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TED2012

Billy Collins: Everyday moments, caught in time

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Views 1,150,210

Combining dry wit with artistic depth, Billy Collins shares a project in which several of his poems were turned into delightful animated films in a collaboration with Sundance Channel. Five of them are included in this wonderfully entertaining and moving talk -- and don't miss the hilarious final poem!

- Poet
A two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins captures readers with his understated wit, profound insight -- and a sense of being "hospitable." Full bio

I'm here to give you
00:15
your recommended dietary allowance
00:17
of poetry.
00:19
And the way I'm going to do that
00:21
is present to you
00:23
five animations
00:25
of five of my poems.
00:27
And let me just tell you a little bit of how that came about.
00:29
Because the mixing of those two media
00:31
is a sort of unnatural or unnecessary act.
00:33
But when I was United States Poet Laureate --
00:36
and I love saying that.
00:40
(Laughter)
00:42
It's a great way to start sentences.
00:44
When I was him back then,
00:47
I was approached by J. Walter Thompson, the ad company,
00:50
and they were hired
00:53
sort of by the Sundance Channel.
00:55
And the idea was to have me record some of my poems
00:57
and then they would find animators
00:59
to animate them.
01:01
And I was initially resistant,
01:03
because I always think
01:05
poetry can stand alone by itself.
01:07
Attempts to put my poems to music
01:09
have had disastrous results,
01:12
in all cases.
01:14
And the poem, if it's written with the ear,
01:17
already has been set to its own verbal music
01:20
as it was composed.
01:23
And surely, if you're reading a poem
01:25
that mentions a cow,
01:27
you don't need on the facing page
01:29
a drawing of a cow.
01:31
I mean, let's let the reader do a little work.
01:33
But I relented because it seemed like an interesting possibility,
01:36
and also I'm like a total cartoon junkie
01:39
since childhood.
01:42
I think more influential
01:45
than Emily Dickinson or Coleridge or Wordsworth
01:47
on my imagination
01:50
were Warner Brothers, Merrie Melodies
01:52
and Loony Tunes cartoons.
01:54
Bugs Bunny is my muse.
01:57
And this way poetry could find its way onto television of all places.
02:01
And I'm pretty much all for poetry in public places --
02:05
poetry on buses, poetry on subways,
02:08
on billboards, on cereal boxes.
02:11
When I was Poet Laureate, there I go again --
02:15
I can't help it, it's true --
02:19
(Laughter)
02:22
I created a poetry channel on Delta Airlines
02:25
that lasted for a couple of years.
02:28
So you could tune into poetry as you were flying.
02:30
And my sense is,
02:33
it's a good thing to get poetry off the shelves
02:35
and more into public life.
02:38
Start a meeting with a poem. That would be an idea you might take with you.
02:40
When you get a poem on a billboard or on the radio
02:43
or on a cereal box or whatever,
02:46
it happens to you so suddenly
02:48
that you don't have time
02:50
to deploy your anti-poetry deflector shields
02:52
that were installed in high school.
02:56
So let us start with the first one.
03:01
It's a little poem called "Budapest,"
03:04
and in it I reveal,
03:07
or pretend to reveal,
03:09
the secrets of the creative process.
03:11
(Video) Narration: "Budapest."
03:16
My pen moves along the page
03:18
like the snout of a strange animal
03:21
shaped like a human arm
03:24
and dressed in the sleeve
03:26
of a loose green sweater.
03:28
I watch it sniffing the paper ceaselessly,
03:30
intent as any forager
03:33
that has nothing on its mind
03:36
but the grubs and insects
03:38
that will allow it to live another day.
03:41
It wants only to be here tomorrow,
03:44
dressed perhaps
03:47
in the sleeve of a plaid shirt,
03:49
nose pressed against the page,
03:51
writing a few more dutiful lines
03:53
while I gaze out the window
03:57
and imagine Budapest
03:59
or some other city
04:01
where I have never been.
04:03
BC: So that makes it seem a little easier.
04:07
(Applause)
04:10
Writing is not actually as easy as that for me.
04:12
But I like to pretend that it comes with ease.
04:16
One of my students came up after class, an introductory class,
04:21
and she said, "You know, poetry is harder than writing,"
04:24
which I found both erroneous and profound.
04:29
(Laughter)
04:32
So I like to at least pretend it just flows out.
04:35
A friend of mine has a slogan; he's another poet.
04:38
He says that, "If at first you don't succeed,
04:41
hide all evidence you ever tried."
04:44
(Laughter)
04:47
The next poem is also rather short.
04:49
Poetry just says a few things in different ways.
04:52
And I think you could boil this poem down to saying,
04:55
"Some days you eat the bear, other days the bear eats you."
04:58
And it uses the imagery
05:01
of dollhouse furniture.
05:03
(Video) Narration: "Some Days."
05:05
Some days
05:09
I put the people in their places at the table,
05:11
bend their legs at the knees,
