Even if you’ve never heard of another contemporary living poet, you’ve probably heard of Billy Collins. Sure, there are the accolades — he was the U.S. poet laureate for three years and more than a million copies of his books are in print — but Collins wouldn’t have taken hold of the public consciousness if his poems weren’t such charming creations — accessible, clear and perfect meditations on the American existence.
In the press notes for “Horoscopes for the Dead” they call you a phenomenon. Twice. Why is it such a miracle that a poet can be popular and actually sell books?
Well, that’s a big question. It certainly has to do with competition these days compared to the 19th century. Poetry was a very common part of education. Once, to be truly educated, you’d have to write a few sonnets. And now poetry has been marginalized through the allure of other media that are a little more glamorous. And I guess the other reason is because of high school.
If your first introduction to poetry is something that is 200 or 400 years old, you are trying to digest something that is written in almost a different language. You can see how that would cause great anxiety. I think poetry should be taught backwards. Give them some contemporary poems they can catch on the first bounce — seduce them that way and then move backwards to more demanding poems.
“Horoscopes for the Dead,” like the title suggests, is a meditation on life and mortality. Were you ever worried that it would be seen as too morbid?
[Laughs] When I write, I never think, “OK, people, let’s get some more death poems out there.” All of my books have the shadow of mortality falling across the page. It’s really more of a following of a convention in lyrical poetry, where poetry is obsessed with mortality. It’s not any personal obsession. If you go to a restaurant and sit down and touch the beautiful flowers and you find out they’re silk, they really aren’t that beautiful anymore, right? That’s because they aren’t dying. Life gives their beauty an intensity; it’s the same with human life. And with poetry, life is seen through the lens of death.
Follow Dorothy Robinson on Twitter at @DorothyatMetro.