Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry

Overview

A dazzling new anthology of 180 contemporary poems, selected and introduced by America’s Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

Inspired by Billy Collins’s poem-a-day program with the Library of Congress, Poetry 180 is the perfect anthology for readers who appreciate engaging, thoughtful poems that are an immediate pleasure.

A 180-degree turn implies a turning back—in this case, to poetry. A collection of 180 poems by the most exciting poets at work ...

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Overview

A dazzling new anthology of 180 contemporary poems, selected and introduced by America’s Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

Inspired by Billy Collins’s poem-a-day program with the Library of Congress, Poetry 180 is the perfect anthology for readers who appreciate engaging, thoughtful poems that are an immediate pleasure.

A 180-degree turn implies a turning back—in this case, to poetry. A collection of 180 poems by the most exciting poets at work today, Poetry 180 represents the richness and diversity of the form, and is designed to beckon readers with a selection of poems that are impossible not to love at first glance. Open the anthology to any page and discover a new poem to cherish, or savor all the poems, one at a time, to feel the full measure of contemporary poetry’s vibrance and abundance.

With poems by Catherine Bowman, Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Dana Gioia, Edward Hirsch, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Philip Levine, Thomas Lux, William Matthews, Frances Mayes, Paul Muldoon, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Katha Pollitt, Mary Jo Salter, Charles Simic, David Wojahn, Paul Zimmer, and many more.

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Editorial Reviews

KLIATT
Perhaps the focus and quality of Poetry 180 is best summed up in poet laureate Billy Collins' only poem in this anthology. In reference to poetry as taught in high school, he concludes, "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 means." In fact, Poetry 180 consciously avoids those pieces that "had become a standard offering in textbooks and anthologies." Instead, Collins states, "The idea behind this ... collection ... was to assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically 'get' on first hearing—poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate." It is intended "to expose high school students to the new voices in contemporary poetry." Yet the appeal is simultaneous to teenagers and those well beyond high school. The authors are top notch, the scope of the work is universal, and the approaches are varied: humorous, sad, reflective, giddy, always honest and perceptive. Where was this book when I was struggling to teach Creative Writing: Contemporary Poetry to juniors and seniors in high school? Any such course today has to consider Poetry 180 as a textbook and every library needs a copy on its shelves. It is, in Collins' words, "a big bouquet of poems that I happen to like." I'm betting you will too. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, 323p. index.,
— James Beschta
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812968873
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/25/2003
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 104,792
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Billy Collins
Billy Collins
Enjoying a popularity unheard of for most poets, Billy Collins has had a remarkable late-life surge, aided by NPR exposure and his 2001 and 2002 appointments as the U.S. poet laureate. His style is engaging, conversational, funny, and surprising.

Biography

In 1985, the humorist Calvin Trillin suggested that Robert Penn Warren would never have been named Poet Laureate if he'd been known as plain Bob Warren. Trillin might be surprised at the 2002 appointment of Billy Collins -- whose laid-back name suits his open-collar-and-blue-jeans appearance, as well as his unpretentious writing style -- to a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate.

But then, Collins himself might be a little surprised. Like most poets, he toiled in obscurity for years, snowed under by rejections from small literary journals. As recently as 1997, he couldn't interest a commercial publisher in his fifth book of poems, Picnic, Lightning. But word of mouth and Collins' appearances on National Public Radio helped push sales of the book, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, far beyond the usual figures for a volume of poetry from a university press. A previous book was reissued, Random House signed him up for a three-book deal, and Collins was on his way to fame and comparative fortune.

Why is Collins so popular now? One term often applied to his work is "accessible," though he prefers the term "hospitable." "I think accessible just means that the reader can walk into the poem without difficulty," he explained to Elizabeth Farnsworth on the PBS NewsHour. Collins is also very funny -- and that, too, is inviting. For Collins, anything from the barking of a neighbor's dog to the egg-salad stain on a copy of The Catcher in the Rye can be a fit subject for a poem.

But Collins sees accessibility and humor as means to an end. The purpose of a poem, he believes, is to take the reader on an imaginative journey. "Poetry is my cheap means of transportation," he told a New York Times interviewer. "By the end of the poem the reader should be in a different place from where he started. I would like him to be slightly disoriented at the end, like I drove him outside of town at night and dropped him off in a cornfield."

