BY GAIL FINEBERG
U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has launched a new Web site, called Poetry 180, designed to encourage the appreciation and enjoyment of poetry in America's high schools.
The site at www.loc.gov/poetry/180 was launched Jan. 4 with 64 poems and will eventually contain the text of 180 poems (one for each day of the school year) as publishers and poets agree to Web publication of Mr. Collins's selections.
"The idea behind Poetry 180 is simple–to have a poem read each day to the student bodies of American high schools across the country," Mr. Collins said. "Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience." Mr. Collins begins his list of poems with one of his own (see next page), "Introduction to Poetry," which encourages the reader–and the listener–to have fun with the sounds and sense of a poem, rather than "beating it with a hose to find out what it really means."
He introduces several of the poems with brief commentaries, such as "Today's poem is about trust and distrust," and "This poem is about a young factory worker."
The site includes Mr. Collins's guidance on how to read a poem aloud and guidelines for using Poetry 180. In a message "to the high school teachers of America," he urges the selection of someone to read a poem to the school each day, perhaps at the end of daily announcements over a public address system. "The program should be as democratic as possible and not the property of one group," he said, suggesting readings by students, teachers, a coach, a groundskeeper, the principal.
"The hope," writes Mr. Collins, "is that poetry will become a part of the daily life of students in addition to being a subject that is part of the school curriculum."
Most of the poems on the site were written by contemporary American authors and were selected with a high school audience in mind. The poems were chosen to be accessible upon first hearing, although students may wish to download them or print them out from the Web site for later reading. There is no particular order in which the poems should be presented, nor is it necessary that all schools read the same poem each day. "The poems have been chosen with high school-age students in mind, but if you feel a certain poem inappropriate," Mr. Collins writes, "skip it."
On Dec. 6, the poet laureate officially opened the Library's evening literary series with a reading of his own poems, an annual fall event that was postponed this year, from Oct. 25, because Library buildings had been closed for anthrax testing. Some 250 poetry fans, including several students, took all the seats set in the Madison Building's Montpelier Room, then stood along the walls, then waited outside in the halls while workmen slid back a wall and brought in more chairs. And still there were more people than chairs or nearby wall space to lean on, so they sat on the floor, as close as they could get to the poet at the podium.
When people were settled enough for Mr. Collins to begin, he said, "Nothing impresses me more than sheer numbers. So, I'm very glad to see all of you tonight. I think it's a tribute to the importance of poetry and the importance of the post of poet laureate, and the importance of me." People laughed.
He delivered the last line with the same straight face he maintained all evening during his wry observations, some in poetry and some in commentary about poetry, that kept the audience tittering. Mr. Collins read one solemn poem not his own, "Keeping Quiet" by Pablo Neruda, to open the event. "It is a poem to read in a time of shakiness and it's a poem that helps," he said, alluding to the events of Sept. 11 and the aftermath.
"Now we will count to 12/and we will all keep still./For once on the face of the earth,/let's not speak in any language;/let's stop for one second and/not move our arms so much… /If we were not so single-minded/about keeping our lives moving,/and for once could do nothing,/perhaps a huge silence/could interrupt the sadness,/never understanding ourselves,/and of threatening ourselves with/death. …"/
Then, taking a sip of water, he said, "Well, I'm going to start by reading some newer poems, and then read some older poems later. My career shows almost no sense of development whatsoever, so it's hard to tell the difference."
Leaning into the wind of laughter and toward expectant faces, he read a batch of unpublished poems, "Velocity," which takes place on a train; one with a Latin title meaning "Hail and Farewell" that he said he would call "Road Kill" if it were not for his classical education; one written for his friend in the country who had warned against leaving wooden matches where a mouse ("little brown druid") could find them and start a fire; and an elegy that made his audience laugh.
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
from The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1996
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Ark.
Copyright 1988 by Billy Collins.
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.
Having hooked his audience, Mr. Collins proceeded to read some of his published poems, among them "Snow Day" that begins with broadcast school closures and ends with three conspiratorial little girls hatching a plot at the edge of a snowy schoolyard; a "Sonnet" that plays with the form: "But hang on here [at the eighth line] while we make the turn/into the final six where all will be resolved. …"; and "Forgetfulness" that describes "literary amnesia" and "other forms of slippage." He read "Death of a Hat," which he said "swerves into something that you weren't expecting, and it really becomes a welcome destination." No one laughed after these lines, or after "Lines Lost Among the Trees." He also read "Japan," a poem about haiku, a Japanese form of 17 syllables. "I'm convinced that … if you have a normally, socially active day, you cannot get through it without saying at least one thing that is 17 syllables long," he said, repeating a phrase he overheard between two schoolgirls on campus: "When he found out, he was, like, oh my God, and I was, like, oh my God."
After his concluding poem, "Nightclub," a meditation on Johnny Hartman's jazz ballads, he signed piles of books for poetry readers.
Billy Collins is Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College at the City University of New York, where he has taught for the past 30 years. He is also a writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College, and he has served as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library. He lives in Somers, N.Y., with his wife, Diane, an architect.
His books of poetry include a volume of new and selected poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room, which was published by Random House in September; Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998); The Art of Drowning (1995), which was a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize finalist; Questions About Angels (1991), a National Poetry Series selection by Edward Hirsch; The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988); Video Poems (1980); and Pokerface (1977).
His honors include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has also been awarded the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize and the Levinson Prize, all awarded by Poetry magazine.
Ms. Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.