February 13, 2022 12:32 PM

A Morning with Billy Collins

It's been a while since I read a non-technical article and made as many notes as I did this morning on this Paris Review interview with Billy Collins. Collins was poet laureate of the U.S. in the early 2000s. I recall reading his collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room, at PLoP in 2002 or 2003. Walking the grounds at Allerton with a poem in your mind changes one's eyes and hears. Had I been blogging by then, I probably would have commented on the experience, and maybe one or two of the poems, in a post.

As I read this interview, I encountered a dozen or so passages that made me think about things I do, things I've thought, and even things I've never thought. Here are a few.

I'd like to get something straightened out at the beginning: I write with a Uni-Ball Onyx Micropoint on nine-by-seven bound notebooks made by a Canadian company called Blueline. After I do a few drafts, I type up the poem on a Macintosh G3 and then send it out the door.

Uni-Ball Micropoint pens are my preferred writing implement as well, though I don't write enough on paper any more to make buying a particular pen much worth the effort. Unfortunately, just yesterday my last Uni-Ball Micro wrote its last line. Will I order more? It's a race between preference and sloth.

I type up most of the things I write these days on a 2015-era MacBook Pro, often connected to a Magic Keyboard. With the advent of the M1 MacBook Pros, I'm tempted to buy a new laptop, but this one serves me so well... I am nothing if not loyal.

The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you're simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You're trying to discover something that you don't know exists, maybe something of value.

Programming may be like writing in many ways, but the search for something to say isn't usually one of them. Most of us sit down to write a program to do something, not to discover some unexpected outcome. However, while I may know what my program will do when I get done, I don't always know what that program will look like, or how it will accomplish its task. This state of uncertainty probably accounts for my preference in programming languages over the years. Smalltalk, Ruby, and Racket have always felt more like flashlights or Geiger counters than tape recorders. They help me find the program I need more readily than Java or C or Python.

I love William Matthews's idea--he says that revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party!

Refactoring is not cleaning up after the party; refactoring is the party! Yes.

... nothing precedes a poem but silence, and nothing follows a poem but silence. A poem is an interruption of silence, whereas prose is a continuation of noise.

I don't know why this passage grabbed me. Perhaps it's just the imagery of the phrases "interruption of silence" and "continuation of noise". I won't be surprised if my subconscious connects this to programming somehow, but I ought to be suspicious of the imposition. Our brains love to make connections.

She's this girl in high school who broke my heart, and I'm hoping that she'll read my poems one day and feel bad about what she did.

This is the sort of sentence I'm a sucker for, but it has no real connection to my life. Though high school was a weird and wonderful time for me, as it was for so many, I don't think anything I've ever done since has been motivated in this way. Collins actually goes on to say the same thing about his own work. Readers are people with no vested interest. We have to engage them.

Another example of that is my interest in bridge columns. I don't play bridge. I have no idea how to play bridge, but I always read Alan Truscott's bridge column in the Times. I advise students to do the same unless, of course, they play bridge. You find language like, South won with dummy's ace, cashed the club ace and ruffed a diamond. There's always drama to it: Her thirteen imps failed by a trick. There's obviously lots at stake, but I have no idea what he's talking about. It's pure language. It's a jargon I'm exterior to, and I love reading it because I don't know what the context is, and I'm just enjoying the language and the drama, almost like when you hear two people arguing through a wall, and the wall is thick enough so you can't make out what they're saying, though you can follow the tone.

I feel seen. Back when we took the local daily paper, I always read the bridge column by Charles Goren, which ran on the page with the crossword, crypto cipher, and other puzzles. I've never played bridge; most of what I know about the game comes from reading Matthew Ginsberg's papers about building AI programs to bid and play. Like Collins, I think I was merely enjoying sound of the language, a jargon that sounds serious and silly at the same time.

Yeats summarizes this whole thing in "Adam's Curse" when he writes: "A line will take us hours maybe, / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught."

I'm not a poet, and my unit of writing is rarely the line, but I know a feeling something like this in writing lecture notes for my students. Most of the worst writing consists of paragraphs and sections I have not spent enough time on. Most of the best sounds natural, a clean distillation of deep understanding. But those paragraphs and sections are the result of years of evolution. That's the time scale on which some of my courses grow, because no course ever gets my full attention in any semester.

When I finish a set of notes, I usually feel like the stitching and unstitching have not yet reached their desired end. Some of the text "seems a moment's thought", but much is still uneven or awkward. Whatever the state of the notes, though, I have move on to the next task: grading a homework assignment, preparing the next class session, or -- worst of all -- performing the administrivia that props up the modern university. More evolution awaits.


This was a good read for a Sunday morning on the exercise bike, well recommended. The line on revision alone was worth the time; I expect it will be a stock tool in my arsenal for years to come.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal, Software Development, Teaching and Learning