Critics have sometimes charged that Collins' language is too prosaic, his middle-class milieu too smugly comfortable. But many of his contemporaries, including John Updike, Gerald Stern and Edward Hirsch, have admired his originality, wit and intelligence. As Richard Howard put it: "Mr. Collins is funny without being silly, moving without being silly, and brainy without being silly. If only he were silly, we should know how to 'place' him. But he is merely -- merely! -- funny, moving, brainy. That will have to do."

Good To Know

Collins grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, where his electrician father sometimes brought home issues of Poetry magazine from an office on Wall Street. "He wanted me to go to Harvard Business School," Collins said in a Hope magazine interview. "If he had known the effect of those magazines, he probably would have burned them."

As Poet Laureate, Collins launched a well-received program called Poetry 180, which encourages high schools to read a contemporary poem together each day, preferably by having a student, teacher or staff member read the poem aloud.

Collins is a professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He lives in Somers, N.Y.

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    1. Also Known As:
      William James Collins
    2. Hometown:
      Somers, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 22, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Holy Cross College, 1963; Ph.D. in Romantic poetry, University of California at Riverside, 1971

Read an Excerpt

poetry 180: AN INTRODUCTION

A FEW YEARS AGO I FOUND MYSELF ON A CIRCUIT OF readings, traveling around the Midwest from podium to podium. One stop was at an enormous high school south of Chicago. Despite its daunting size—picture a row of lockers receding into infinity—the school holds a “Poetry Day” every year featuring an exuberant range of activities, including poems set to music by students and performed by the high school chorus and a ninety-piece orchestra. As featured poet that year, I found myself caught up in the high spirits of the day, which seemed to be coming directly from the students themselves, rather than being faculty-imposed. After reading to a crowded auditorium, I was approached by a student who presented me with a copy of the school newspaper containing an article she had written about poetry. In that article, I found a memorable summary of the discomfort so many people seem to experience with poetry. “Whenever I read a modern poem,” this teenage girl wrote, “it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

Poetry 180 was inspired by the desire to remove poetry far from such scenes of torment. The idea behind this printed collection, which is a version of the Library of Congress “180” website, was to assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing—poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate. The original website, which continues to be up and running strong, www.loc.gov/poetry/180, is part of a national initiative I developed shortly after being appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2001. The program is called “Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools.” In creating it, I had hoped the program would suggest to young people the notion that poetry can be a part of everyday life as well as a subject to be studied in the classroom. On the website, I ask high school teachers and administrators to adopt the program by having a new poem read every day—one for each of the roughly 180 days of the school year—as part of the public announcements. Whether the poems are read over a PA system or at the end of a school assembly, students can hear poetry on a daily basis without feeling any pressure to respond. I wanted teachers to refrain from commenting on the poems or asking students “literary” questions about them. 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.

I might not have come up with such an ambitious national plan—or any plan at all—were it not for the energetic efforts made by previous laureates to spread the word of poetry far and wide. Prior to the democratizing efforts of Joseph Brodsky, who envisioned poetry being handed out at supermarkets and planted in the bed tables of motel rooms next to the Gideon Bible, the post of poet laureate was centered at the Library of Congress in Washington, specifically in a spacious suite of rooms at the top of the magnificent Jefferson Building, complete with a balcony and, as one visi- tor put it, a “CNN view” of the Capitol. In those days, the position was called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”—admittedly, a mouthful with a businesslike sound. It was the habit of many Consultants to relocate to Washington, go to the office a few days a week, and—I can only imagine—wait for the phone to ring. You never knew when some senator would be curious to know who wrote “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” According to Mary Jarrell’s memoir, she and Randall took advantage of his tenure in the nation’s capital by enjoying cultural offerings such as the Budapest string quartet. Maxine Kumin invited Washington-area schoolchildren to the Poetry Room. Robert Penn Warren wisely devoted one of his terms to the writing of All the King’s Men. But by the time I took office, the laureateship had evolved into a seat from which resourceful plans for the national dissemination of poetry were being launched. And so Poetry 180 became my contribution.

High school is the focus of my program because all too often it is the place where poetry goes to die. While poetry offers us the possibility of modulating our pace, adolescence is commonly driven by the wish to accelerate, to get from zero to sixty in a heartbeat or in a speed-shop Honda. And de- spite the sometimes heroic efforts of dedicated teachers, many adolescents find poetry—to use their term of ultimate condemnation—boring. What some students experience when they are made to confront a poem might be summed up in a frustrating syllogism:

I understand English.

This poem is written in English.

I have no idea what this poem is saying.

