The Pen Is an Instrument of Discovery

The Pen Is an Instrument of Discovery

I love Billy Collins. I just wanted to highlight some of my favorite moments from this rather long interview

The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.

Oh isn’t that just delightful? The pen as Geiger counter? I’m not a poet, but I fully agree that I write to discover rather than to merely record.

While the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly in a windowpane.

On writing poems rather than books of poetry

Each poem is a single, separate act. Every poet has his or her obsessions, and after the fact, you can go back and see these connections between poems in a certain volume, but I never think of writing a book. When I have enough, I just rake them into a pile and see if they add up to a book. When I go to make a book, which isn’t that often, I take all the poems and put them out on the floor in no particular order. Then I just walk around on top of them in my stocking feet. I take my time, and eventually this poem over here will want to be with this poem over there, and I’ll take it and I’ll put them together. I don’t know why. It’s not because they’re both about death or both about dogs, but that they just want to be with each other. It’s almost like a party—people kind of get together in little circles. Eventually, three or four or five different piles will form. For the life of me, I wouldn’t be able to label them and say these are the x poems or these are the y poems, but they seem to exhibit affinities that I am not really privy to. But no one reads a book of poems from beginning to end anyway. I mean, editors do and relatives maybe, but I never do. When I get a book of poems, I look for a fancy title or a short one. Most readers approach a book of poems like a flipbook, which for me underscores the notion that we turn to poetry because we’re looking for something. It’s really a matter of an author’s vanity to spend a lot of time orchestrating a book, unless it’s very thematic. When his Collected Poems was published, Auden just arranged them by date, showing his preference for the chronological over the thematic, and acknowledging the fact that books of poems are not really read from beginning to end.

Do you have a concept of the reader?

She’s this girl in high school who broke my heart, and I’m hoping that she’ll read my poems one day and feel bad about what she did. No, the reader for me is someone who doesn’t care about me or has no vested interest. I start the poem assuming that I have to engage his or her interest. There is no pre-existing reason for you to be interested in me and certainly not in my family, so there must be a lure at the beginning of a poem. I want the reader to be in the sidecar, ready. Then off we go. Then we can take a ride from what seemed to be a hospitable and friendly environment into an environment that’s perhaps disorienting, manipulative, or a little off-balancing. I want to start in a very familiar place and end up in a strange place. The familiar place is often a comic place, and the strange place is indescribable except by reading the poem again.

On Coleridge

I think he faked that whole Kubla Khan story. I don’t believe that such a well-formed poem came out of an opium delirium.

Me too. I wrote a paper about Kubla Khan in my undergraduate course on Romantic and Victorian literature and that might have been the point of the paper. I no longer remember exactly, it was so long ago. It is an interesting frame story, though.

On formalism

Well, in one sense—a loose sense—I consider all my poems to be formal. I try to write poems that are a series of clear, solid lines, to give each poem a stanzaic shape, and usually to organize poems around a beginning, middle and end, or at least a distinct turn. I hope all that adds up to a certain degree of formality, an appearance of formality, anyway. The poem may not be wearing the official uniform of the sonnet, but still, its clothes are ironed and its buttons done up—except sometimes maybe the top one. You don’t want the poem to arrive overdressed for the party. Like the tuxedo poems of some of the Edwardians and Georgians

On inventing a new genre

More recently, I actually invented a new genre without really meaning to. What happened was I wanted to write an intentionally bad formal poem, which would look like the result of an inept poet working over his head. The effect would be comic. Rather than write a terrible sonnet or villanelle (there are enough of those), I decided to make up a new form complete with its own rules. To add some silliness, I presented it as an obscure form begun by the troubadours, the boys who gave us many of the forms so popular as assignments in poetry workshops. You know, this week we’ll write a villanelle, next week a sestina.

The paradelle, which is like a fusion of parody and villanelle. The rules were an absurd mix of the dead easy and the nearly impossible. I titled the poem “Paradelle for Susan” because I wanted a very American-sounding girl’s name, and the footnote read: “The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words.” In the poem itself, the incompetent poet whose role I was playing—we should italicize playing—was able to repeat lines—bravo!—but could not manage to recycle all the words, so every stanza ended with a pile-up of remainder words, leftovers. Like, “And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.” I sent the poem to The American Scholar. I knew the editor, Joseph Epstein, had a sense of literary humor. They published the poem and that, I assumed, was that, until Epstein wrote to tell me about the mail they were getting. Subscribers were sending angry letters questioning the magazine’s judgment for having published such a slovenly poem. How could the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society endorse such literary incompetence? One person said it was the worst paradelle he’d ever read. No kidding. Epstein invited me to respond to a typical letter. I didn’t want to fess up and spoil all the fun, so I wrote a letter that asked for sympathy. The paradelle is an extremely difficult form, my defense ran. I did the best that I could. Then I began hearing rumors that the paradelle was being assigned as a workshop exercise. And now a young professor in Georgia is working on an anthology of paradelles! I agreed to write an introduction titled “A Brief History of the Paradelle” accounting for the disappearance of all the paradelles written between 1200 and 1998. My ultimate dream is to see the term paradelle in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, but I’ve probably just blown my chances by taking you backstage.

