A Poem a Day...

Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States

"POETRY 180 is designed to make it easy for students to hear or read a poem each day of the 180 days of the school year. I have selected the poems you will find here with high school students in mind. They are intended to be listened to, and I suggest that all members of the school community be included as readers. A great time for the readings would be following the end of daily announcements over the public address system. Listening to poetry can encourage students and other learners to become members of the circle of readers for whom poetry is a vital source of pleasure. I hope POETRY 180 becomes an important and enriching part of the school day." - Billy Collins

See the complete list of 180 poems.


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2002 National Book Festival Celebrates and Promotes "An Informed Populace" in the U.S.

Interview with Librarian of Congress James H. Billington
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and Laura Bush have announced that the second National Book Festival will be held on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2002. The festival is free and open to the public and is scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hosted by Laura Bush and sponsored by the Library of Congress, the event will take place on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

Building on the success of last year's inaugural National Book Festival at the Library of Congress, this year's event will feature more than 70 award-winning authors, illustrators and storytellers. Events will include: author readings and book discussions; performances by storytellers; book sales and signings; appearances by children's storybook characters such as Clifford The Big Red Dog; a conservation clinic for books, family letters and albums; and, performances representing a wide range of America's musical traditions.

We spoke with James Hadley Billington, Librarian of Congress since September 14, 1987. He is the 13th incumbent of that position since the Library was established in 1800. An author and historian as well as educator and administrator, Dr. Billington came to the Library from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, where he had served as director since 1973.

IP: Dr. Billington, what in your opinion is the essence of this year's festival?

JHB: The essence of this year's festival revolves around the pleasure and the promise of reading. America was changed forever three days after the first National Book Festival was held on September 8, 2001. But one thing that has not changed is our love of spending time with friends, family and good books. A book can take us to a place of quiet wonder, reflection and imagination. Even in the digital age, books are and will remain our principal guardians of memory, the primary record of the struggles as well as the achievements of those who have gone before. And though a book itself may give no final answers, it often gives rise to better questions.

While we celebrate the pleasure of reading at the National Book Festival on October 12, we also have an opportunity to remind all Americans of the promise of reading as well. Research shows that one of the most important things for a child's later academic success is being read to from infancy on. Reading scores in the 10th grade can be predicted from a child's knowledge of the alphabet in kindergarten. And yet today America is suffering from a reading crisis, with only one-third of fourth graders in our poorest schools able to read at a proficient level.

IP: Poet Laureate Billy Collins has had a high profile of touring and promoting. What part does poetry play in the festival and in the LOC in general?

JHB: Billy Collins is going to read at the festival, as well as discuss his Poetry 180 project. This is a project that he created to put a group of 180 poems on a website designed to encourage the appreciation and enjoyment of poetry in America's high schools. He has selected one poem for each day of the school year and suggested different ways to present a poem in a school setting, as well as guidance on how to read a poem aloud. Most of the poems presented on the site were written by contemporary American authors and were selected with a high school audience in mind. The poems were chosen to be accessible upon first hearing, although students may wish to download them from the website for later reading. But the whole point is to remind students and teachers that a poem is meant to be enjoyed and not always just something to take apart to study how it is put together.

The role of poetry at the Library of Congress has a long and noble history which began with a Chair of Poetry that was established in 1936 by the eighth Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, who conceived the position and Archer M. Huntington, who gave the funds to support it. Since then, many of the nation's most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194 (December 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. One of the principle tasks of the Poet Laureate is to suggest authors to read in the Library's literary series. He or she also plans other special literary events, and usually introduces the programs.

The poetry and literature reading series at the Library of Congress is the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the United States. This annual series of public poetry and fiction readings, lectures, symposia, and occasional dramatic performances began in the 1940s and has been almost exclusively supported since 1951 by a gift from the late Gertrude Clarke Whittall, who wanted to bring the appreciation of good literature to a larger audience.

IP: How has the role of poetry in America changed since 9/11?

JHB: Poetry has always been a source of inspiration as we struggle to come to terms with all aspects of human existence. Many people turned to reading or writing poetry as one way to try to find a way to articulate their feelings about the horrible events of September 11 and their aftermath. The great Russian literary critic Boris Eikhenbaum (1886-1959) once wrote that the function of all art is to free us from "the automatism of human perception." Poetry consoles us when other forms of expression seem empty or wanting. This was certainly in evidence when Billy Collins read his poem "The Names" during the historic session of Congress that was held in New York on September 6.

IP: How does the LOC try to affect the state of literature and reading in America?

JHB: In addition to promoting the poet laureate and the activities of our Poetry and Literature Center, the Library of Congress also contributes to the role of literature and reading through our Center for the Book. The Center for the Book was established in 1977 to use the resources and prestige of the Library of Congress to promote books, reading, libraries, and literacy. Within the Library, the center is a focal point for celebrating the legacy of books and the printed word. Outside the Library, the center works closely with other organizations to foster understanding of the vital role of books, reading, libraries and literacy in society.

The catalytic function of the center has expanded dramatically since 1984 with the establishment of affiliated centers for the book in 47 states and the District of Columbia, a reading promotion partners program that includes more than 90 national civic and educational organizations, and a broad network of national and international organizations and programs that promote books, reading, and libraries.

IP: What is your favorite aspect of the festival?

JHB: To see the enthusiasm of people of all ages and backgrounds, from children who are enjoying seeing their favorite storybook characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog or Elmo to adults whose interest in authors like Anita Shreve or Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is enriched by the opportunity to see them read aloud in person.

Another noteworthy aspect is the support from the White House as well as the Congress of the United States that has allowed us to hold the festival on the West Lawn of Capitol Building. This joint effort on the part of both the legislative and the executive branch of our government reinforces the link between learning and an informed populace that is so necessary for self-government. Our libraries are really great temples of pluralism. Books that conflict with each other sit peacefully on the shelves, just as quarreling opponents can sit peacefully next to each other in a reading room or bookstore. Often the pursuit of truth keeps us from the pursuit of each other.

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A native of Pennsylvania, Dr. James Hadley Billington was educated in the public schools of the Philadelphia area. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University, graduating as valedictorian of class of 1950. Three years later, Dr. Billington earned his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College. Following service with the U.S. Army, he became a history instructor at Harvard University in 1957 and an assistant professor of history and research fellow at the Russian Research Center the next year. He moved to the faculty of Princeton University in 1962 and was professor of history at Princeton from 1964 to 1974.

From 1973 to 1987, Dr. Billington served as the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the national memorial to the 28tb President. Under his directorship, eight new programs were established at the Center, beginning with the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian studies in 1974. Two of the projects Dr. Billington initiated at the Center were the Wilson Quarterly, founded in 1976, and the publication of detailed scholars' guides to educational resources in Washington.

Dr. Billington is the author of the Icon and the Axe (1966), Fire in the Minds of Men (1980) and, most recently, Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope (1992). He has also participated as a host, commentator or consultant on numerous educational and network television programs, and he has accompanied several congressional delegations as well as a library and a church delegation to the U.S.S.R.