What is “the misfit witch blocks my quantum path?” a reader might well ask. What’s up with “a waveform leaps in my belly”? What’s a reader to do in the face of such unyielding obtuseness?

But let us hear from the other side of the room. If there is no room in poetry for difficulty, where is difficulty to go? Just as poetry provides a home for ambiguity, it offers difficulty a place to be dramatized if not solved. “Even in our games,” asserts John Ciardi, “we demand difficulty.” Which explains why hockey is played on ice and why chess involves more than two warring queens chasing each other around the board. During the heyday of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Crane—that Mount Rushmore of modernism—difficulty became a criterion for appraising poetic value. The difficulty of composition was extended to the compass of the reader’s experience. Opacity became so closely associated with modernist poetry that readers fled in droves into the waiting arms of novelists, where they could relax in the familiar surroundings of social realism. Of course, the conceptual demands some poems make on their reader can provide an essential pleasure, but this is hardly a recommended starting place for readers interested in reclaiming their connection to poetry. Lacking the experience to distinguish between legitimate difficulty and obscurity for its own sake, some readers give up entirely. Randall Jarrell said that poetry was so difficult to write, why should it be difficult to read. Clarity is the real risk in poetry. To be clear means opening yourself up to judgment. The willfully obscure poem is a hiding place where the poet can elude the reader and thus make appraisal impossible, irrelevant—a bourgeois intrusion upon the poem. Which is why much of the commentary on obscure poetry produces the same kind of headache as the poems themselves.

Of course, the more difficult the poem, the more de- pendent students are on their teachers. Knotty poems give teachers more to explain; but the classroom emphasis on what a poem means can work effectively to kill the poetry spirit. Too often the hunt for Meaning becomes the only approach; literary devices form a field of barbed wire that students must crawl under to get to “what the poet is try- ing to say,” a regrettable phrase which implies that every poem is a failed act of communication. Explication may dominate the teaching of poetry, but there are other ways to increase a reader’s intimacy with a poem. A reader can write the poem out, just as Keats or Frost did, or learn how to say a poem out loud, or even internalize a poem by memorizing it. The problem is that none of these activities requires the presence of a teacher. Ideally, interpretation should be one of the pleasures poetry offers. Unfortu- nately, too often it overshadows the other pleasures of meter, sound, metaphor, and imaginative travel, to name a few.

POETRY 180 WAS ALSO MEANT TO EXPOSE HIGH SCHOOL students to the new voices in contemporary poetry. Even if teachers try to keep up with the poetry of the day, textbooks and anthologies typically lag behind the times. My rough count of one popular introductory text has dead authors beating out living ones at a ratio of nine to one. And oddly enough, many of the poems that are still presented as examples of “modern” poetry—Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”—were written more than seventy-five years ago. With a few exceptions, the poems selected for the Poetry 180 website and this book were chosen with the idea of catching the sounds, rhythms, and attitudes of poetry written much more recently. Some of the poems culled from literary magazines are no more than a year or two old. I ruled out any poem that had become a standard offering in textbooks and anthologies. I wanted also to include voices that were not well known. Quite a few of these poems were written by poets I had not heard of before I started scouting for the poems that would suit the purposes of Poetry 180. Assembling this anthology gave me a chance to further the cause of some of my favorite poems and also to discover poets who were new to me. The more I searched for poems, the more I became convinced that regardless of what other kinds of poems will be written in years to come, clear, reader-conscious poems are the ones that will broaden the audience of poetry beyond the precincts of its practitioners.

ADMITTEDLY, SOME OF THESE POEMS WERE SELECTED TO appeal to the interests of high school students. Mark Halliday and Jim Daniels both have poems about cars. Nick Flynn writes about the suspension of physical laws in cartoons. Edward Hirsch has a poem about basketball, and Louis Jenkins has one on football. There are poems about mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. And poems about teaching and learning. Tom Wayman’s hilarious and touching “Did I Miss Anything?” will appeal to anyone who has ever missed a class and then had the temerity to ask the teacher that impertinent question. But this anthology is meant for everyone, even if you somehow managed to avoid high school—that crucible where character is formed and where, as one student pointed out, they even make you read The Crucible.

