Billy Collins delivers poetic performance to captivated audience at Willamette

Billy Collins' poem "The Trouble With Poetry" begins with the claim that, "the trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry." If Collins is accurate in this assumption, then Willamette University is in for a profusion of verse in the upcoming weeks.

Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001-03, recently presented a lecture and poetry reading to a standing room-only audience in Hudson Hall — giving the Willamette community a peek into the workings of a creative mastermind and, according to English Department Chair Gretchen Moon, creating unity across the audience.

"A group of people come together in a community, perhaps fleeting, and share the experience of hearing stories that tell us something about who we are, often in ways that surprise us," Moon said.

"Audiences share an experience, see one another's faces responding to the poetry or stories, hear laughter or sighs around them; in some mysterious way, I think while we're listening together we feel a kind of kinship of the moment."

Collins read poetry from across his repertoire, beginning with selections from his upcoming collection, entitled Horoscopes for the Dead (to be released in March), and spanning back across works from The Trouble with Poetry and other Poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Ballistics and The Art of Drowning, among others.

He also touched on the nature of the poet, the genesis of his own writing and issues in the poetic canon, including the philosophy regarding dogs in poetry. He reflected on common myths surrounding poets and poetry, and offered insight into his methods.

"The best time to write poetry," he said, "is when I'm clear-headed and without much of an agenda. Sometimes, I write down a nonsense word, maybe something from the radio, imagine that was the title, and ask myself, 'What act of literature could possibly occur under this title?'"

Collins' poetry focuses largely on the oft-overlooked idiosyncrasies of life, and his dry humor and merciless cynicism begged consistent laughter from the audience. His seemingly intuitive knowledge of the art allowed listeners to gaze into what Collins referred to as "the business of writing poetry," a theme which he visits frequently.

"A lot of poets like to write about traditional subjects, like love and happiness, which are all beautiful and worthy of poems, but become tiring after a while," said Aaron Widenor '12, an English major. "Billy Collins focuses on poetry as an art form, a self-awareness which, when coupled with his humor, gives poems such life and brevity beyond the norm."

The majority of Collins' poetry uses an easily spoken, rhythmic free verse, but poems such as "Litany," "The Golden Years" and a number of shorter poems dabble in parody, sonnets and haiku — a genre on which Collins mused with veneration.

Callie Walsh-Bailey '13, a pre-med biology major, said the event was a refreshing shift of interest from her focus in the sciences.

"Billy Collins' poetry was humorous and insightful, and his visit was a nice change of pace from homework and classroom lectures," she said. "Visiting speakers like him give Willamette students the opportunity to relate what they're learning to the larger intellectual community and the real world — inside and outside of their respective disciplines."