I disagree with Billy Collins

After the Year of Poetry project, I find I have to disagree with Billy Collins (at least in part).  Over at Harriet - The Poetry Foundation blog, he's reported to have answered a fan who asked the question:

How would someone who wants to become a poet get started?”


Reading, Collins answered — lots and lots of reading. He cited Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 hours” benchmark as a good standard.

Now this I agree with(the reading), the 10,000 hours is a bit much though.  I have done about 84 hours of Close Reading this year comprised of about 67-68 poems. I read probably 5 times as many poems last year and it didn't have anywhere near as much effect on my writing.  I also followed my interests or poems that sparked my interest.

So reading yes, but more attentive reading-  as much as you can manage while writing at the same time.  If you restrict yourself to reading for 10,000 hours before you write, you'll kill the spark. Besides half the fun is getting things wrong, making mistakes and fixing them.

“It’s such dull advice. There’s no key to it,” he said. “It really lies in the simple act of reading tons of poetry. And I mean not just stuff you find in magazines but if you really want to be trained in poetry you need to read Milton — you need to read Paradise Lost. You need to read Wordsworth — you need to read Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude.'”
I begin to think that Collins is attempting to kill off the competition here(which he probably isn't). This comes across to me as having to read "The Canon"  which I think will have the same effect as having to read for 10,000 hours.

I'd encourage reading Milton and Wordsworth, but more so as part of an anthologised and annotated collection - Frances Mayes' The Discovery of Poetry - A field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems does a good job of providing an historical context as well as choosing poems from across the wide field of history to illustrate points/techniques.

“That’s if you want to take it seriously. If you don’t want to take it seriously, you can just get a 79-cent pen and express yourself,” he laughed. “No one’s gonna read it with any pleasure because … you haven’t paid attention to what happened in the past.”

If you want to take Poetry seriously, you have to love and enjoy it. Hence my preference for following your interests. In the long run you have to love the act itself because the praise is generally small and fleeting.

So my advice:

  • Read the poetry that sparks an interest in you, these poets and poems will lead on to others.
  • Read the work closely - this is the real joy of a good poem, finding small condensed poem bombs that explode with imagery, meaning and sound.
  • Write. Write bad poetry until it becomes less bad, work out why it doesn't work, listen to your own words.
  • Study, anything written about poetry by poets in the last 3000 years,  generally these folks are good at condensing the important information.
  • Read, write, study at the same time, not simultaneously but you shouldn't wait until you have read 68 poems before you start writing.  These activities will set off chain reactions in one another that will lead to more of each.
  • Start doing it all today - now even.


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