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A poem a day for students
U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is on a mission. One of America's most admired poets in his own right, Collins wants to make poetry part of everyday life, in particular the lives of high school students. After being named poet laureate in 2001, Collins launched a program known as "Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools." The program encourages high school teachers and administrators to read a poem each day as part of their school's announcements. In conjunction with this program, Collins has compiled a collection of contemporary poems in a new paperback, Poetry 180. BookPage recently asked Collins about the Poetry 180 program and the value of poetry in our daily lives:
BookPage: What response have you received from teachers and students to the Poetry 180 program?
Billy Collins: The response has exceeded my wildest expectations. The Poetry 180 website (www.loc.gov/poetry/180) gets over a million hits every month. In travelling around the country, I have been approached by hundreds of high school teachers and students who are using the program and loving it. I had a feeling the news would spread by word of mouthespecially at teachers' conferencesbut I did not foresee the program being so well received. The website now has a guestbook to help us keep track of participating schools. Some schools do a poem a day, others just a poem a week. One high school class designed poetry t-shirts and displayed them in an art gallery.
What do you hope high school students will gain from having a poem read to them each day?
Hearing a poem every day at the end of the public announcements might convince students that poetry can be a vital part of everyday life in addition to being a subject for classroom study. I have strongly discouraged teachers from "teaching" these poems. For students who are attuned to poetry, Poetry 180 will bring a chorus of new voices; for students resistant to poetry, the poems are like bait.
The poems in this collection are all contemporary. Why?
Some high school teachers keep up with the contemporary scene, but most are using textbooks and anthologies that trail behind the times. Eliot's "Prufrock" is still taught as a "modern" poem even though it was written over 80 years ago. Poetry 180 is meant to expose studentsand teachersto the most recent voices in American poetry. I wanted to convey a sense that poetry is written by the living as well as the dead, who usually get all the attention.
What other books would you recommend to interest teenagers in poetry?
There are other good anthologies like Garrison Keillor's Good Poems, but I would suggest that students who are struck by a particular poem should look further into that poet, get a collection and read that. The poems in Poetry 180 are meant as doorways into the house of poetry.
What response do you have for students (and adults) who say they don't like poetry and don't want to read it?
I would say read 10 poems in Poetry 180 and if none of them strikes you, go skateboarding. Maybe it's just not time for poetry in your life.