05:14
if they come with that feature,
05:16
and fix them into the tiny wooden chairs.
05:18
All afternoon they face one another,
05:22
the man in the brown suit,
05:25
the woman in the blue dress --
05:27
perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved.
05:29
But other days I am the one
05:33
who is lifted up by the ribs
05:35
then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse
05:37
to sit with the others at the long table.
05:41
Very funny.
05:44
But how would you like it
05:46
if you never knew from one day to the next
05:48
if you were going to spend it
05:51
striding around like a vivid god,
05:53
your shoulders in the clouds,
05:56
or sitting down there
05:59
amidst the wallpaper
06:01
staring straight ahead
06:03
with your little plastic face?
06:05
(Applause)
06:11
BC: There's a horror movie in there somewhere.
06:16
The next poem is called forgetfulness,
06:19
and it's really just a kind of poetic essay
06:21
on the subject of mental slippage.
06:23
And the poem begins
06:27
with a certain species of forgetfulness
06:29
that someone called
06:32
literary amnesia,
06:34
in other words, forgetting the things that you have read.
06:36
(Video) Narration: "Forgetfulness."
06:43
The name of the author is the first to go,
06:45
followed obediently
06:48
by the title, the plot,
06:50
the heartbreaking conclusion,
06:52
the entire novel,
06:54
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
06:56
never even heard of.
06:59
It is as if, one by one,
07:01
the memories you used to harbor
07:03
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain
07:06
to a little fishing village
07:10
where there are no phones.
07:12
Long ago,
07:14
you kissed the names of the nine muses good-bye
07:16
and you watched the quadratic equation
07:19
pack its bag.
07:21
And even now,
07:23
as you memorize the order of the planets,
07:25
something else is slipping away,
07:27
a state flower perhaps,
07:29
the address of an uncle,
07:31
the capital of Paraguay.
07:33
Whatever it is
07:35
you are struggling to remember,
07:37
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
07:39
not even lurking
07:42
in some obscure corner
07:44
of your spleen.
07:46
It has floated away
07:48
down a dark mythological river
07:50
whose name begins with an L
07:53
as far as you can recall,
07:56
well on your own way to oblivion
07:58
where you will join those
08:01
who have forgotten even how to swim
08:03
and how to ride a bicycle.
08:05
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
08:08
to look up the date of a famous battle
08:11
in a book on war.
08:14
No wonder the Moon in the window
08:16
seems to have drifted out of a love poem
08:18
that you used to know by heart.
08:21
(Applause)
08:27
BC: The next poem is called "The Country"
08:35
and it's based on,
08:37
when I was in college
08:39
I met a classmate who remains to be a friend of mine.
08:41
He lived, and still does, in rural Vermont.
08:44
I lived in New York City.
08:46
And we would visit each other.
08:48
And when I would go up to the country,
08:50
he would teach me things like deer hunting,
08:52
which meant getting lost with a gun basically --
08:55
(Laughter)
08:58
and trout fishing and stuff like that.
09:00
And then he'd come down to New York City
09:02
and I'd teach him what I knew,
09:04
which was largely smoking and drinking.
09:06
(Laughter)
09:08
And in that way we traded lore with each other.
09:10
The poem that's coming up
09:13
is based on him trying to tell me a little something
09:15
about a domestic point of etiquette
09:18
in country living
09:20
that I had a very hard time, at first, processing.
09:22
It's called "The Country."
09:24
(Video) Narration: "The Country."
09:26
I wondered about you
09:29
when you told me never to leave
09:31
a box of wooden strike-anywhere matches
09:33
just lying around the house,
09:36
because the mice might get into them
09:39
and start a fire.
09:41
But your face was absolutely straight
09:43
when you twisted the lid down
09:46
on the round tin
09:48
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.
09:50
Who could sleep that night?
09:53
Who could whisk away the thought
09:55
of the one unlikely mouse
09:57
padding along a cold water pipe
10:00
behind the floral wallpaper,
10:03
gripping a single wooden match
10:05
between the needles of his teeth?
10:07
Who could not see him rounding a corner,
10:10
the blue tip scratching against rough-hewn beam,
10:13
the sudden flare
10:16
and the creature, for one bright, shining moment,
10:18
suddenly thrust ahead of his time --
10:22
now a fire-starter,
10:24
now a torch-bearer
10:26
in a forgotten ritual,
10:28
little brown druid
10:30
illuminating some ancient night?
10:32
And who could fail to notice,
10:34
lit up in the blazing insulation,
10:37
the tiny looks of wonderment
10:39
on the faces of his fellow mice --
10:41
one-time inhabitants
10:44
of what once was your house in the country?
10:46
(Applause)
10:50
BC: Thank you.
10:53
(Applause)
10:55
Thank you. And the last poem is called "The Dead."
10:57
I wrote this after a friend's funeral,
11:00
