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Former Poets Laureate Battle for Pop Culture Supremacy

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Billy Collins
In this corner: Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins

On Tuesday Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins achieved a type of immortality that has eluded all but a handful of poets: he appeared on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. In addition to discussing his new book, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, Collins talked about his time as Poet Laureate, describing how one becomes Poet Laureate (“you get a call from the Librarian of Congress”), what the Poet Laureate’s job is (“you don’t have to write…occasional poems” like the British Poet Laureate), and his “cool office” up in the “attic” of the Jefferson  Building. We agree with Billy that it’s a “nice attic.”

Robert Pinsky
In this corner: Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky

When it comes to being the poetry’s media darling, however, Collins still has some work to do to catch up to another former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky. Pinsky has appeared twice on The Colbert Report, once to gift high school boys with his poem “Promvitation,” a “promposal”  guaranteed to get them a date to the prom,  and once to judge the classic Meta-Free-Phor-All between Stephen Colbert and Sean Penn. And unlike his predecessor, Pinsky’s pop culture laurels extend to an appearance in an episode of The Simpsons. We don’t agree with Stephen Colbert that compared to speaking with three-term Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky he was “slumming” by speaking to merely two-term Poet Laureate Billy Collins, but Billy clearly needs to step up his game to achieve Pinsky’s pop culture success. His appearance on The Colbert Report was a great start.

Comments (6)

  1. First, anywhere poets and poetry can be given “airtime” is worthy of celebration.

    Second, yesterday my students stared back at me like goldfish when I referenced Marlon Brando. Today this post rejuvenates. At 67 I thought I had lost touch with pop culture — so many bands, so little time — but if Collins and Pinsky swim in the pop culture pool, I feel so much better.

  2. I recently saw Billy Collins in Concord, NH and was mesmerized by his poignancy and humor.

  3. Peter,
    You have turned into a reviewer, as opposed to a researcher, and this new approach becomes you!

  4. I think I might be at the far, far end of the opinion spectrum on this, but when poets are “battling” to be part of pop culture, the fully surreal has kicked in. I think of poets as the last bastion of those who pull us back to the the rich, deep mortal reality of our fragile, beautiful, human lives. What does it mean that they are brokering in commercialism, fame and status? I wonder what Emily Dickinson would have done on Colbert? Faint? Plead to be left alone? And it’s not that I don’t appreciate, somehow, the audience that might meet the poems of Collins and Pinsky no other way than this. It’s nice of Colbert. But I guess it’s true, nothing is sacred unless we make it so, and we seem to keep nothing sacred.

  5. Let’s set the record straight. Billy Collins was first asked to judge the Meta-Free-For-All, but was previously engaged with a poetry gig. Then Pinsky was asked and he was able to accept.

    Billy Collins was also asked, in 2008 or 2009, to appear on “The Daily Show with John Stewart,” but had a full dance card then, too.

    Maybe Pinsky just has more time on his hands.

    But he doesn’t have a Ted Talk to his credit. Billy Collins has two. And Collins has been on an episode of “Martha Speaks,” spreading poetry to children.

    Before the first aired “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Colbert had a week of warm-up shows that weren’t aired. Billy Collins was a guest on the first night.

    And have you ever seen Pinsky interview a Beatle? No, but you can Google “Billy Collins Paul McCartney” and watch that interview on YouTube.

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