March 21 is the birthday of poet Billy Collins. He wrote his first poem at the age of seven when he was driving with his parents, looked out the window, and saw a sailboat on the East River. Billy Collins has now been publishing poetry for decades, but rose to fame with his collections in the 1990s. Readers seem to appreciate the wry humor Collins brings to his subjects. As Billy Collins himself puts it, “I am courteous to the reader”; his poetry has a conversational voice. For students, it does not feel like his work is aiming far over their heads, and yet his ideas provoke new thinking about everyday experiences, including the act of writing, and models how student writers can do the same.
Billy Collins was US Poet Laureate from 2001–2003. His signature project, Poetry 180, introduced accessible contemporary poetry to schools, allowing them to read a poem a day with students for the sheer joy of sharing powerful verse aloud. Collins wrote more about his vision for Poetry 180 here.
NCTE was proud to host a webinar with Billy Collins and the Library of Congress in 2021, “Teaching Poetry: Poetry 180 with Billy Collins.”
Want to hear more from Billy Collins? Watch his “Tips for Adding Elements of Your Life Into Your Poetry.”
“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins provides a wonderful place to begin a discussion on how readers approach a poem. Ask students to skim quickly through the poem and write their initial responses in their journals or on paper. What words and images stand out for them? What is their emotional reaction to the poem (e.g., surprise, dismay, anger)? Ask students to share their responses with the class. Then have students read the poem a second time, this time more slowly and carefully, taking note of any figurative language (e.g., simile, metaphor, hyperbole) they encounter. What do they think Collins is saying about the study of poetry? According to Collins, what is the real goal of reading poetry?
Ask students to think about a favorite poem and imagine the perfect way to read it. Where would they be when they read it? Would they read it fast or slow? Out loud or to themselves? Have them compose their own poem about reading poetry.
Billy Collins has been featured on both the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center’s blog, From the Catbird Seat, and on the Library’s main blog. Those blog posts are linked here.
Visit the NCTE Bookshop to view texts by Billy Collins. NCTE and local bookstores receive a commission for purchases made through this link.
Curious about the NCTE and Library of Congress connection? Through a grant announced by NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE is engaged in ongoing work with the Library of Congress, and “will connect the ELA community with the Library of Congress to expand the use of primary sources in teaching.” Stay tuned for more throughout the year!
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