Chris Berger


It wasn’t merely a meeting between a Yank and a Brit, it wasn’t just a dialogue between two Poet Laureates, it was a conversation between Billy Collins and Andrew Motion. On January 18th the two celebrated poets from both sides of the Atlantic finally, and for the first time, got to meet their vocational twin in the Mellon library of the American School in London.

I was there to witness this unprecedented event, and to say I was left gasping in quite reverence would be an understatement. Mr Motion with his sensuously eloquent British tongue and Mr Collins with his candid American humour managed to engage the entire room of admiring students, but most of all they engaged each other.

I was a bystander, merely throwing in questions that would spark off captivating discussions between the two poets. They talked about the irony in the fact that, as Billy Collins put it, there is a “common language that divides us.” They both came to a consensus that American poets tended to be much more of the “crack pot experimenters” where the British are more inclined to follow the path of their predecessors.

One of my fellow students asked them “what relationship do you think you have to the realm of poetry,” given that “Langston Hughes was the saxophonist of poetry, T.S. Eliot was the painter of poetry and Robert Frost was the scientist of poetry.” A faint smile, that never left the face of Mr. Collins, quickly turned into a childish grin as he blurted out that he was the “small frame-shop of poetry.” Mr Motion after contemplating the question for a split second longer seemed content that a previous characterization that compared poets to cars was sufficient. Thus he said he was the “Volvo of poetry,” his rationale being that “they’re sturdy and don’t crash very often.”

After having sat and discussed various poetic ideals with the two fascinating men, I was left rather sceptical as to whether or not it had been as infamous and historic an event as I had initially expected. It was no Potsdam or Versailles, where appointed officials had represented the interest of their countries, it merely reminded me of scenes attributed to conversations like those of Florians Café in Venice. From the beginning to the end of our twenty minute discussion the room had been an animated literary salon; I felt transformed into another place and another time.

At the end of our little parley the poets graciously posed for the flash bulbs and then signed the masses of new poetry books in the library, until Mr Collins mentioned that his “hand hurt.”

I guess the biggest disappointment for me was knowing what they did all too well was talk to each other and not to an audience. While Mr Collins remained adamant that he would not be responsible for being the voice of the “national conscience” in this troubled period of American history, we are left with few people to turn to who can provide us with literary solace.

Both came to the consensus that after September 11th regardless of the copious amounts of letters they received it would have been too “presumptuous” to have even made an attempt to try capturing the national mood on paper.

Well one must then ask why on earth do we have a poet laureate if they are unwilling to be representative of their country. Walt Whitman was a poet who had captured the mood of pre-Civil War America with his profound Leaves of Grass, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself; for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Neither poet however, was willing to rise to the occasion at a time when they are needed most.

Christopher Berger is an 18 years old student who moved from New York to London when I was 2 years old and passed through the British schooling system up until his junior year when I moved to the American School in London. On January 18th Chris, "an avid poet who adores studying literature," had the unique opportunity of talking with the British and American Poet Laureates, Andrew Motion and Billy Collins.


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