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Why English Lit is like death, and other ideas from Billy Collins

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Billy Collins
Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collin's new collection "The Rain in Portugal" touches on topics ranging from Zen moments to whether the dogs in Minneapolis know where they are.
Image courtesy Penguin Random House. Photo c Bill Hayes

If there is such a thing as a rock-star poet, Billy Collins is it. His two appearances at the Pen Pals reading series in the Twin Cities this week have essentially sold out. 

  The New York Times has called Collins, 75, the "most popular poet in America." His new collection, "The Rain in Portugal," contains some 40 poems about love, life, dogs and cats. 

  When asked to pick one to recite, he chose quickly: "Predator."


It takes only a minute
to bury a wren.
Two trowels full of dirt and he's in.

The cat at the threshold
sits longer in doubt
deciding whether
to stay in or go out.

    The poem takes just seconds to read, but it opens a window on the realities of life and leaves a distinct sense of unease.  

The former U.S. poet laureate said he was inspired by reading what he called some savage poems.  

"There's one, I forget who wrote it. It goes like this:  

The teeth of the fox are in the bunny.  And nothing can remove them, honey.

  "See, that kind of brings Anthony Hopkins to mind, like he could have recited that," he said.    

Collins said he's always been inspired by other poets.    

"No one's smart enough or brilliant enough to go into a room and just invent this thing called poetry," he said. "So most people write poetry because they have read poetry. I think most people play the saxophone because they've heard other people play the saxophone."       

The secret to his poetry, he said, is his drive to be conversational.

"The Rain in Portugal"
"The Rain in Portugal" takes its title from a poem in the collection that raises questions about poetic lines which have become accepted fact such as "a stitch in time save nine" and "The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain."
Image courtesy Penguin Random House

    "I want to give the reader the sense that I am not committing an act of literature so much as I am speaking to you, I am talking to you," he said.      

When asked about the drive behind his latest collection, he said he doesn't write books; he writes poems.  

  "And then when I have enough of them, I just gather them together and see if my editor agrees that we have a book," he said. 

    The title comes from a poem about the times he has thought about  broadly accepted poetic lines such as "The rain in Spain" and "stitches in time," and applied them elsewhere. Developing a random thought is how he came to a poem with a Minnesota theme, called "In Praise of Ignorance."   

On a bench one afternoon,
in a grassy park in Minneapolis,
I realized that what I liked best
about the dogs of Minneapolis
is they have no idea they are in Minneapolis. 

  The poem blooms into a mediation on dogs in other parts of the United States, and their awareness of their location, and then moves on to considering poets of the past and their dogs. It's tempting to try to find themes about dogs, cats and jazz in the collection, but Collins pointed elsewhere.  

"I mean, to me, it seems to be the very basic themes of poetry itself, which are essentially mortality," he said. "The mortality problem, which no one seems to be able to solve."

  He paused and added, "I say if you are majoring in English, you are majoring in death, basically, because that's the resounding theme that underlies so much of English poetry." 

  But for all that might imply, "The Rain in Portugal" is filled with poetic delights, small glimpses into the mysteries of life and the workings of Billy Collins' mind. He'll read from the book at the Friends of the Hennepin County Libraries' Pen Pals series on Thursday evening and Friday morning. He'll also talk about his poems, some of which, he admitted, were only now becoming clear as we talked about them.   

"I don't really think these things through as much as I am doing right now," he said. "But now it's becoming clear to me as I wrestle with myself." 

  Including the implications of the fact the dogs of Minneapolis don't know where they are.  

Hear two more readings from Collins