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.
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. B...