Monthly Archives: February 2009

In Defense of Billy Collins

As some of you out in there in the wide world may or may not know, Billy Collins will be coming to Tulane on Monday, March 16 at 7 pm. The event will be at McAlister Auditorium, and is free of charge.

And, for whatever reason, this has ticked some people off. Now, I understand why this might have happened. Billy Collins, who was a two time Poet Laureate of the United States in ’01 and ’03, is about as divisive a poet as there is in the country right now. People either love or hate Billy Collins, and there seem to be very few people in between. (This is of course not counting the grand majority of the population who have never heard of Billy Collins, nor any poet born after Frost. But that is neither here nor there, and as a young poet I won’t waste my breath on that rant.)

Why Billy Collins seems to tick so many people off, especially those embedded in the dark enclaves of the poetry world, is that his poetry is so accessible. Poets think it’s too easy. Billy Collins is one of the few poets writing right now (or poets that are getting any sort of acclaim) who, when you read a poem of his, you know exactly what is going on. There are rarely any sort of deep, mystifying metaphors in his work. If Collins is going to start a metaphor, more often than not he’ll tell you that he’s going to start a metaphor. You never have to reach for a dictionary when reading his work, and ever so rarely do you need to recall your Greek myths. Basically, you can pick up a book of Billy Collins, whether it be on a subway or the beach, and you can read it.

My question is: what is so wrong about that?

I can hear poets responding now, breathlessly, with a ruddy furor bristling up in their cheeks: Collins condescends to the reader. He demands nothing. His work is insulting.

This is a load of garbage. Collins’ main crime he’s committed is to be popular, and I will stand by that until someone shows me otherwise. There are thousands of poets across the country, and Billy Collins is not the only one who uses plain language to get his point across. I won’t spout off names, but if you’ve read any amount of poetry and can tell me that Collins is the most simplistic of the bunch, you’re a liar. But those poets don’t call up anger, resentment. No one is “boycotting” their readings.

What Collins did was sell half a million books of poetry, which is unheard of. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States not once  but twice. This arouses anger in poets. And I see their point.

I’ve written poems that were five times as dense as anything Collins has published in the last fifteen years. They’ve had intertwining metaphors, developed personification, yadda yadda yadda. About eight people read my poem, and three liked it. Billy Collins wrote a whole book of p0ems about sitting at his desk, drinking bourbon and listening to jazz, and half a million people read it. It seems unfair. I get it.

What people forget is that half a million people can’t all be that wrong. When I was able to quit the self-pitying hogwash, the “it’s-so-unfair-no one-recognizes-my-genius-and-he’s-cleaning-up-in-royalties” sobbing, and just sit down and read his work, I was moved. Collins takes the simplistic and finds the divine. Sure it’s minimalist. Sure some of his poems will fall flat, cause you to shrug and say, “So?”. But others will stop you in their tracks. I’ll attach a favorite of mine here at the bottom, and you can do with it what you will. All I know is that I read the last four lines of that poem about 6 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten them.

So get over yourself, grow up and come listen to one of the most important (for better or worse) poets of our time. Encourage young people to go. It’s Collins’ very accessibility that has inspired a lot of young people who never bothered to work through poetry a doorway into the form. Don’t let your pride get in the way of that.


Billy Collins, “On Turning Ten”

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.


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Francine Prose Debuts New Story During Tulane Visit

Francine Prose, celebrated author and President of PEN American Center, visited Tulane on February 5 for a public reading in Cudd Hall. Prose has written fifteen novels, including Blue Angel, a finalist for the National Book Award, and most recently, Goldengrove, released in September 2008 to wide critical acclaim. Her nonfiction work, including Reading Like a Writer, has also received high praise.


A New York Times bestseller, Reading Like a Writer has already become an invaluable teaching source. The New York Times calls it, “a primer both for aspiring writers and for readers who’d like to increase their sensitivity to the elements of the writer’s craft.” In the book, Prose encourages teaching writing through reading, and lots of it. The title of the book’s first chapter, “Close Reading”, emphasizes how essential it is to her approach. Reading Like a Writer cites 100 books, from historic heavyweights such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Austen; to current authors such as Le Carré and ZZ Packer, Tulane’s Fall 2007 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence.


Prose read a not-yet-published short story entitled “A Simple Question” for her appearance at Tulane. Told from the perspective of a jeweler, the fictional story detailed his encounters with an eccentric commander in Nazi-era Holland. After the reading, Prose took questions from the audience on topics such as the current state of the publishing industry, the writing process, and her book Household Saints, which was adapted into film.


Students and faculty alike were impressed by Prose’s visit, noting her creativity and wry humor. Dr. Luongo, Dean of the Tulane Honors Program, called Prose a “representative of literary culture and free expression,” and encouraged students to observe her approach to her craft. Prose described her approach to close reading in a recent interview for The Atlantic, “You don’t have to have this grand opinion and you don’t have to read this with a view to figuring out how the writer screwed up in some way. It’s just about the pleasure of language.”


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Internationally Oriented Novelist Re-Defines “Being an Outsider”

Claire Messud, author of the 2006 novel The Emperor’s Children, will read selections from her work at Tulane University on Monday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m., in the Kendall-Cram Room of the Lavin-Bernick Center. An interview with Ms. Messud will follow on Thursday, March 12 at 6:00 p.m., in Freeman Auditorium. Both events are free and open to the public.

Born in France, and raised in Australia, Canada, and the United States, Claire Messud derives great influence from her international background, which infuses her work. Setting The Emperor’s Children in New York, during the months immediately before and after 9/11, she draws upon all she has “invested in [her] background in being an outsider” to write from objective perspective; and it is this objectivism that prevents Messud’s novel from being “crushed by the falling idol” of grand-scale tragedy, a danger that so many narratives have encountered, and failed against. Her work transcends tragic observation, and presents the possibility for self re-invention, post-trauma. As the hero of the novel considers, “instincts for survival [are] much stronger, thank God, than voyeuristic impulses,” and provide “the precious opportunity to be again, not to be as [one] had been.” According to its review in the New York Times, The Emperor’s Children points to “the obdurate reality of the human imagination,” and serves “a penetrating testament to its power.”

Recently awarded the Strauss Living Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Claire Messud has also received the esteemed Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships. She is this year’s Zale Writer-in-Residence; administered by the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, the Zale Program invites a female author to campus each spring for readings, workshops, and seminars. Past honorees include Edwidge Danticat, Ellen Gilchrist, and Elizabeth McCracken.

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