When the Covid-19 pandemic took off in March, the poet and creator of Poetry 180 Billy Collins started reading a poem every weekday on Facebook Live. The readings—mostly of contemporary poems, peppered with the occasional classic by Shakespeare or John Donne—have been a surprise hit, with 47,000 followers. One woman in Paris left a comment saying that she listens in bed before she goes to sleep, while another in Australia joins with her morning coffee. “The world has slowed down to the speed of poetry,” Collins says, “to my 23 miles per hour.”
Mr. Collins—who has insistently remained Billy, rather than a more formal William or W. James—grew up in Queens, N.Y., the only child of a nurse and an insurance salesman. He credits Looney Tunes cartoons—their reckless shape-shifting and suspension of the laws of physics—with feeding his imagination. But it was his mother who taught him to read and inculcated his love of language, reciting verses to him even when he was a toddler. He wrote his first poem when he was 10 years old, struck by the sight of a sailboat in the East River while riding in the back seat of his parents’ car.
From 2001 to 2003, Mr. Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate. His proudest legacies from his tenure are creating Poetry 180, a program to expose high school students to contemporary poetry “without painful side effects.” He created the program because he believes poetry can and should be an important part of our daily lives, that poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race. By just spending a few minutes reading a poem each day, new worlds can be revealed.
Poetry 180 is designed to make it easy for students to hear or read a poem on each of the 180 days of the school year. Each poem is selected by Collins with high school students in mind. They are intended to be listened to, and he suggests that all members of the school community be included as readers. The program is already inspiring high school students across the country. Take Virginia student Danielle Kohn, who says she became a poet in the second grade.
“At recess every day, I would go outside with a clipboard and a piece of paper, and I would write poems,” Kohn, now 16 and a junior at Scarsdale High School, said. “I think the first good poem that I wrote was about a sunset.”
Kohn’s first exposure to poetry had come the year before, when her teacher at Fox Meadow School, Anne Henry, had “Poetry Mondays.” Students memorized simple poetry to help them learn to read, and poetry has been dominant in Kohn’s life ever since. She’s won scholastic awards for her work and attended the prestigious Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia. But this wasn’t enough for her; she wanted to see other youngsters exposed to poetry and to have the opportunity to be inspired like she had been. So last summer, unprompted, she emailed a list of ideas to the Westchester County government.
One suggestion was to establish a youth poet laureate for Westchester. Her email found its way to DaMia Harris-Madden, executive director of the Westchester County Youth Bureau.
“As soon as we met Danielle and we read her material, we thought ‘The county executive is going to love this idea,’ ” Harris-Madden said. “This is a no-brainer.”
Early in the new year, Westchester County Executive George Latimer and Harris-Madden introduced Kohn herself as the county’s first youth poet laureate. Kohn thinks that poetry may appeal to youngsters who grow up with social media.
“It doesn’t take that long to sit down and read a poem, which is especially great nowadays, since our attention spans are so short,” she said. “I think that it’s the perfect thing to get young people involved in for that reason.”
As the youth poet laureate, Kohn’s main role will be working with the Youth Bureau to get more children and teens to read poetry. Her first major project will be her own version of Poetry 180. Kohn wants to institute a smaller version in elementary schools, and she plans to curate her own list of 30 poems for schools to use each day of April, which is National Poetry Month. She’ll spend the next few months trying to get schools to participate in the April project.
The establishment of a youth poet laureate in Westchester has quickly provoked interest. Kohn has received numerous requests for personal appearances by nonprofit organizations, Harris-Madden said. One of Kohn’s goals is to help students who struggle with literacy, particularly in communities with fewer resources than her own, develop a love of reading and writing.
“I could go on and on about why I was really inspired by Danielle,” Harris-Madden said. “But from a personal perspective, coming from an urban community, I was struck by Danielle’s desire to help young people who have less opportunities than she’s been afforded.”
Do you have more questions about Poetry 180? Click here to be directed to FAQs on their website.
A portion of this article was reposted from the Wall Street Journal.