On Emily Dickinson

Yet there’s also a strength in doing one thing well, subgenius, but sufficient. I would say Emily Dickinson writes the same poem over and over again. It’s always in common meter, four beats, then three beats; she sings the same little tune over and over again, the tune of the nursery rhyme, the tune of the Protestant hymn, and she just sings this little song again and again, seventeen hundred times. But every poem is remarkably unique.


So that’s why she stopped.


Well, I think she stopped for death.

She has a beautifully distinctive voice, because she learned to do this one thing well and to find variation in it. I think if you’re stuck in a form, or if you’re stuck in a voice, the challenge is to stay within the voice and keep finding variation within the voice and to have a voice or a form that is flexible enough that will accommodate new subjects, new thinking, new glimpses, new experiences. I don’t envision any great creative breakthrough. My hope is to continue to do good work, which is to write good lines and good stanzas. Gasoline comes in gallons, cigarettes come in packs, and poetry comes in lines and stanzas. No matter what I’m thinking about when I’m writing a poem, no matter what is captivating my attention, all I’m really trying to do is write good lines and good stanzas.

Read the whole thing: An interview with Billy Collins from The Paris Review


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  • +JMJ+

    I am awed at the detailed treatment which Literacy Chic is giving Diana Gabaldon’s series. I’ve only read Outlander, which irresistably drew and repelled me at the same time, and made a conscious decision not to read the rest of the series after someone gave me more details about the plot. (If I felt bad enough for Frank just hearing about it, I reasoned, then the reading would be too emotionally draining.)

    One of my friends who hates Outlander still teases me about an old post I wrote in which I called it “Marian.” I probably wouldn’t make such a controversial (and easily misunderstood) statement today, but Literacy Chic’s posts are reminding me why I felt strongly enough to do so back then. There’s a strange, dreamlike quality to the relationships and entanglements in the story that could only have come from someone “Catholic haunted”—someone who probably spent a lot of time wondering about the Holy Family’s day to day life and how saints in general could deal with the world after having been changed, even made “Other,” by supernatural or spiritual experiences.

    As for close readings in general, their main drawback (in my opinion) is that they can so easily become the only big project in your life. Although I really liked blogging my reading of the Little House books, I stopped the project after two months because there were so many other things I wanted to study as well. On the other hand, when I know quite a bit on a subject myself and then run into a blog which explores the subject the way Literacy Chic is reading Outlander, I feel like it’s Christmas morning! =P

  • “Catholic haunted” that’s a good word for it. (I like the Flannery echo.) I feel similarly ambivalent about Outlander, both fascinated and somewhat repelled by some elements of it. I do know what you mean about the Christmas morning feeling.

    I think “Catholic haunted” is a pretty apt descriptor for Kay too. Although he is Jewish, his books have a very Catholic feel to me. And I can’t help but wonder how much of that is an effect of helping to edit the Silmarillion. How could one spend so much time with Tolkien and not have it form one’s imagination?

  • I meant to say your Little House posts were definitely a Christmas morning treasure trove.

  • Diana Gabaldon is Catholic, although I don’t know if she’s practising.

    There’s an interview at the back of one of her books where she says that one of her objectives in writing her novels was to explore what happens after marriage. She said (I’m paraphrasing) that there’s lots of writing about romance and the process of getting to the altar, but surprisingly few about what happens to couples after, especially happy couples. That’s one of the things I’m drawn to in her writing- anyone can fall in love, but continuing to stay in love and make it work TAKES WORK, and every couple creates their own world and their own set of experiences binding them together. And those are very interesting.

    Now that I think about it, The First Four Years does a similar thing. Hm.

  • +JMJ+

    Thanks for your kind words about my Little House readalong, Melanie! I recall that you came in at the end, when I thought the discussion was over, so your contributions were a wonderful surprise for me as well. =)

  • They become about their children, and Gilbert sort of recedes into the background. Which is a pity, because he was an interesting man. I wonder if Montgomery was unable to write convincingly about a happy marriage because of her lack of experience? I know it’s wrong to think writers need personal experience about their subjects (there goes all of fantasy!), but her own marriage was so troubled, and Anne and Gilbert’s was so idealized…

    Or maybe I’m overthinking this.

  • Kyra, Yes, I like the idea of exploring what happens after marriage. We’re about halfway through These Happy Golden Years. I’ll be curious to re-read The First Four Years.

    Much as I like L.M. Montgomery, I thought the Anne books kind of drop the ball once Anne and Gilbert are married. It doesn’t feel like you get all that much about their relationship.

  • Thanks for digging up your responses to the Billy Collins interview, Melanie. My favorite line was at the beginning when he talks about expanding his line and expanding poems past one breath. That’s where I am in my practice. All my poems are about a breath long.