Billy Collins: America's Poet

Poet Laureate Gets Rich Writing Poetry

Becoming a poet in America virtually condemns one to a life of anonymity and, even worse, to a life of poverty.

There are exceptions. Walt Whitman was well known during his lifetime. And, of course, Robert Frost was one of the most popular poets ever to grace the language.

But they were the exceptions. And now, you're about to meet that truly rare creature - a poet who's not only becoming famous, he's also getting rich, just by writing poetry. Correspondent Charlie Rose reports.

The turnout is big on the campus of UCLA. You'd think a rock star was performing. But it's not a rock star, it's a poet. America's Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

"Poet is a hard thing to call yourself, because it's such an honorific term," says Collins. "People tend to roll their eyes and you get a very odd range of reactions."

But being poet laureate has given Collins respectability. It's the highest honor an American poet can achieve. The laureate is appointed by the Library of Congress, serves for at least one year, and gets an office in Washington plus a yearly stipend of $35,000. The poet laureate is the public face of poetry, a kind of roving ambassador with a poetry portfolio.

The title has contributed to Collins' incredible success. He's the most popular American poet since Robert Frost. And no poet draws bigger crowds, gets larger advances, or sells more books than Billy Collins. Usually, poets go home happy if they to sell a few thousand copies.

Where did all the success come from? "

"On some level, I don't take it very seriously. It's a little like it takes place on a kind of theatrical dream-come-true level," says Collins. "But you don't want to really believe in it because it'll go away. And it has nothing to do with the poetry, really."

While so much contemporary poetry is incomprehensible, Collins' poems invite you in and make you comfortable.

"I think Billy Collins has wit with a capital "W," says Liam Rector, a poetry critic who has written about Collins' work.

"There's a smartness, there's a cheekiness, there's a wiseass, wise guy-dom about Billy Collins that I think people respond to … And he's not snobbish, and I think people respond to that, too."

In fact, after spending time with Collins at his home in New York's Westchester County, 60 Minutes II discovered that the nation's most popular poet is also its most humble.

"I think of myself as probably a tier-two or -three poet. I don't think my popularity changes that," says Collins. "I don't think I'm anywhere near as good a poet as 50 poets I could name."

Billy Collins grew up an only child in the New York borough of Queens, alive to the big city rhythms of trolley cars and jackhammers. His father sold insurance. His mother was a nurse who sparked his poetic sensibility.

"I listened to my mother singing and reciting poetry. I was always attracted to the way two words could be put together and make sparks," says Collins. "I was always a little hypnotized by literature and my heroes were always authors, not sports figures."

Poets like Wordworth, Coleridge, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.

"I was like a suburban Beatnik who wanted to steal a car and drive to Denver but had a quiz the next morning at this Catholic high school, so I didn't have the time to do that," says Collins, who ended up earning a Ph.D. in literature and has been teaching for nearly 30 years – all the while writing poetry.

He says, however, that he's never written the perfect poem. But there's one, "On Turning Ten," that comes the closest to being perfect.

The whole idea of it makes me feel
Like I'm coming down with something.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
But that is because you have forgotten
The perfect simplicity of being one
And the beautiful complexity introduced by two.

"I wrote this as a comic satire on the habit of poets to take themselves very seriously on their birthdays when those birthdays can be divided by ten," says Collins.

"There are a lot of poems written about being 30 and 40 and 50. And I thought let's have fun with this and write a poem about turning ten."

At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
By drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

"But as I wrote the poem, the poem kind of got away from me," adds Collins. "And I started to get into the kind of seriousness of this young 10- year-old dealing with mortality for the first time."

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
There was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Collins' poems are characterized by their clarity and their extraordinary ordinariness.

"There's mystery in the ordinary. I think that's where mystery lies," says Collins. "I want to start with some ordinary experience around me and use that as a gate of departure."

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
Where my parents are buried
Side by side under a smooth slab of granite.

"And then I want to just progress from there to some point where things are much more ambiguous," adds Collins. "Much more mysterious, much less nailed down."

Then, all day long, I think of him rising up
To give me that look
Of knowing disapproval
While my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

Collins' term as poet laureate is nearing an end. Soon, he'll be a private person again, with more time on his hands. He'll miss the huge audiences, the rapt attention, the easy laughter. But that's not what he needs to write.

"What I need to write is boredom," says Collins. "I need stretches of inactivity, of doing nothing in order for the poem to get generated. I think boredom is like the mother of creativity."

More so than pain or suffering?

"More so than psychic trauma and suffering and pain. Boredom is my muse. So I'm being poet laureate and being a popular poet has cut into my boredom," says Collins. "I want my boredom back."