Billy Collins started a program called “Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools” when he was United States Poet Laureate in 2001. A website was created, and relatively short, accessible poems by recent (mostly living) poets were posted. High schools were urged to read a poem a day over their public address systems to promote poetry reading as an every day event.
In his introduction to the companion book Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, he says that he chose to work with high schools because that was “the place where poetry goes to die.” He saw right away the pain students suffered trying to read Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, whose poems were still being presented by many textbooks as “modern” poetry more than fifty years after publication. The problem with poetry of the 1930s and 1940s, Collins says, is that difficulty and obscurity were considered virtues by the intellectuals who dominated the publishing of the time. Readers turned to novels for their pleasure and poetry lost much of its following.
Collins chose to start the collection with one of his own poems to address the need for poetry education reform. “Introduction to Poetry” ends with the following lines:
But all they wanted to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I am currently reading Poetry 180 for a second time, preparing for a book club discussion later in the month. I suspect we will have a lot of fun pointing out our favorite works from the collection. I particularly like the poems that tell humorous stories, such as “Mrs. Midas” by Carol Ann Duffy, in which the wife of the king tries to cope with her husband’s turning everything to gold. Not all of the poems are funny. “The Cord” by Leanne O’Sullivan, “I’m a Fool to Love You” by Cornelius Eady, and “Wheels” by Jim Daniels tell stories of teenage uncertainty, dysfunctional parents, and the death of siblings. I think there will be much to discuss.
While this book seems to be stocked by all the major book chains, many public libraries seem to be missing the boat. I see it is in only eleven of the approximately eighty libraries in the SWAN database of the Metropolitan Library System. It is an inexpensive volume collecting many of today’s best poets. Every library should have it.
By the way, the titles on the website change. Go there for new poems.
Poetry 180 : a Turning Back to Poetry. New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, c2003. ISBN 0812968875
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