Billy Collins on Writing Poetry No One Sees

Julia King has a question. She wants to know
how many poems you write that are never published or seen publicly, and when you’re working
on writing a poem, are you thinking ahead to it being published and reaching the audience
or are those sort of separate? Well, I’m thinking ahead in that I want to
make it a good poem. I mean, that’s the whole point. When I revise or when I’m just writing the
first draft and other drafts, I’m trying to make it sounds good, I’m trying to make it
look good, I’m trying to make the progression of thoughts interesting, and not just a thought
that plummets to the bottom of the page, but takes interesting turns here and there. The result of that, if it’s good, it will
get published probably and even sell, but I’m not thinking so far ahead, I just want
to make a good thing, and I tell a lot of students that. I say, you know you can begin by expressing
yourself but if you mature as a poet, you no longer think, “I’m expressing myself.” What you’re doing is making something for
a reader, you’re making it. You’re making it out of lines, and stanzas,
basically those that are kind of — well, you have the sentence, the line and the stanza,
and those are really the three units of expression. And you’re trying to make all of those good —
good lines, good stanzas, good sentences, And that tends to be a reader-pleasing combination, And the first part of the question was something else. How many poems do you have that never get
published or seen publicly? Usually I know enough not to finish those —
the ones that are — they announce themselves as failures early on, four or five or six
lines or something in. They’re just not cooperating with me, they’re
not showing any signs of wanting to go anywhere, or it was just a bad idea to start with, you know? Like you just invited the wrong person to
the party. But it’s too late. But in the case of writing a poem, you know,
the waste basket is full of — the waste basket, the writer’s best friend,
is full of mostly like false starts. When I was a younger poet I would do what
Frost said you can’t do, that is just fret a poem into being, in his words. To worry a poem into being, just “Damn it,
I’m going to make this better by just — and the hours I put in will pay off,” and I gave
up on that a long time ago. So, if the poem isn’t working, if it isn’t
feel right, I don’t really — I just let it go, and get on with the next thing. Which, could be writing another poem
or making more toast. Often, if I’m writing for a while and I’m writing
a failure, maybe another failure and writing some notes towards a third failure or whatever,
a poem will come. Often a little poem, a six or eight line poem,
and it has nothing to do with what I’ve written, but it would not have occurred
had I not been failing. You know, just getting involved with the language
and having a number of failures often gives rise to, quite suddenly, to an unexpected little

7 Replies to “Billy Collins on Writing Poetry No One Sees

  1. I have just completed his poetry masterclass. A lot of what he taught I already knew, from other classes, and I knew naturally. I have 5 poems that have been selected for print publication, in a magazine.

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