by Johannes Goransson on Apr.28, 2011
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to talk about this issue of accessibility. I notice that the word “accessible” is used a lot in reviews and discussions of your poetry meaning, I guess, easy to understand. It is a word you like? Do you try to be accessible?
BILLY COLLINS: Well, I’ve gotten tired of it actually. It’s a little overused, not just in application to my work, but a lot of other poets I think. I think accessible just means that the reader can walk into the poem without difficulty. The poem is not, as someone put it, deflective of entry. But the real question is what happens to the reader once he or she gets inside the poem? That’s the real question for me, is getting the reader into the poem and then taking the reader somewhere because I think of poetry as a kind of form of travel writing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have a poem that’s kind of about this. Read it. We’ll keep on with this discussion.
BILLY COLLINS: Well, the poem is called “Introduction to Poetry.” It’s about the teaching of poetry to students. “Introduction to Poetry.” “I asked 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 water ski 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.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (Laughs) There’s a lot here. Part of it is just you’re asking people to approach this with a lighter heart than they sometimes think they should, right?
BILLY COLLINS: I think so. Often people, when they’re confronted with a poem, it’s like someone who keep saying “what is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of this?” And that dulls us to the other pleasures poetry offers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it… Would you say it’s something of a cause with you or has been to avoid pomposity? To… It’s subtle what you’re doing. It isn’t that it’s easy. It looks very hard to me, but it is… You use the word “hospitable.” You’re very hospitable to your reader.
BILLY COLLINS: Well, I think I’m making up for previous sins, because when I was in graduate school, I was taught that difficulty was part of the value of poetry, and I committed the sin of difficulty over and over again in my earlier writing. It took quite a while for me just to try to speak more clearly. I’m very aware of the presence of a reader, and that probably is a reaction against a lot of poems that I do read which seem oblivious to my presence as a reader.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that American poetry has gotten too difficult?
BILLY COLLINS: Well, I think it’s getting… I think it reached a high-water mark of difficulty probably in the ’50s and ’60s, but I think there’s a lot of very good, plainspoken poetry today. There are interesting forms of difficulty, and there are unprofitable forms of difficulty. I mean, I enjoy some difficult poetry, but some of it is impenetrable and I actually wouldn’t want to penetrate it if I could perhaps.