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Saturday, February 22, 2003

Billy Collins.

The poet laureate, referring to the controversy caused by poets who wanted to turn a White House symposium on poetry into a commentary on the President's war policy, tells the New York Times Magazine: "Politicizing the event has resulted in its cancellation and perhaps the end of literary events at the White House." That is a pity, but poetry will survive just fine.

I thought Collins was especially interesting in this exchange:

What was the last poem that really spoke to, or was embraced by, the American people?

I can't think of an antiwar poem that has spoken to the American people. There is one poem that has spoken to the American people, and that is ''Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.'' That is the most popular poem in America. It was either that or ''The Road Not Taken'' that John F. Kennedy carried with him in his wallet on a piece of paper.

He also comments that poetry "dies off and gets buried under other adolescent pursuits" — which is why he puts so much of his energy into his Poetry 180 project. But he reminded me of one of the more heartening things I experienced when I worked as a youth advisor at a Unitarian Universalist church from 1997 through 2000. The leaders of the youth group planned a "poetry night" one Sunday, and while I knew that the kids were bright and creative, I didn't actually expect them to bring in literature. There were Ani DiFranco lyrics — but one ninth-grade boy brought in his own copy of Robert Frost, and read both poems Collins mentioned, and a ninth-grade girl who I hadn't thought of as a literary type brought in something that surprised me much more: Wislawa Szymborska's View with a Grain of Sand. (They must have had a great poetry unit earlier that year.)

I had been promoting Szymborska as the best candidate for a Unitarian Universalist lectionary — friends, she is a thousand times better than Mary Oliver — but I had not really expected Szymborska to speak so immediately to teens as well as to adults. But there you go. And that leads to the other wonderful observation Collins makes in the interview:

If you could hand Bush or Cheney a poem right now, what would it be?

The poets who have written the best poems about war seem to be the poets whose countries have experienced an invasion or vicious dictatorships. Poets like Vaclav Havel, and Mandelstam and Akhmatova from Russia, and from Poland, Milosz, and the poet whom I am centering on, Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner. She has a poem, ''The End and the Beginning,'' that begins: ''After every war / someone has to clean up. / Things won't / straighten themselves up, after all. / Someone has to push the rubble / to the side of the road, / so the corpse-filled wagons / can pass.'' I would probably stand at the White House and hand out this poem.

Milosz and Szymborska are great favorites of mine, and I've also been reading their compatriot Adam Zagajewski. (Incidentally, I've read Szymborska's poems in several Unitarian Universalist church services I've led — "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself" for a sermon on the conscience, and "Nothing's a Gift" at the conclusion of my sermon A hand on your shoulder — and I selected "On Death, without Exaggeration" for UU World's special issue after 9/11.)

Finally, I heard Collins read at the November 30 "Prairie Home Campanion" broadcast in New York City with my fiancee and her parents. (Thanks, Mike and Jackie!) Garrison Keillor lampooned Collins's role as poet laureate in one sketch; Billy Collins played a version of himself. You can hear Collins read some charming poems here and here. And if you don't have enough poetry in your life, the best place to encounter wonderful poetry on the Web is at Poetry Daily.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 22 February 2003 at 12:53 PM

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