Poetry: Billy Collins & Media Literacy

Billy Collins is my favorite poet.  This is neither unique or of great, vast insight.  To deny Billy Collins is to deny the art of poetry, poet laureates and Poetry 180.  But part of what truly makes me love Billy Collins is his role in shaping popular culture when it comes to poetry.  Since this week’s posts examine poetry through the lens of media, Billy Collins is a worthy focus.  More than anything else he is a poet in the public eye.

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Collins is well-known.  See his You Tube highlights or any of his featured spots on A Prairie Home Companion if you don’t believe it.  But what makes him an appropriate topic for our focus this week on poetry and media literacy has to do with how we see his poetry “interpreted.”

Consider using the lesson below to supplement a poetry unit that already focuses on Billy Collins.  Or, use one of his pieces of poetry as a starting point, and after introducing his work, use this lesson to raise larger questions about poet, media and culture.


Begin giving students the words to Collins’ poem “Litany.”  Have the read and then mark.  Next, have them view Collins as he reads “Litany.”  Ask that they pay particular attention to how poetry is dependent upon the actual reading itself.

Billy Collins Reads “Litany” by FORAtv

Consider the following questions for classroom use:

  1. What significance is there to hearing Collins describe his writing process prior to hearing his reading?  List two implicit arguments identified within this background material.
  2. What is most noticeable about the way Collins reads?  How do pauses, tone and eye contact change the purpose of “Litany.”
  3. How does audience interaction enhance the meaning and purpose of the poem?
  4. What difference is there between the ways in which poetry is received versus fiction?  Explain how you come to this conclusion based on viewing this reading.

After having discussed the difference between poetry on the page and poetry read by its actual author, have students examine the viral video of 3-year old Samuel Chelpka reciting from memory “Litany.” Far more popular than Collins reading his own poetry, Chelpka is a perfect way to discuss Collins via another lens.  You may even consider having students read or listen to the NPR story where Collins meets Chelpka.

Consider the following questions for classroom use:

  1. How does the “speaker” change the actual tone and outcome of the poem?
  2. What difference does it make that this speaker is three years old?  How is what you notice changed by the actual delivery?
  3. Discuss the nature of this being a “viral” video that is about poetry.  How is it different? Is it more important since it’s focused on poetry?
  4. Construct an argument about performance and poetry based on both readings of “Litany.”

In essence you’ve asked them to use video as a means to construct argumentation about speaker, tone and purpose.  Perhaps you’ve had them discuss/write on the impact of performance upon an audience.  As a result some of the same things that they complete when they SOAPSTone a text is accomplished.

Another way to accomplish the same end is via Billy Collins latest TED Talk from February of 2012.  In it, he highlights five of his own poems that the Sundance Channel animated.  While you might have students watch this video in its entirety consider using it to compare speaker, tone, and purpose just the same as above.  The easiest way is to compare Collins reading his poetry for Sundance versus his public readings available on Sundance.  Below is an example of how to use one animated poem from Collins’ TED talk in just such a comparison.


First, begin by giving students the text of “Forgetfulness.” Have them read and mark.  Next, have them view Collins reading the poem in 2008 at the Dodge Poetry Festival.  The reading is quintessential Collins.  This time, instead of giving them the questions, ask that they create their own essential questions as they view the video.

Billy Collins in 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival from “Forgetfulness” (from 3:50-6:02)

  1. As you view the video, construct a series of “essential questions.”  The example from earlier in class (above) should be models as to what form essential questions should take.  Think big picture. 

Have students pose their essential questions.  Perhaps even have them construct them by texting them while watching the video to Today’s Meet.  If you do this, you will need to construct a “room” in advance.  Use the best essential questions from your class to guide class discussion/writing about the actual video itself.

Next, ask student to view the animated version of “Forgetfulness” from the Sundance Channel.

Once again, ask that students construct their own essential questions but this time have them focus on questions that highlight comparisons and contrasts between the two readings.  Choose the best.  You may even ask, post discussion, that they construct their own writing prompt based on these two videos as “texts.”


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