One of the most haunting topics in literary discussion (right up there with the “Death of the Novel”) is the disappearance of the audience for poetry. Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out the lamentable fact that the number of poetry readers in this country is about the same as the number of people who write poetry. Based on my confrontations with students who want to write poetry but have no interest in reading it, I would say the poets might slightly outnumber the readers. Such a ratio should be kept in mind whenever we hear people extolling the phenomenon of a “poetry renaissance” in America. Yes, more poetry books are being published, and there are more contests, prizes, slams, open-mike nights, and MFA programs; but a large part of these activities take place within a closed circuit. In recent years, poetry has gained momentum as a cultural force, but much of its energy is expended tracing the same circle it has always moved in, appealing to the same insider audience.

Poetry need not be read by everyone—lots of intense activities have small audiences—but surely this distressing ratio can be changed so that poetry is enjoyed by people who have no professional interest in becoming poets. Poetry 180 is one of many efforts to change the ratio, to beckon people back to poetry by offering them a variety of poems that might snag their interest. I am convinced that for every nonreader of poetry there is a poem waiting to reconnect them to poetry. If a student hears a poem every day, the odds of he or she encountering the right poem increases dramatically. Ideally, Poetry 180 was aimed at creating a cognitive dissonance in students who “hate poetry” by exposing them to a poem they find themselves loving irresistibly.

THIS COLLECTION IS NOT AN EXACT TRANSCRIPTION OF the poems on the Poetry 180 website. Putting the poems into book form made it possible to include longer poems as well as poems that came to my attention after the website was put up. The website itself has movable parts; it is a kind of poetry jukebox where the songs can be changed and updated to keep the offerings fresh, especially for schools that want to continue to use the program one semester after another. This book, like all printed books, is fixed, but it includes as many different voices as possible to give a sense of the diverse chorus that is singing the songs of American poetry these days.

Unlike a book of prose fiction, which you read straight through following the rabbit of the plot, there are all sorts of ways to read a collection of poems. You can look up poets you are familiar with, you can flip through the pages looking for a title that grabs you, a shape that invites you in. Or you can read the collection cover to cover, forwards or backwards. But with Poetry 180, there is something to be said for starting at the beginning and reading just a poem or two each day. Like pills, for the head and the heart.

