The poem begins with the routine event of chopping parsley, a serious and yet absurd musing on a nursery rhyme known to all — three blind mice — and quickly spins into a quiet meditation on the sneaking cynicism that prevents us from feeling, and then, in shame, makes us feel all the more.
It is Billy Collins’s poem, I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of Three Blind Mice, that forces this revelation. And more of this slicing self-awareness was on display as he spoke from a sunlit living room at the Point Way Inn in Edgartown.
Mr. Collins had arrived on the Island, as he does every two years or so, to do a reading as part of the Summer Poetry Series at Featherstone Center for the Arts. “They seem to have me up here every two years, which is just enough time for them to forget me, and then they have me back as a reminder. The pressure is on for me to come up with a poem every two years for the people on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said, the day before his reading was to take place.
Despite our forgetfulness, he finds that the Vineyard boasts an especially receptive audience: “It’s an intelligent, well-read audience, and since I’m so intelligent and well-read, we get along.
“Well,” he added, “you know, that’s going to sound really bad in your article. After every quote, you should add, ‘He said with a modest chuckle,’ or, ‘He said handsomely,’” he said handsomely, with a modest chuckle.
He is modest, or at least self-deprecating, almost to a fault. For a man who has written 13 poetry collections, edited three anthologies of poetry, served as Poet Laureate of the United States, and of whose poems John Updike wrote, “They describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides,” modesty might come as a surprise.
But that would be misconception on the reader’s part, Mr. Collins said.
“The reader mistakes the author sitting there with another person who wrote all the works. The author doesn’t think of himself as having written all those works. He thinks of himself as a person who’s trying to figure out what to write next.
“I’m not the sum of what I’ve written,” he said. That mentality, which may seem a disappointment to the reader, is how the artist fosters the continuous compulsion to create.
“I have a complete lack of affection for whatever I’ve written,” Mr. Collins said. “If I look back at my work, I don’t remember writing the poems I read. I don’t remember where I was, or what I was feeling. I have very little control over those feelings. The only thing I think is, How did I do that? I’ll never be able to do that again. Where is that poet now? Where has he fled?”
Mr. Collins seems to be able to keep tracking him down, that elusive poet, turning that anxiety into work that is cherished by a national audience.
While many writers lament the lack of interest in contemporary poetry, Mr. Collins remains unconstrained by that pessimism.
“Poetry is not really for everybody, and I’m not disturbed that everyone doesn’t read poetry,” he said. “Selfishly, I’m surprised that a large number of people read my poetry. It distracts me from the small number of people reading American poetry.”
Much of his ability to reach a broad audience comes from a balance of the scholarly and the pragmatic. In this balance lies his understanding of how to communicate a feeling that extends beyond his own immediate experience.
“Poetry does offer the opportunity of getting readers and strangers interested in and captivated by your internal life,” he said. “And the way to do that is through the imposition of form. That becomes literary pleasure — if you give me literary pleasure, I’ll be interested in that fishing trip you took with your uncle 10 years ago. Otherwise, I’m not that engrossed by it.”
Of course, there are times when poetry is inescapably engrossing; when it is the only form that seems to hold all the answers, perfectly capturing how we feel; when it can connect us to our immediate surroundings and ages long since past.
“Poetry connects us with a historical community of feeling,” Mr. Collins said. “You can read a poem by Dylan Thomas that matches exactly how you feel, or a 17th century English poem and feel the same way. It reminds us that we aren’t alone. It connects us to the bedrock of being human, reiterating that basic spectrum of human emotion.”
The natural world often serves as the basis of this connection, of one age to another. Whether delicate wonderment at the natural world, or complete submergence in its vast power, nature’s images, sounds and smells last.
“In the poem Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold is listening to the water of the English Channel, and he says, ‘Sophocles long ago / Heard it on the Aegean.’
“If you stand on the shore of Martha’s Vineyard, that sound of water lapping, Joan of Arc and Benjamin Franklin, they heard that too. Those are the natural sounds that bind us together,” Mr. Collins said. “That’s probably why poetry has always relied on natural imagery to tie us to together.”
For him, this service poetry provides was made especially evident during his time as Poet Laureate.
“I was made Poet Laureate right before 9/11 — and the spotlight then was even more glaring, because people turned to poetry in that time. In times of great emotional stress, poetry formalizes a moment of great emotional intensity.
“Rhyme and meter,” he said, “those are stabilizing forces. ”
Even that honor and duty — to raise the consciousness of a nation to the higher calling of verse, to comfort them with rhyme and meter — is a source of self-deprecation for Mr. Collins.
“The laureateship here goes so fast,” he said. “It’s always a mad scramble to find someone. I always think, if you’re a fairly decent poet and you stay healthy and take your vitamins, you’ll be Poet Laureate. And the one thing you’ll learn is how to make the term plural: It’s Poets Laureate.”
But poetry itself teaches other lessons. As the oldest recorded form of storytelling, spanning from Homer to Kanye West, it is central to the human story. “You can carry a poem in your head, and well, I guess you can carry a tune in your head, but if you have a bad voice, no one is going to want to hear it. You can’t carry a painting or a building in your head.
“As a historical note, that accounts for why the Irish are so attached to poetry,” Mr. Collins explained. “It’s not because they have the gift of the gab, but for 600 years, poetry was all they had. They didn’t have concerts or opera, and no architecture to speak of, except some cottages, and no tradition of painting. There was no renaissance in Ireland, and that’s because of the British. But they realized that with poetry, no one can take it away from you.”
And, in his experience, both as a poet and a teacher of poetry, it never leaves.
“A few years ago, I had an old student of mine come up to me on the subway. He had become an oncologist, and he came and sat next to me and recited an Emily Dickinson poem that he’d memorized 15 years earlier.
“And, just like that, the crowning moment of my teaching career took place on a subway train,” he said, with a handsome, modest and lyrical laugh.