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