Billy Collins read poems and talked about poetry tonight at Denver University. Gates Hall, which holds 900 people, was nearly full, and the former U.S. Poet Laureate did not disapoint. He read a mix of funny and serious poems, which is the same mix found in each of his poems on its own. He said his personal failings are sentimentalism and sarcasm, so he is always calibrating his work to avoid falling too far toward one or the other. “If there was a blackboard here, I would now go write the word ‘irony,'” he said.
One student, admitting that he was being “ostentatious” in the question period, asked if he could read Collins a short poem and have him critique it on the spot. “I’d say that’s presumptuous, not ostentatious, so we need to start right off looking at language,” Collins said pleasantly, “but go ahead.” The poem was terrible, but Collins kindly noted it had decent rhythm. He also said its title, “Poem,” needed work, and that an image involving an angel was “cartoonlike and painful.” I could barely breathe during this exchange, but we all lived through it. Another youngster asked if Collins writes all the time. “I’m not always writing, but I’m always waiting,” he answered. In my collection of Collins’s books in my study, I can’t find my favorite poem of the evening, one in which a dog of the speaker comes back from the dead to say he never liked his owner. It was a Swiftian sendup of every maudlin portrayal of man’s best friend in the history of literature, simply brilliant, and in the end, the best ode to canines I’ve ever heard.
Collins said the Poet Laureate gig appeared to be a plot by the government to silence one poet for two years, but his office had a nice view of the Capitol. “The phone never rang once,” he told us. Asked why he doesn’t write more political poems, Collins said they tend to have a short shelf life and are driven more by will than imagination, so they are less fun to write. As for the Poets Against the War movement which was launched during his watch, Collins said, “It was like ‘Generals FOR the War’–it was just too obvious.”
He wandered through his poems in a spontaneous way, and his responses seemed to amuse himself as much as his audience. At one point, he posed the question of how you make God laugh. His answer: Make a plan.