but not so much about the friend as something the eulogist kept saying,
11:02
as all eulogists tend to do,
11:04
which is how happy the deceased would be
11:06
to look down and see all of us assembled.
11:09
And that to me was a bad start to the afterlife,
11:11
having to witness your own funeral and feel gratified.
11:14
So the little poem is called "The Dead."
11:17
(Video) Narration: "The Dead."
11:21
The dead are always looking down on us,
11:23
they say.
11:26
While we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
11:28
they are looking down
11:31
through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
11:33
as they row themselves slowly
11:36
through eternity.
11:38
They watch the tops of our heads
11:40
moving below on Earth.
11:42
And when we lie down
11:44
in a field or on a couch,
11:46
drugged perhaps
11:48
by the hum of a warm afternoon,
11:50
they think we are looking back at them,
11:53
which makes them lift their oars
11:56
and fall silent
11:58
and wait like parents
12:00
for us to close our eyes.
12:03
(Applause)
12:08
BC: I'm not sure if other poems will be animated.
12:15
It took a long time --
12:17
I mean, it's rather uncommon to have this marriage --
12:19
a long time to put those two together.
12:22
But then again, it took us a long time
12:24
to put the wheel and the suitcase together.
12:26
(Laughter)
12:28
I mean, we had the wheel for some time.
12:31
And schlepping is an ancient and honorable art.
12:34
(Laughter)
12:37
I just have time
12:40
to read a more recent poem to you.
12:42
If it has a subject,
12:45
the subject is adolescence.
12:48
And it's addressed to a certain person.
12:50
It's called "To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl."
12:52
"Do you realize that if you had started building the Parthenon
12:58
on the day you were born,
13:01
you would be all done in only one more year?
13:03
Of course, you couldn't have done that all alone.
13:06
So never mind;
13:08
you're fine just being yourself.
13:10
You're loved for just being you.
13:12
But did you know that at your age
13:15
Judy Garland was pulling down 150,000 dollars a picture,
13:17
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory
13:22
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room --
13:26
no wait, I mean he had invented the calculator?
13:29
Of course, there will be time for all that
13:33
later in your life,
13:35
after you come out of your room
13:37
and begin to blossom,
13:39
or at least pick up all your socks.
13:41
For some reason I keep remembering
13:45
that Lady Jane Grey was queen of England
13:47
when she was only 15.
13:49
But then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.
13:52
(Laughter)
13:55
A few centuries later,
13:58
when he was your age,
14:00
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,
14:02
but that did not keep him
14:06
from composing two symphonies, four operas
14:08
and two complete masses as a youngster.
14:11
(Laughter)
14:14
But of course, that was in Austria
14:16
at the height of Romantic lyricism,
14:18
not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.
14:21
(Laughter)
14:23
Frankly, who cares
14:25
if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
14:27
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
14:30
We think you're special just being you --
14:34
playing with your food and staring into space.
14:37
(Laughter)
14:40
By the way,
14:43
I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
14:45
but that doesn't mean he never helped out around the house."
14:48
(Laughter)
14:51
(Applause)
14:53
Thank you. Thank you.
14:55
(Applause)
14:58
Thanks.
15:03
(Applause)
15:05

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About the speaker:

Billy Collins - Poet
A two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins captures readers with his understated wit, profound insight -- and a sense of being "hospitable."

Why you should listen

Accessibility is not a word often associated with great poetry. Yet Billy Collins has managed to create a legacy from what he calls being poetically “hospitable.” Preferring lyrical simplicity to abstruse intellectualism, Collins combines humility and depth of perception, undercutting light and digestible topics with dark and at times biting humor.

While Collins approaches his work with a healthy sense of self-deprecation, calling his poems “domestic” and “middle class,” John Taylor has said of Collins: “Rarely has anyone written poems that appear so transparent on the surface yet become so ambiguous, thought-provoking, or simply wise once the reader has peered into the depths.”

In 2001 he was named U.S. Poet Laureate, a title he kept until 2003. Collins lives in Somers, New York, and is an English professor at City University of New York, where he has taught for more than 40 years.

Credits for the animations in this talk:

"Budapest," "Forgetfulness" and "Some Days" -- animation by Julian Grey/Head Gear

"The Country" -- animation by Brady Baltezor/Radium

"The Dead" -- animation by Juan Delcan/Spontaneous
 

More profile about the speaker
Billy Collins | Speaker | TED.com