Poems in motion: Billy Collins at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“I’m here to give you your recommended daily allowance of poetry.” So says Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States.

He tells the story of being approached by the Sundance Channel to record his poems and set them to animation. Attempts to set his poetry to music had failed in the past. But he found it an intriguing possibility. And on top of that, “Bugs Bunny is my muse,” so he loved the idea of animating them. So he did. He shows the TED audience five of these animations.


Budapest (above). A poem about writing poems, where he pretends to let the reader in to the process of writing. (Says Collins: “Writing is not as easy as that for me, but i like to pretend it comes with ease.”)

Some Days. About arranging people, or being the one arranged. It can be boiled down to, “Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.”

Forgetfulness. There is a certain kind of forgetfulness called literary amnesia, where you forget what you’ve read.

The Country: Collins, from New York City, had a friend from the country who would take him hunting, “getting lost with a gun, basically.” Collins would take him around New York City and, “Teach him what I knew, largely smoking and drinking. That way we traded lore with each other.”

The Dead: Inspired by something a preacher said in a funeral, that the deceased was looking down on the proceedings.”That to me is a bad start to the afterlife, having to watch your own funeral.”

Collins closes with a reading of a final poem, “To My Favorite Seventeen Year Old High School Girl,” a cranky love poem from a parent to a daughter, on the subject of accomplishment and cleaning one’s room.

The audience, clearly made of parents, or perhaps simply enamored of his way with words, rises to a standing ovation, even stamping their feet.