FOR MY OWN PART, POETRY 180 HAS BEEN A PLEASURE and a challenge. Finding the first one hundred poems was fairly easy. I just spun my mental Rolodex of contemporary poems that I liked well enough to remember. Locating the remaining eighty was harder, which might say something about the narrow bounds of my taste or the limited store of smart, clear, contemporary poems. I experienced the privilege of any anthologizer of being in control of the selections and thus being able to express through publication the kind of poetry I favor. With its original focus on high school audiences, Poetry 180 has a public service ring to it, but it is also, admittedly, a big bouquet of poems that I happen to like. To borrow Fran Liebowitz’s musical aesthetics: good poems are poems I like and bad poems are poems I don’t like. Putting that egocentric position aside, welcome to Poetry 180. Flip through the book and pick a poem, any poem. I know every one is an ace, or at least a face card, because I personally rigged the deck.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
1 Introduction to Poetry 3
2 Selecting a Reader 4
3 Not Bad, Dad, Not Bad 5
4 Singing Back the World 6
5 The Pink Car 8
6 Acting 10
7 The Cord 12
8 Ode: The Capris 14
9 Bringing My Son to the Police Station to Be Fingerprinted 17
10 On the Death of a Colleague 19
11 The Space Heater 21
12 Numbers 23
13 Lines 25
14 Listen 26
15 Unholy Sonnets 27
16 Poem for Salt 28
17 The Hand 29
18 Where I Was 30
19 hoop snake 32
20 Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand 34
21 The Summer I Was Sixteen 36
22 Did I Miss Anything? 37
23 Song of Smoke 39
24 Autobiographia 41
25 White Towels 42
26 To You 43
27 It's Raining in Love 44
28 Moderation Kills (Excusez-Moi, Je Suis Sick as a Dog) 46
29 Mrs. Midas 49
30 The Oldest Living Thing in L.A. 53
31 Little Father 54
32 Alzheimer's 55
33 The Book of Hand Shadows 56
34 Sidekicks 57
35 A Poetry Reading at West Point 58
36 Only One of My Deaths 60
37 I'm A Fool to Love You 61
38 Love Poem 1990 63
39 Passer-by, these are words... 65
40 Wheels 66
41 Rain 68
42 A Myopic Child 69
43 At the Other End of the Telescope 70
44 praise song 73
45 The Man into Whose Yard You Should Not Hit Your Ball 74
46 The Farewell 76
47 The Partial Explanation 77
48 Poem for Adlai Stevenson and Yellow Jackets 78
49 The Late Passenger 80
50 On a 3 1/2 Oz. Lesser Yellowlegs, Departed Boston August 28, Shot Martinique September 3 83
51 Tour 84
52 After Us 85
53 Poetry 87
54 The Fathers 88
55 The High School Band 89
56 The Bell 90
57 Dearborn North Apartments Chicago, Illinois 91
58 Gouge, Adze, Rasp, Hammer 92
59 The Bruise of This 94
60 1-800-HOT-RIBS 95
61 The Printer's Error 97
62 Cartoon Physics, part 1 101
63 Advice from the Experts 103
64 She Didn't Mean to Do It 104
65 Snow 105
66 Six One-Line Film-Scripts 107
67 I Finally Managed to Speak to Her 108
68 Before She Died 109
69 In the Well 110
70 The Sonogram 111
71 Love Like Salt 112
72 Through the Window of the All-Night Restaurant 113
73 The Assassination of John Lennon as Depicted by the Madame Tussaud Wax Museum, Niagara Falls, Ontario, 1987 115
74 Barbie's Ferrari 116
75 A Romance for the Wild Turkey 118
76 Ye White Antarctic Birds 119
77 St. Francis and the Sow 120
78 Killing the Animals 121
79 The Old Liberators 122
80 Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road? 123
81 Grammar 124
82 Plague Victims Catapulted over Walls into Besieged City 125
83 In Tornado Weather 126
84 The Portuguese in Mergui 127
85 No Return 129
86 The Panic Bird 130
87 A Hunger 132
88 Otherwise 133
89 Happy Marriage 134
90 At Navajo Monument Valley Tribal School 136
91 Hamlet Off-Stage: Laertes Cool 138
92 Lesson 139
93 Football 140
94 Fat Is Not a Fairy Tale 141
95 Sister Cat 142
96 The Bagel 143
97 On Swimming 144
98 Song Beside a Sippy Cup 145
99 Watching the Mayan Women 146
100 Queen Herod 148
101 Video Blues 152
102 Smoking 153
103 Old Men Playing Basketball 154
104 Gratitude to Old Teachers 156
105 June 11 157
106 Vegetarian Physics 158
107 My Life 159
108 Nuclear Winter 161
109 Message: Bottle #32 162
110 Waves 163
111 no. 6 164
112 Tuesday Morning, Loading Pigs 166
113 For Mohammed Zeid, Age 15 168
114 Small Comfort 170
115 Skin 171
116 Telephone Repairman 173
117 What I Would Do 175
118 The Meadow 177
119 Rotary 178
120 Sax's and Selves 181
121 Black Leather Because Bumblebees Look Like It 183
122 Beyond Recall 185
123 Alley Cat Love Song 187
124 Goodbye to the Old Life 188
125 For "Fiddle-De-De" 191
126 Country Fair 194
127 Part of Eve's Discussion 195
128 Birth Day 196
129 On Not Flying to Hawaii 197
130 The Poem of Chalk 199
131 My Father's Hats 202
132 Of Politics & Art 203
133 Loud Music 205
134 Elevator Music 207
135 A Wreath to the Fish 208
136 ballplayer 210
137 The Green One over There 212
138 May 215
139 The Quest 217
140 In Simili Materia 219
141 Words for Worry 220
142 In Praise of BIC Pens 221
143 The Other World 223
144 The Grammar Lesson 225
145 Fast Break 226
146 The Invention of Heaven 228
147 Saturday at the Canal 229
148 Doing Without 230
149 The Death of Santa Claus 231
150 Ladies and Gentlemen in Outer Space 233
151 Thanksgiving 234
152 Dog's Death 235
153 Hound Song 236
154 A Metaphor Crosses the Road 237
155 The Swan at Edgewater Park 238
156 The Blizzard 239
157 Where is She? 241
158 Coffee in the Afternoon 242
159 One Morning 243
160 Animals 244
161 God Says Yes to Me 245
162 The Perfect Heart 246
163 The Birthday 247
164 Not Swans 248
165 I Wish in the City of Your Heart 249
166 The Accompanist 252
167 The Wolf of Gubbio 252
168 49[superscript th] Birthday Trip (What Are You On?) 254
169 How Many Times 255
170 The History of Poetry 256
171 The Dead 258
172 Social Security 259
173 The Student Theme 261
174 Smell and Envy 262
175 The Yawn 263
176 Blue Willow 263
177 Tuesday 9:00 AM 265
178 Ordinance on Arrival 267
179 96 Vandam 268
180 What He Thought 269
Notes on the Contributors 273
Index of Contributors 305
Index of Titles 309
Permission Credits 313
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First Chapter

