The first time I saw Billy Collins speak, he appeared at my college convocation, toward the end of his years as United States Poet Laureate. Now, the second time I’ve seen Billy Collins speak, he appears giving this TEDTalk, “Everyday Moments, Caught in Time,” in which he makes fun of his own tendency to mention his years as United States Poet Laureate. But he mostly uses his fifteen minutes onstage in Long Beach in front of TED’s swooping cameras to talk about how the Sundance Channel animated five of his poems. A booster of poetry “off the shelf” and into public places — subways, billboards, cereal boxes — he figured that even such an “unnatural and unnecessary” merger could further the cause of eluding humanity’s “anti-poetry deflector shields that were installed in high school.”
Collins also notes that the idea for the project stirred the embers of his “cartoon junkie” childhood, when Bugs Bunny was his muse. Stylistically, however, the producers at the Sundance Channel kept quite far indeed from the Merrie Melodies. These animated poems opt instead for an aesthetic that takes pieces of visual reality and repurposes them in ways we don’t expect: look at the real arm slithering across the pages in the first poem, the tangible-looking dolls and doll environments of the second poem, or the drifting photographic cutouts of the third. Not to get too grand about it, but isn’t this what poetry itself is supposed to do? Don’t the words themselves also cut out fragments of actual existence and position them, recontextualize them, and move them around in ways that surprise us? The substance of these shorts — fountain pens, figurines, car keys, paper boats, matchsticks, mice — may seem like the last word in mundanity, but perceived through the differently “real” lenses of Collins’ poetry and this unusual animation, they inspire curiosity again.