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Poetry Review: Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate

Poetry and HBS students typically go together like Microsoft Excel and art history majors. In his December 12 appearance at Harvard, the U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins reminded me how poetry can provide time for simple things business school can push aside: an easy laugh, a few minutes of reflection, or a little help getting an annoying song out of your head.

I told a section mate that I was going to see the US poet laureate, and he asked if that was a cabinet level position. How do you become the Secretary of Poems? Is it now under Tom Ridge? Is there an internship posted in the Job Bank? No. The Poet Laureate is chosen each year by the Library of Congress to act as a guiding cultural force, to increase awareness in the value of the poetic art form.

Braving the elements and the world outside HBS-land, I ventured all the way to the School of Education to hear Collins read from his new book “Nine Horses”. He easily filled the large lecture hall and a second video feed room. Even without follow-up questions from Section I, Collins’ honest poetry and dead-pan humor had the crowd laughing continuously.

Stylistically, Collins is everyman’s poet. His work lacks the esoteric forms or language of many of his peers. Collins describes the simple themes of his poems as “verbal photographs”. His words capture familiar moments in time, scenes of life, little realities we all experience but rarely reflect upon. Take the poem “More Than a Woman”, about the terrible songs that get stuck in our heads. In his lecture, Collins spoke about fighting these songs out by playing great songs loudly-only to have the bad songs get jealous and bury themselves deeper into your cortex.

Collins is a romantic in a cynic’s clothes. I expect HBS students would love him for this. His speech is flat, his humor is subtle and guarded, but his poems are filled with passion, love and reflection. One of my favorites is “Nightclub” where he reflects on the thought “You are so beautiful, I am a fool to love you.” He considers permutations we may never hear: “You are so beautiful, too bad you’re a fool” or “You are a fool to think I am beautiful”. In the end, he brings us to how we “…are so damned foolish, we have become beautiful without even knowing it”. From the cynical familiarity of a pick-up scene, Collins shapes a brief reflection on life.

HBS students tend to lack time to read and reflect. Billy Collins is my answer to these problems. In many ways, I see his poems as novels in case form: rich, informative, full of humor and passion (I thought Project Achieve was funny, really), tell brief stories that exercise the mind, and even touch our hearts.

So find a quiet corner and let Billy Collins reveal a few of life’s mysteries. Collins has a large body of work, but I suggest starting with his short anthology, “Sailing Alone Around the Room”. Begin reading “Three Blind Mice”. Have you ever thought about how those three mice became blind? Accident? Congenital disease? Did you ever ask how three blind mice found each other in a field? Or why they would chase the farmer’s wife? Billy Collins does and thus provides us his humorous escapes from the hectic lives we lead.

January 14, 2003
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