poetry 180: AN INTRODUCTION

A FEW YEARS AGO I FOUND MYSELF ON A CIRCUIT OF readings, traveling around the Midwest from podium to podium. One stop was at an enormous high school south of Chicago. Despite its daunting size—picture a row of lockers receding into infinity—the school holds a “Poetry Day” every year featuring an exuberant range of activities, including poems set to music by students and performed by the high school chorus and a ninety-piece orchestra. As featured poet that year, I found myself caught up in the high spirits of the day, which seemed to be coming directly from the students themselves, rather than being faculty-imposed. After reading to a crowded auditorium, I was approached by a student who presented me with a copy of the school newspaper containing an article she had written about poetry. In that article, I found a memorable summary of the discomfort so many people seem to experience with poetry. “Whenever I read a modern poem,” this teenage girl wrote, “it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

Poetry 180 was inspired by the desire to remove poetry far from such scenes of torment. The idea behind this printed collection, which is a version of the Library of Congress “180” website, was to assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing—poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate. The original website, which continues to be up and running strong, www.loc.gov/poetry/180, is part of a national initiative I developed shortly afterbeing appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2001. The program is called “Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools.” In creating it, I had hoped the program would suggest to young people the notion that poetry can be a part of everyday life as well as a subject to be studied in the classroom. On the website, I ask high school teachers and administrators to adopt the program by having a new poem read every day—one for each of the roughly 180 days of the school year—as part of the public announcements. Whether the poems are read over a PA system or at the end of a school assembly, students can hear poetry on a daily basis without feeling any pressure to respond. I wanted teachers to refrain from commenting on the poems or asking students “literary” questions about them. 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.

I might not have come up with such an ambitious national plan—or any plan at all—were it not for the energetic efforts made by previous laureates to spread the word of poetry far and wide. Prior to the democratizing efforts of Joseph Brodsky, who envisioned poetry being handed out at supermarkets and planted in the bed tables of motel rooms next to the Gideon Bible, the post of poet laureate was centered at the Library of Congress in Washington, specifically in a spacious suite of rooms at the top of the magnificent Jefferson Building, complete with a balcony and, as one visi- tor put it, a “CNN view” of the Capitol. In those days, the position was called “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”—admittedly, a mouthful with a businesslike sound. It was the habit of many Consultants to relocate to Washington, go to the office a few days a week, and—I can only imagine—wait for the phone to ring. You never knew when some senator would be curious to know who wrote “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” According to Mary Jarrell’s memoir, she and Randall took advantage of his tenure in the nation’s capital by enjoying cultural offerings such as the Budapest string quartet. Maxine Kumin invited Washington-area schoolchildren to the Poetry Room. Robert Penn Warren wisely devoted one of his terms to the writing of All the King’s Men. But by the time I took office, the laureateship had evolved into a seat from which resourceful plans for the national dissemination of poetry were being launched. And so Poetry 180 became my contribution.

High school is the focus of my program because all too often it is the place where poetry goes to die. While poetry offers us the possibility of modulating our pace, adolescence is commonly driven by the wish to accelerate, to get from zero to sixty in a heartbeat or in a speed-shop Honda. And de- spite the sometimes heroic efforts of dedicated teachers, many adolescents find poetry—to use their term of ultimate condemnation—boring. What some students experience when they are made to confront a poem might be summed up in a frustrating syllogism:

I understand English.

This poem is written in English.

I have no idea what this poem is saying.

What is “the misfit witch blocks my quantum path?” a reader might well ask. What’s up with “a waveform leaps in my belly”? What’s a reader to do in the face of such unyielding obtuseness?

But let us hear from the other side of the room. If there is no room in poetry for difficulty, where is difficulty to go? Just as poetry provides a home for ambiguity, it offers difficulty a place to be dramatized if not solved. “Even in our games,” asserts John Ciardi, “we demand difficulty.” Which explains why hockey is played on ice and why chess involves more than two warring queens chasing each other around the board. During the heyday of Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Crane—that Mount Rushmore of modernism—difficulty became a criterion for appraising poetic value. The difficulty of composition was extended to the compass of the reader’s experience. Opacity became so closely associated with modernist poetry that readers fled in droves into the waiting arms of novelists, where they could relax in the familiar surroundings of social realism. Of course, the conceptual demands some poems make on their reader can provide an essential pleasure, but this is hardly a recommended starting place for readers interested in reclaiming their connection to poetry. Lacking the experience to distinguish between legitimate difficulty and obscurity for its own sake, some readers give up entirely. Randall Jarrell said that poetry was so difficult to write, why should it be difficult to read. Clarity is the real risk in poetry. To be clear means opening yourself up to judgment. The willfully obscure poem is a hiding place where the poet can elude the reader and thus make appraisal impossible, irrelevant—a bourgeois intrusion upon the poem. Which is why much of the commentary on obscure poetry produces the same kind of headache as the poems themselves.

