Poetry Deal Breakers

A response from Billy Collins to the question, Could you say a little about the deal breakers that keep you from reading a poem?

"Well, the word cicada. I won’t tolerate that. I’m just sick of them. So if I’m reading a poem and I come across the word cicada, I stop. Deal breaker. That’s it. I mean, that’s one easy one to answer.

I guess other poems that I tend not to finish are poems that exhibit a kind of presumptuousness in that the first couple of lines, I feel like I’m suddenly in an ambulance with someone and he or she is being taken to the psychiatric ward and is telling me about some inner psychic terror that their suffering from without having really introduced themselves. And that seems to be a form of kind of psychological bad manners.

I appreciate poems that are clear and then mysterious. I think poems that work for me are poems in which a writer really appreciates and understands the difference between what to be clear about and what to be mysterious about. So what cards to turn over and what cards to leave face down. And if you leave all the cards face down—I mean some poems read that way to me—there’s really no game. It’s just kind of fifty-two bits of obscurity. And if you turn them all over, it’s just too obvious. So I think the manipulation of the clear and the mysterious, in the right way, are deal makers for me.”   

From Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space, April 20, 2005