Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Billy Collins has said that a poem should be like a carnival ride: as soon as it is done, you want to get right back on and ride it again. So, click on the link below, and go for a ride.
Now listen again, and watch for what occurs between the first two poems. There is a rather astonishing moment when Collins physically reacts to the Juan Ramón Jiménez passage he quotes as the epigraph to “The First Night.” He is clearly still bowled over by that line, despite having read it many times.
Collins’ “The First Night” is a response to Jiménez. Many poets speak of having written specific poems out of the impulse to enter into a dialogue with their favorite poets. Poetry itself is sometimes seen as an ongoing dialogue.
As we listen to Collins’ response to Jiménez, we can understand why he compares a poem to a carnival ride. A great poem or a great line continues to thrill us, regardless of how often we return to it. Part of that thrill can be in coming face-to-face with a potentially terrifying thought the poet has articulated with power and clarity. A good poem draws us back to relive that experience.
Collins has large numbers of readers eager to return to their favorites of his poems. Yet, he taught and wrote for decades before finding those readers. He has joked that after college he wrote like “a third-rate Wallace Stevens.” Only later, he has said, did he develop the confidence to risk writing with clarity. “Clarity,” he explained, “is the real risk in poetry, because you are exposed.”
A Billy Collins’ poem typically starts out gently enough, his self-deprecating humor leading us forward. But a poet willing to expose his feelings about facing mortality and death also exposes ours. Like a carnival ride, once his poem has brought us safely back to earth, we can laugh at how easily frightened we were.
“Greek and Roman Statuary,” “The First Night,” and “High” appear in Billy Collins’ most recent collection, Ballistics. A generous sampling of poems from his earlier books can be found in Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. For a biography of Billy Collins, visit our 2008 Festival Poet Pages.
Be sure to revisit us on upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Martín Espada, Joy Harjo, Jane Hirshfield, Charles Simic, C. D. Wright and others.