Of course, the more difficult the poem, the more de- pendent students are on their teachers. Knotty poems give teachers more to explain; but the classroom emphasis on what a poem means can work effectively to kill the poetry spirit. Too often the hunt for Meaning becomes the only approach; literary devices form a field of barbed wire that students must crawl under to get to “what the poet is try- ing to say,” a regrettable phrase which implies that every poem is a failed act of communication. Explication may dominate the teaching of poetry, but there are other ways to increase a reader’s intimacy with a poem. A reader can write the poem out, just as Keats or Frost did, or learn how to say a poem out loud, or even internalize a poem by memorizing it. The problem is that none of these activities requires the presence of a teacher. Ideally, interpretation should be one of the pleasures poetry offers. Unfortu- nately, too often it overshadows the other pleasures of meter, sound, metaphor, and imaginative travel, to name a few.

POETRY 180 WAS ALSO MEANT TO EXPOSE HIGH SCHOOL students to the new voices in contemporary poetry. Even if teachers try to keep up with the poetry of the day, textbooks and anthologies typically lag behind the times. My rough count of one popular introductory text has dead authors beating out living ones at a ratio of nine to one. And oddly enough, many of the poems that are still presented as examples of “modern” poetry—Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”—were written more than seventy-five years ago. With a few exceptions, the poems selected for the Poetry 180 website and this book were chosen with the idea of catching the sounds, rhythms, and attitudes of poetry written much more recently. Some of the poems culled from literary magazines are no more than a year or two old. I ruled out any poem that had become a standard offering in textbooks and anthologies. I wanted also to include voices that were not well known. Quite a few of these poems were written by poets I had not heard of before I started scouting for the poems that would suit the purposes of Poetry 180. Assembling this anthology gave me a chance to further the cause of some of my favorite poems and also to discover poets who were new to me. The more I searched for poems, the more I became convinced that regardless of what other kinds of poems will be written in years to come, clear, reader-conscious poems are the ones that will broaden the audience of poetry beyond the precincts of its practitioners.

ADMITTEDLY, SOME OF THESE POEMS WERE SELECTED TO appeal to the interests of high school students. Mark Halliday and Jim Daniels both have poems about cars. Nick Flynn writes about the suspension of physical laws in cartoons. Edward Hirsch has a poem about basketball, and Louis Jenkins has one on football. There are poems about mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. And poems about teaching and learning. Tom Wayman’s hilarious and touching “Did I Miss Anything?” will appeal to anyone who has ever missed a class and then had the temerity to ask the teacher that impertinent question. But this anthology is meant for everyone, even if you somehow managed to avoid high school—that crucible where character is formed and where, as one student pointed out, they even make you read The Crucible.

One of the most haunting topics in literary discussion (right up there with the “Death of the Novel”) is the disappearance of the audience for poetry. Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out the lamentable fact that the number of poetry readers in this country is about the same as the number of people who write poetry. Based on my confrontations with students who want to write poetry but have no interest in reading it, I would say the poets might slightly outnumber the readers. Such a ratio should be kept in mind whenever we hear people extolling the phenomenon of a “poetry renaissance” in America. Yes, more poetry books are being published, and there are more contests, prizes, slams, open-mike nights, and MFA programs; but a large part of these activities take place within a closed circuit. In recent years, poetry has gained momentum as a cultural force, but much of its energy is expended tracing the same circle it has always moved in, appealing to the same insider audience.

Poetry need not be read by everyone—lots of intense activities have small audiences—but surely this distressing ratio can be changed so that poetry is enjoyed by people who have no professional interest in becoming poets. Poetry 180 is one of many efforts to change the ratio, to beckon people back to poetry by offering them a variety of poems that might snag their interest. I am convinced that for every nonreader of poetry there is a poem waiting to reconnect them to poetry. If a student hears a poem every day, the odds of he or she encountering the right poem increases dramatically. Ideally, Poetry 180 was aimed at creating a cognitive dissonance in students who “hate poetry” by exposing them to a poem they find themselves loving irresistibly.

