Billy Collins & Poisonous Poetry Prescriptions

billy collins

A virtual friend (all my friends are electronically ghostly) sent along this Writer’s Almanac interview of that pop poetry institution known as Billy Collins.

I like Billy Collins’ work, for the most part. Sometimes he rests on his laurels and the overheated aroma of the plant’s leaves fetters his free verse, but for the most part his dry and whimsical humor carries the day.

I also like all that Collins has done to bring poetry to a public with severe poetry allergies. He started the Poetry 180 website, for instance, supposedly designed for high schools but equally good for middle schools. He also embraced video, which, medical journals assure us, make school children decidedly less allergic to poetry. In my classroom, I print copies of the poems, show the videos, and open discussion. The visual element seems to invigorate young minds.

All that said, one part of the interview drives me crazy (Exit 76 off the Jersey Turnpike). This would be the part where the interviewer asks about previous Collins remarks about poets who include cicadas in their poems. Apparently, Collins cannot abide them (poets, their buzzy poems, and, I assume, the melodious insect). Says he: “Don’t get me started on cicadas. When I see one, I stop reading the poem. Next!”

Et tu, Brute? I don’t know where this fashion for poetry proscriptions started–this idea that certain words or concepts are verboten and sure to poison a poem, this idea that anyone with an opinion (they’re going around) can pick a word, any word, and say it cannot be used by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

No, no, a thousand times no. Both Billy and Collins should know better.

You only need follow this to its logical conclusion, after all. At the end of the interview, Collins is asked, “What’s the deal with mice, Mr. Collins? They enjoy coming around your poems.

Collins’ response seems reasonable enough: “Too much attachment to cartoons plus living in a porous 1860s farmhouse for many years.”

To which I can only say, “Don’t get me started on mice. When I see them, I stop reading the poem. Next!”

Surely, Billy, you of all people see the irony.

OK, then. Off to write my Ode to Cicadas. Thanks for the otherwise wonderful interview!

Best regards,

A (Slightly) Lesser-Known Poet



8 thoughts on “Billy Collins & Poisonous Poetry Prescriptions

  1. Doug

    My teachers were always griping about kids chewing on their ear pieces and pencil erasers. Maybe they were in some inadvertent way stifling their students creative thought processes.


      1. Doug

        Earpiece is a technical term of which I purposely made two words. It is also known to eyewear engineers as the ear rest. Eyewear is also one word in their lexicon but ear rest is two probably due to the double r conundrum.. The earpiece is commonly made of two parts being the temple and the temple tips or ends (two words). The temple ends may be called by various terms such as “skull temples” long and curved inward slightly, or “library ends” which are almost straight which Billy seems to be fond of. Blame English spelling idiosyncrasies for my vagueness and reluctance to spell correctly when I am not doing a trade article. I hope this was helpful to everyone.


  2. Cicadas? Really. (I had a good chuckle reading this, thanks btw!) Everyone has their least favorite thing, cicadas are his thing. I like them, I find them charming, and have used them at least once or twice.


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