Billy Collins
Poet; Former U.S. Poet Laureate

Where are we?

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Billy Collins discusses the challenges facing the United States.

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: That’s so huge.  Well I think more . . .  I’m not sure about the deep historical view, but I think what’s happening now is tribalism.  It’s . . .  Tribalism seems to be a perversion of faith.  I mean, people say religion is . . .  You can think of religion when you look through the New York Times as being the cause of most of the world’s violent problems these days.  Or not problems, but conflicts.  But I think we mistake religion for tribalism there.  We see that religion; I think it’s something very human about wanting to be better than the people next door, or the people in the next country.  Even like, you know, Mississippi and Alabama can’t stand each other.  And my mother’s family is from a little Island called South ___________.  And right . . . and that’s a Catholic island.  And right next door is a Protestant Island.  I mean they’re both rocks.  They have like five sheep on them, and wind and rain; but they see themselves as very separate rocks.  And obviously one rock thinks it’s better than the other rock.  I don’t know.  

Then if you pour religion into that mindset where you . . . where this . . . this desire for communal superiority to another group, then flames come out of that.  And I think that those are the flames we’re seeing, you know, bursting out around the globe today.Question: What forces have shaped poetry most?

Billy Collins: Well I mean poetry, I think, moves . . . most art moves in a kind of pendulum.  I think poetry . . .  You can see even from the Greeks the argument as to whether literature should be in the common tongue, or should it be in an elevated language?  And this runs . . .  This pendulistic battle goes back and forth.  Wordsworth for instance, to go back to him, wanted to write poetry, as he said, in the speaking language of men the way . . . he wanted to get speech back into it. 

And so did Frost.  And as _____ also the idea of bringing . . . bringing poetry into context with common speech.  And the other . . . the other camp would say that poetry has to be completely different from regular speech, that regular speech is down here and poetry is . . . takes place on another linguistic level.  Those  two voices, or those two opposed positions, I think pretty much throughout the history of English literature at least, have determined these various movements back and forth.  And that would seem to be thanks to a number of poets that came after the high modernism of T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound.  And you can add Harper and Wallace Stevens.  There’s been a movement back to . . . to the connection between poetry and common speech.  Those big modernists tried to get beyond personality.  They wanted to make something . . . poetry into something more than the expression of the individual personality.  But personality seems to have returned to poetry.