THIS COLLECTION IS NOT AN EXACT TRANSCRIPTION OF the poems on the Poetry 180 website. Putting the poems into book form made it possible to include longer poems as well as poems that came to my attention after the website was put up. The website itself has movable parts; it is a kind of poetry jukebox where the songs can be changed and updated to keep the offerings fresh, especially for schools that want to continue to use the program one semester after another. This book, like all printed books, is fixed, but it includes as many different voices as possible to give a sense of the diverse chorus that is singing the songs of American poetry these days.

Unlike a book of prose fiction, which you read straight through following the rabbit of the plot, there are all sorts of ways to read a collection of poems. You can look up poets you are familiar with, you can flip through the pages looking for a title that grabs you, a shape that invites you in. Or you can read the collection cover to cover, forwards or backwards. But with Poetry 180, there is something to be said for starting at the beginning and reading just a poem or two each day. Like pills, for the head and the heart.

FOR MY OWN PART, POETRY 180 HAS BEEN A PLEASURE and a challenge. Finding the first one hundred poems was fairly easy. I just spun my mental Rolodex of contemporary poems that I liked well enough to remember. Locating the remaining eighty was harder, which might say something about the narrow bounds of my taste or the limited store of smart, clear, contemporary poems. I experienced the privilege of any anthologizer of being in control of the selections and thus being able to express through publication the kind of poetry I favor. With its original focus on high school audiences, Poetry 180 has a public service ring to it, but it is also, admittedly, a big bouquet of poems that I happen to like. To borrow Fran Liebowitz’s musical aesthetics: good poems are poems I like and bad poems are poems I don’t like. Putting that egocentric position aside, welcome to Poetry 180. Flip through the book and pick a poem, any poem. I know every one is an ace, or at least a face card, because I personally rigged the deck.

Copyright© 2003 by Selected and with an Introduction by Billy Collins
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 27, 2009

    Poetry 180 is on the right side of the poetry battle.

    When reading poetry in high school, do you remember running into the concept of "universality," that good poems will take a reader through the private experience of the poem into reflecting on some aspect of his own life, to what is the universal experience of all or most people?

    Poetry 180 comes down on the side of the poetry debate that believes good poetry is not some personal, academic secret code largely unknown and undecipherable to the general, poetry reading public. Rather, Billy Collins asserts that good poetry consists of poems that are "accessible" to the general reader, meaning that such poems invite the reader into the poem, instead of leaving him feeling like he is outside the bounds of the inner circle of poets and poetry lovers.

    The introductions to Poetry 180, and the sequel, 180 More are worth the price of the books themselves. In Poetry 180, check out the poems, "Listen", "Did I miss anything?", "It's Raining in Love" and "Alzheimer's".

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2008

    So Amazing!

    I really enjoyed that the poems are read-able and like-able but they also have depth and meaning. They are good and true. Billy Collins is an amazing poet and he deserves a lot of credit for his work! I highly recommend this book for people starting to read or enjoy poetry. It definitely helps to get the jist of poetry.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2004

    great teaching tool

    Actually, this book is great for teachers looking for somewhere to start with poetry in the classroom. This book is based on a program for HIGH SCHOOL students, to expose them to great poets, and to familiarize them with form, style, and so on, so as to encourage further curiosity. This book was put together by Collins as a 'jumping off point,' and it succeeds at being just that. The Poetry 180 website further explains the program and the idea behind it for anyone interested; maybe it's not the 'greatest anthology ever created,' but it should be appreciated as a collection geared toward first-time readers of poetry!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2004

    A haphazard selection

    There are a gazillion poetry anthologies on the market, some better, some worse, some quite comprehensive, some eclectic with a discernible slant. Billy Collins, a rather entertaining and usually smart poet (although often lacking in depth), has done himself and poetry a disservice here by hurling his name into the crowded field of anthology editors with this haphazard selection that's neither comprehensive nor eclectic -- it's just superficial. This is one book money is wasted on; for poetry lovers, I would recommend any of the recent editions of the 'Best American Poetry' series instead (especially those of 2000 and 2003), or the excellent collection 'Poetry Daily: Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website'.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Sarah

    well i LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!this book so mush one of my fav.s read this now doint just sit there pick this book up and read it you'll be suprized*

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    Posted March 20, 2010

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    Posted October 20, 2008

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