A Key West Literary Seminar Retrospective: Part II
"Maneuvering the Poem"
By Judy Leaver
“The truth is, nobody cares about your poetry or the narcissism that may drive it.” With that, Billy Collins launched his “Maneuvering the Poem” workshop for 14 good-to-astounding poets in Key West January 12-15, 2009. His remark actually made us all relax. He also indicated that each of us has at least 500 bad poems in us. (See Judy count her poems quickly.) These opening remarks were said with such good humor, we took him seriously.
Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate (2001 and 2002), has made poetry ‘cool’ by keeping his reader front and center as he composes ironic, yet poignant verse that appeals to a broad cross section of the public. He has written several books of poetry—many on bestseller lists! The most recent is Ballistics, released in 2008. Poets & Writers magazine published a cover story, “Billy Collins: Poetry for the People”, in its September/October 2008 edition. (see http://www.pw.org/).
The evening before the workshop began, Collins gave a reading before a standing room only crowd of 200+. This rock start status just doesn’t happen to poets! Nevertheless, he read for at least an hour in a way that was self-deprecating, charming and funny. The depth of his poetry might best be described by the differing response to his poem, “The Lanyard.” When I read this poem on my own at home, I cried. He read it to this audience and everyone howled with laughter. What’s your reaction?
(from The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems, Random House, 2005)
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy 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.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
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.
Back to the workshop. Imaginative freedom is what Collins looks for in poems. His mantra is that poetry offers us the highest degree of freedom of any writing form. You don’t have to worry about logic or chronology. You have freedom to change directions. There’s no such thing as distraction/diversion in a poem. In fact, an imaginative poet may want to follow that distraction—that side road—and see where it leads. A poem will be seeking its own limits. “Poetry is harder than writing.” Nevertheless, it needs to be accessible to the reader.
Despite this deceptively laissez faire way of thinking about and teaching poetry, Collins is hard-core about the importance of form in a poem. “Poetry is about giving pleasure to the reader through form.” He is consistently focused on the relationship between a writer and a reader. Like any relationship, it must be imbedded in trust. And trust is related to tonal authority. Do I trust this voice? (Yes, poems have a voice, like other literary genres.) If a poem is too obscure or hard to understand, it will alienate the reader and lead to distrust, which is only a step away from losing interest and moving on…quickly. Consider the fact that (back in my day) most high school English classes imposed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales on the students. Might that be directly related to the general lack of excitement about poetry for most adults today? Collins (who is Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York) says he starts with contemporary poetry and works his way backward to Chaucer.
When Collins talked about the importance of form and its evolution, he made the point that Walt Whitman removed the poetry training wheels of meter and rhyme, so the bike/poem could go on its own. But there is danger in losing the system of trust that needs to exist between poet and reader. When we hear, “Whose woods these are I think I know…” we can relax into this poem because the form is there and it is familiar.
Haiku, in Collins’ opinion, is a good example of the tension between self-expression and form. You must negotiate with the haiku--it is indifferent to you but wants you to follow the rules—three lines in 17 syllables. True haiku does not use simile, comparison or metaphor. Eastern poetry is direct. You won’t see the use of ‘like’ in a haiku.
Barring insufferable arrogance, it can be assumed that a poet doesn’t intend to alienate a reader. Collins, in his gently humorous way, indicated that so much may have already taken place in the poet’s head before the words reach the page, the reader is left clueless. He advises backing up the poem so the reader travels with you, and understands how you got ‘there.’ He used a poker game as a metaphor. The poet has to turn over enough cards to provide clues, but not so many that he gives away the farm. Start with a lanyard and move to feelings about your mother.
About: Judy Leaver, M.A. has worked as a professional writer for nearly 9 years, following a 20-year career in social work and mental health advocacy. Her creative writing includes poetry, essays, short stories, and untold vignettes that appear to be pointing the way to a memoir. She has participated in a writing group that is fourteen years strong, and in the spring of 2004 was selected to participate in the Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop at George Washington University, under the tutelage of poet, Rick Barot. In January of this year she participated in “Maneuvering the Poem”, a workshop with former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins in Key West, FL. Her work has been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. She guest-blogged here in April of 2008.