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Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Poetry, Billy Collins says, doesn't have to be difficult.

That very sensible statement seems hardly revolutionary, but the idea that poetry can be straightforward and still be worthwhile bothers certain poets so much that when Collins was named U.S. poet laureate in 2001, a few got together and named an anti-poet laureate.

None of that bothers Collins, who has continued, since stepping down from the job in 2003, to preach his gospel that poetry ought to be written so that ordinary people can understand and enjoy it.

It's poetry and its enjoyment that Collins plans to talk about when he speaks Sunday afternoon in Eugene at the University of Oregon's fall convocation, the official welcome ceremony for new students and teachers.

"I am going to read poems and talk around them," he said in a telephone conversation from his home in New York. "There are a couple poems of mine that I think would be useful that have to do with how to be a student.

`One I know I will emphasize is 'Marginalia,' on the habit of writing in the margins of books. I am certainly not going to give a course, 'How to Be a Student 101.' '

Collins, 65, is the author of eight collections of poetry, including "The Art of Drowning," "Nine Horses" and "Sailing Alone Around the Room," which was recommended summer reading for freshmen at the UO this year.

After twice being named poet laureate, Collins was named New York state poet in 2004, causing him to quip that he will eventually become poet laureate of his own ZIP code.

Doing a 180

Collins' biggest project as national poet laureate was "Poetry 180," which is a Web site ( and a related book listing 180 contemporary poems that he chose on the basis that they are all eminently readable.

The number - 180 - reflects the approximate number of days in a school year. Collins envisioned that the poems might be read aloud, one per school day, to students.

In an introduction to Poetry 180, he explicitly asks schools to refrain from teaching or analysis: "no discussion, no explication, no quiz, no midterm, no seven-page paper - just listen to a poem every morning and off you go to your first class."

Collins said he was utterly surprised to be named poet laureate, a job that few people even know exists.

"It was rather a heady experience," he said. "It arrived in the form of a telephone call from the librarian of Congress. There is no application process. The appointment always comes out of the blue. It is a one-man decision."

Collins said he was flattered by the appointment.

"Then I was puzzled because I didn't know what it was. What do you do now? Do you hold a press conference? As you might know, it's an office that requires very little. If one wanted to just take it as an honorific moment, it could not change your life very much at all. But it does offer this opportunity to launch national initiatives."

"Poetry 180' continues to be used in schools around the country.

"It is going great," Collins said. "The Web site, I continue to update. It evolved into two anthologies used in lots of high schools and actually seems to work as an instructive device."

Brushing up on Brautigan

Among the poets whose work is included in "Poetry 180' is Richard Brautigan. Brautigan lived in Eugene and attended Woodrow Wilson Junior High School and Eugene High School before heading off to San Francisco and a brief period of national fame in the late 1960s and early '70s.

"He was a real influence on me," Collins said. "I wrote bad imitative Richard Brautigan poems for a couple years in the 1970s."

Brautigan, Collins said, remains an unsung hero of American literature.

"He took the lessons of the French surrealists like (Guillaume) Apollinaire and gave them this Western American spin," Collins said. "His fiction, like `Trout Fishing in America,' is basically poetry, written the same way his poems are.

`He is a good access point for young people: easy to grasp and a very skewed, very odd vision, making a lot of imaginative leaps. But not in language that is difficult. You can perform imaginative leaps and imaginative thrills and still use plain-style language."

The trouble with much poetry today, Collins argues, is that quality has come to be equated with difficulty. While a commonplace idea now, the notion dates back to the modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens writing in the early 20th century.

As a young man, Collins himself bought the idea that poetry should be obscure.

"I wrote poems I hoped no one could understand," he said. "If they did there would be no point in writing poetry. We still have to get over our mild hangover from that kind of modernism."

Collins' poetry is written in complete sentences using ordinary diction and is gently ironic. He counts Garrison Keillor among his friends.

The poet talks about the "etiquette" of poetry, which calls on poets to be clear and comprehensible. In return, he imagines, they might actually attract readers.

"It took me a long time to figure out how to do that," he said. "It took me a long time to take the risk to be clear. People throw the word `risk' around in art. Usually it's applied to highly experimental work.

`The real risk in poetry these days is to be clear. If you're clear, if poetry follows a certain etiquette and uses standard punctuation, you're now exposed.

`You have nowhere to hide." I ask 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 waterski 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.

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins; from The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1996 Copyright 1988 by Billy Collins.

EVENT PREVIEW Poet Billy Collins What: The former United States poet laureate speaks to the fall convocation at the University of Oregon Where: McArthur Court, 1601 University St. When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday; doors open at 3 p.m. Admission: Free
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Title Annotation:Arts & Literature; Ex-poet laureate Billy Collins is a booster for verse any reader might understand
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 21, 2006
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