Billy Collins
Poet; Former U.S. Poet Laureate

Cultivating Respect for the Arts

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The poet is just as responsible for a small audience.

Billy Collins

One of the most popular living poets in the United States, Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. Collins is the author of nine books of poetry, including She Was Just Seventeen (2006), The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005), Nine Horses (2002), and Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001). His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Harper's Magazine, and has been featured in various textbooks and anthologies, including those for the Pushcart Prize and the annual Best American Poetry series. Between 2001 and 2004, Collins served two terms at the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States. In his home state, Collins has been recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004. Other honors include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and the first annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where has taught for over thirty years. Ideas recorded at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival on: 7/4/07

Billy Collins:    Well first of all, I’m not terribly unhappy that poetry has a small audience.  This is not something that keeps me up at night.  One of the reasons it has a small audience is that there’s a lot of unreadable poetry being written.  So I don’t see it as the fault of a Philistine, poetry-hating, barbarian public.  I think it’s just as much the fault of poets who ignore their readers and write . . . either indulge in  self-expression period, and that’s a highly rated, over-rated activity because no one really cares about you the stranger.  Or they write terribly obscure, riddle type poetry.  

And many times you get a vicious combination of self-expression and obscurity.  So who would want to read it in the first place?  And like jazz, or like chamber music, or like keeping tropical fish, poetry has a fairly small, but very intense audience.  And often the smaller the audience, the more intense the participants feel about this interest.  I mean you can compare that to television.  It has a broad audience, but I don’t think anyone carries an intensity about it.  They just watch it.