An Experiment in Poetry: Billy Collins Treats Us to Whimsy

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

An Experiment in Poetry is a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

Billy Collins has been called the most popular poet in America, both because his accessible and imaginative verse attracts a wide readership and for his regular appearances on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion and Fresh Air. His poetry is delightful and deceptively simple, so much so that he risks being discounted by critics. Even still, he has managed in his work to link both worlds, the popular and academic. He has served as Poet Laureate of the United States and only recently retired from his long-time position as professor of English at Lehman College. Additionally, he has published twelve collections of poetry over the course of forty years, and through it all has retained an infectious joy and excitement for the form, using his positions to advocate for its study and enjoyment.

Most notable along these lines is Poetry 180, which Collins curated for the Library of Congress during his tenure as Poet Laureate. Poetry 180 provides a poem a day for high schools to share with their students throughout the school year (180 days make up a standard school year). The purpose of this collection, Collins explains in an introduction to the website, is to show the relevance of poetry to life, to integrate it into students’ daily practice:

Billy Collins, image from  Poetry Foundation  (by Steven Kovich)

Billy Collins, image from Poetry Foundation (by Steven Kovich)

Poetry can and should be an important part of our daily lives. Poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race. By just spending a few minutes reading a poem each day, new worlds can be revealed.

To this end, he has chosen a variety of poets (though the list skews heavily contemporary, understandably since the target audience is younger folk), themes, and forms, helping students see the range and vitality of the craft. It starts, appropriately enough, with Collins’ own “Introduction to Poetry,” which establishes the project’s tone and spirit. A series of similes and metaphors, “Introduction to Poetry” playfully subverts a dry academic analysis of poetry. The speaker, most likely a teacher, bemoans the dreary interactions with literature that he witnesses, calling instead for readers to immerse themselves in the poetic experience and to allow themselves to be transformed by their readings, not to hold the poem at arm’s length or worse destroy it through brutal interrogation. A poem might be able to be studied, but not at the expense of appreciation and pleasure.

The poem has a light touch, but a sincere message, like many of Collins’ poems. “The Lanyard” is a wonderful example of this approach, as it allows readers to reveal in the agility of Collins’ mind and the inventiveness of his poetic sensibilities. Poetry Foundation’s introduction on his work explains his poetic bent this way: “Billy Collins is famous for conversational, witty poems that welcome readers with humor but often slip into quirky, tender or profound observation on the everyday, reading and writing, and poetry itself.”

As is his wont, in “The Lanyard,” Collins begins with an everyday item, seemingly chosen at random—in this case, the speaker is restlessly, almost apathetically, looking around the room and seizes on a dictionary, within which he finds the word “lanyard.” This comical stream-of-consciousness free association brings him back to his childhood where in arts and crafts he is making a lanyard, presumably for his mother. This silly little plastic contraption, seemingly good for nothing, brings fully to mind the imbalanced nature of the mother-son relationship, which Collins captures poignantly in his alternating lines and stanzas—first lofty and elevated where the mother bestows the gifts of life and health to the son, next the child naïve yet proud of his handiwork.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

True to form, however, Collins leads readers through laughter and a slightly painful self-awareness, that they have indeed been that innocent child not fully aware of their parents’ love and good gifts, to the ultimate punchline. That the mother’s love is such that this imbalance is paradoxically of no real substance. That the child can never repay his mother, but in the economy of love he need never do so. In coming to this awareness, Collins makes it explicit for us:

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift - not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Such is the way of a Collins poem, where the speaker links seemingly unrelated items, often with a whimsical spin and ending on an unexpected yet satisfying twist. Anyone who has heard Collins give a reading knows that he revels in the magic of words. The consummate literary experimenter, Collins encourages us to find that magic, too. (A quick side note here: if you ever have the chance to go to a Collins reading, take it; he’s even better in person, and he takes the time to sign the books and talk to all who wait in the lines after his readings). Although his images and topics are drawn from everyday life, he draws from them the wonder that he finds, and through his literary skill, he asks readers to discover that wonder themselves. His poems show us the way.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins discusses stealing material from other writers, and reads his poem, "Litany."

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems:

“The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

“Litany” by Billy Collins

“American Sonnet” by Billy Collins

“Aristotle” by Billy Collins

“Snow Day” by Billy Collins