Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Poet Billy Collins speaks to a group at Brigham Young University Friday.

PROVO — It's the accessible, vivid imagery of a red-and-white craft lanyard or hippos on holiday that endears poet Billy Collins to his readers.

Collins, the former United States Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, read his poems to an audience at Brigham Young University Friday afternoon, explaining the background for many, including the one about the camp-created lanyard.

"The one thing about writing poems, you might have a poem in your head and think about it a lot, but all of that prethinking? The

reader is not in on that," he said. "Try to back it up and talk about the occasions of the poem's beginning."

In "Lanyard," the poem's narrator peruses the dictionary, with an entry in the L section taking him back to a youth camp near a deep Adirondack lake when he learned how to braid thin plastic strips into a gift for his mother.

"'She gave me life and milk from her breasts and I gave her a lanyard,"' he read, and the audience laughed. "'Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education. And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor."'

The audience again erupted in laughter.

"The first poem I read ... blew me away," said Chad Crane, a graduate student at the University of Utah, who heard about the reading from a friend and made the trip.

"It shocks me how visual it is," he said of Collins' poems. "You see the image ... what he's thinking. He really got me writing again."

Collins read one of his newer poems, "Hippos on Holiday," which is part of a series.

"(They) seem to have one thing in common," he explained. "The poems seem to be nothing more than reactions to their own titles. As if the poem was not responsible for its title. It sounds like I've reached a kind of wheel-spinning dead end, but I'm pursuing this."

"Hippos on holiday," he read, "is really not the title of a movie, but if it was, I would be sure to see it. I love their short legs and big heads."

He described how he would sit in a movie theater and eat popcorn while he watched them wallow in the mud in a slow-moving river.

"Only a mean-spirited reviewer would ask, 'On holiday from what?"' he finished.

"Sometimes when I finish writing a poem like that, I feel like the attendant is going to arrive to take me for my walk through the grounds of a very exclusive mental hospital somewhere," Collins said with a smile and the audience laughed again.

BYU English major Jeanne Wilson waited in a mass of students to buy a copy of Billy Collins' book "The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems." She already has his book, "Sailing Alone Around the Room: New & Selected Poems." Collins has published six other books and received numerous awards.

"So much of contemporary poetry is hard to understand," Wilson said. "(Collins is) accessible and funny."

The lecture was part of BYU's weekly English lecture series.

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com