot of ground, including such classics as The Trouble With Poetry (“the trouble with poetry is/that it encourages the writing of more poetry/more guppies crowding the fish tank”) and the hilarious The Revenant, in which an irate dog chastises his master from the afterlife (“Now I am free of the collar/the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,/the absurdity of your lawn .). No single theme dominates.

“There’s one poem about a boyhood game I played, one about visiting Keats’ house, one about eating alone, another about a memory of my father,” Collins says. “There’s not one poem after another about nature or personal misery. There’s an ode to a desk lamp! In that sense it’s hard to track.

“I recognize that some poems are A’s, and some are B’s. If they get a grade less, they don’t end up in any books. Sometimes it’s hard. Not to sentimentalize, but choosing from four books, you’re leaving a lot of poems behind. It’s like you’re on Noah’s Ark, and they’re left swimming around. It’s a nostalgic feeling, leaving something behind.”

One thing the poems have in common is that when Collins starts writing them, he has no idea where they’ll end up.

“You have to sustain the benefits of not knowing as long as possible; you don’t want to know too much,” he says. “That’s one of the things wrong with political poetry. I know how I feel politically. I have opinions like any citizen. But I already know what I think; I would know where I was going. That’s why I’ll never write political poetry. As someone put it: The pen, the writing implement, is not a recording device; it’s an instrument of discovery.”

Collins, who thinks poetry should be taught “chronologically backwards, starting with the contemporary poets and leading students back to the past,” has advice for readers wary of picking up a book of verse. He suggests novices start with the anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, which he edited.

“I think of the anthologies as gateways to more reading. If you came across a poem by Richard Wilbur and liked it, you can look online and read more or buy one of his books. There are great, fresh voices in literary magazines, too. Of course I’m ambivalent toward them. They’re so good. I see them as replacements who will push me off the edge of the cliff and take off, all this fresh new talent.”