An American way with words


Verse: The latest poet laureate of the United States seeks to promote a plain-spoken form of the craft that will draw and hold the interest of the general public.

November 10, 2001|By Fritz Lanham | Fritz Lanham,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

HOUSTON - "A poem should not mean but be," Archibald MacLeish famously observed, and for a long time the same could be said for America's poet laureate.

He or she didn't do much, at least not publicly. Holders of the post, created by Congress in 1937, gave the odd reading or lecture before a high-toned Washington, D.C., audience. They advised the librarian of Congress if he felt he needed advice. That was about it.

Howard Nemerov (1963-1964 and 1988-1990) said the poet laureate was a very busy person because he spent most of his time explaining what the poet laureate did. Robert Penn Warren (1986-1987) announced, "I don't expect you'll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan." A check of his Collected Poems indicates he kept his word.

The situation began to change about a decade ago. Joseph Brodsky (1991-1992) launched a project to put inexpensive editions of poetry in hotel rooms, airports and supermarkets. Robert Pinsky, the first to hold the position for three consecutive one-year terms (1997-2000), initiated the Favorite Poem Project, inviting Americans to send in their favorite verses for a giant national archive. Pinsky was also a regular on PBS' NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, reading poems that spoke to current events.

The newest holder of the office known as "poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress" will almost certainly continue that thrust toward greater visibility.

Actually, Billy Collins is plenty visible. His first five collections sold more than 100,000 copies, making him perhaps the most popular poet in America. Outgoing and unpretentious, the 60-year-old Collins writes poetry that's notably accessible, compared with much contemporary verse. His poems often display a gentle wit and a contemplative turn rooted in everyday things and activities.

The just-released Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (Random House, $21.95) offers a rich sampling of Collins' work. Like so much else in American life, its publication has been shadowed by the events of Sept. 11. The anthrax scare in Washington, D.C., resulted in the closing of all three Library of Congress buildings and postponement of his inauguration late last month.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that people are turning to poetry for solace and understanding in the wake of the attacks on America. Why is that? It's a question Collins has been asked often in recent weeks.

In part, he explains in an interview from his home in Westchester County, north of New York City, people might be looking to escape the Niagara of information coming to them from newspapers and television. "If people are turning to poetry, it's perhaps to hear a single human voice talking to a single other human person," he says. "That's the communication of most lyric poetry: It's spoken from one person's mouth to another person's ear. That sense of intimacy is part of it."

Poetry is also the oldest form of literature, he says. It taps into emotions and experiences both fundamental and recurring.

"It forms a history of human emotion," says Collins. "It's the only one we have, really. To turn to poetry is to find a certain kind of companionship, because the most ancient poetry is expressing the same things we're feeling.

"The same notes are being sounded all through history. At times of crisis, one of the things that makes matters worse is that we think this is happening only to us. That's what generates fear. But when we realize, through poetry, that what we're feeling is something that is ancient and elementary in the human heart, that makes poetry a source of reassurance."

A poem for Collins begins with "an initiating line" that gets him going. It not only suggests a narrative direction but establishes the tone, and "tone for me is kind of the key signature of the poem," he says.

A tone of understated humor - not an overabundant element in contemporary poetry - works its way into many of Collins' poems (see, for example, his poem devoted to explicating a Victoria's Secret catalog). The English Romantics were responsible for driving humor out of poetry, says Collins, shifting into the professorial mode. He's Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York and is a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College.

Blame Wordsworth and Shelley and Keats and Coleridge.

"The Romantics got rid of sex and humor and replaced them with landscape," he says. He laughs and agrees that it was a poor trade-off. "We've been trying to recover ever since."

Twentieth-century modernist poetry - by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane et al. - was based on "difficulty," and you wouldn't want to relieve all that conceptual knottiness with humor. "I'm to some extent writing against that kind of solemnity," Collins says.

He sees himself in the tradition of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost, poets who consciously aimed at greater simplicity in poetic language.

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