Billy Collins on poetry, obscurity and not being difficult enough

Billy Collins

“I have spoken a lot about wilful obscurity in poetry – where the poet is hiding behind language, using it as camouflage – and I don’t have much tolerance for that kind of poetry,”
Billy Collins

It’s why I love Billy Collins.

In writing picture books you can be generous or self-indulgent. If you’re showing off your fabulous writing (or whatever it is you do) and want everyone to notice how clever you are–then one thing is clear. The last person you’re thinking of is the reader, or the child.

In his poem On Poetry he writes:

“all they want to do is tie/ the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it./ They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”

It’s like when people ask “what is the lesson in your picture book? what is the moral?” If you read a story to a child and then shut the book and say “Well, children, what that is about is…” You have just killed the story. How? You have turned the story into a lecture.

Critics have criticized (because, I suppose, that’s what they do) Billy Collins’ poetry for lacking in complexity. Here’s his response:

“I have been accused of being underconceptualised, ie, some critics seem to think my poems are not difficult enough, as if to be popular is to be a failure somehow, as if accessibility is a dirty word. But it is the job of the critic, not the poet, to be difficult and they can provide the problems if they find insufficiency in the poems. I don’t mind. I am more concerned with my readers.”

“I dont mind. I am more concerned with my readers.”

Wise words to live by. In whatever you do. For me it’s a reminder: my readers don’t read reviews. My job is not to please the critics.

It’s to get out of the way and tell a story the best way I know how. It’s to serve the reader. And the story.

What does that look like for you in your line of work? How do you get out of the way? How do you serve?

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