Billy Collins on Writing Short Poems and Approaching Shakespeare's Sonnets

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 197

Billy Collins is one of America’s most well-known poets. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. His poetry collections frequently show up on bestseller lists, and his popular readings—three of which we’ve been lucky to host at the Folger—are warm and laughter-filled affairs.

In a wide-ranging interview, Collins talks about humanizing Shakespeare and other literary titans, delves into his own work and inspirations, and reads from his newest collection, Musical Tables. He is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Billy Collins's new collection, Musical Tables, is available now from Random House.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published November 22, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Evermore Sound in Orlando and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc. 

Previous: Adrian Noble on How to Direct Shakespeare


Related

The Folger Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Sonnets
Read our edition of Shakespeare's sonnets online for free.

Folger Finds: Shake-speares Sonnets. Neuer Before Imprinted.
Take a closer look at the Folger's copy of the very first printed edition of Shakespeare's sonnets, from 1609.


Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: Ever wondered what it would be like to sit next to William Shakespeare on an international flight? Today’s guest has. He even wrote a poem about it.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

Billy Collins is one of America’s most well-known poets. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. His poetry collections frequently show up on bestseller lists. How often can you say that about poetry? And his popular readings—three of which we’ve been lucky to host at the Folger—are warm and laughter-filled affairs.

In Collins’s poem, The Bard in Flight, he imagines finding himself on a plane, seated next to a time-traveling Shakespeare. In Collins’s telling, Shakespeare is gob-smacked by the technology of flight, but also mesmerized by the jazz playing on Collins’s headphones.

It’s a humane, gently irreverent poem—which is par for the course with Billy Collins.

For many years, Collins taught English to undergraduates at Lehman College of the City University of New York. In the classroom, he tried to make poetry less intimidating by reminding his students that the writers they studied were once living people, like them.

In his poetry, Collins tends to begin with the ordinary stuff of life: cooking, listening to the radio, going for a walk. But often his poems go off from there in unexpected directions, making surprising connections.

In this wide-ranging interview, Collins talks about humanizing Shakespeare and other literary titans. He also talks in depth about his own work and inspirations. And he reads from his newest collection, Musical Tables.

Here’s Billy Collins, as interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BARBARA BOGAEV: We're going to get to some of the poems in your new book. But first, since we're a Shakespeare podcast, would you mind if we start with one of your Shakespeare-y pieces? And perhaps you could read for us: "The Bard in Flight."

BILLY COLLINS: I'd be happy to.

The Bard in Flight

It occurred to me
on a flight from London to Barcelona
that Shakespeare could have written
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
with more authority had he occupied
the window seat next to me
instead of this businessman from Frankfurt.

Of course, after a couple of drinks
and me loaning him an earbud
he might become so preoccupied
with Miles Davis at the Blackhawk
at 36,000 feet above some realm or other to write a word.

I imagine he'd enjoy playing with my wristwatch,
the one with the tartan band,
and when he wasn't looking out the window,
he would study the ice cubes in his rotating glass.
And he'd take a keen interest
in the various announcements from the flight deck
and the ministrations of the bowing attendants,
all of which would be sadly lost on me
having gotten used to rushing above the clouds,
even though 99% of humanity has never been there.

Yet, I am still fond of the snub-nosed engines,
the straining harmony of the twin jets,
and even that sensation of turbulence
jostled about high above some blessed plot
with the sound of crockery shifting in the galley,
the frenzied eyes of the nervous passengers,
and the Bard reaching for my hand
as we roared with trembling wings
into the towering fortress of a thunderhead.

BOGAEV: Thank you so much for that. That poem is from your book, The Rain in Portugal.

COLLINS: The whole poem kind of turns on that line that when Shakespeare writes, “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” It is a kind of drone view or a hot air balloon view as he looks down on earth. Chaucer does this too occasionally: he goes down, looks at this little spot of earth.

But I just thought he would be in better authority if he could actually be in an airplane and look down and see England or some realm or other, so he became my rowmate there.

BOGAEV: I love that. It sounds like you could really imagine easily breaking the ice with Shakespeare if he sat next to you.

COLLINS: Breaking the ice. Breaking the ice cube, actually.

BOGAEV: Yeah. I mean, is that your impression of him?

COLLINS: Well, I think that would be one source of wonderment for someone from the early 17th century, who's looking at a glass full of ice cubes.

And this is a common practice. I mean, I remember, Galway Kinnell has a poem called Oatmeal, and it's about having breakfast with Keats and they talk about the construction of Ode to a Nightingale.

And I encourage my students. I say, “You know, you could go ice skating with Joan of Arc. Or go on a rollercoaster ride with Henry VIII.” In poetry, there’s sort of this freedom from chronology and freedom from a lot of credibility too.

BOGAEV: Well, I really like what this poem does as an example of what so many of your poems do really well. That they start at this very definite point. “It occurred to you on a flight from London to Barcelona.” You tell us where you are and what's going on. And then we know where we are, but then you end at a very mysterious or a much wider place: a point z.

COLLINS: You're very right about pointing out that the beginning of my poems usually are points of orientation. I want the reader to know where we are. And the reason for that is that I want to disorient the reader as the poem goes along. Certainly by the ending, I think I want the reader to end up in a rather odd and somewhat disorienting place. But you can't disorient a reader unless you orient them first.

BOGAEV: Huh. The other thing I feel in this poem, and all your poems is that it starts with this very specific place, but you're thinking, and the thought seems to build. It seems to have an organic growth, even if there—especially if there are digressions or distractions or side roads. It still has this forward momentum… which made me wonder, if you know where you're going to end when you sit down to write?

COLLINS: I don't know where I'm going to end. I think maybe once or twice in my career of writing, I've done what Frost argued against, which is to, you know, start with an ending and then backfill.

But, to me, I want to find the ending. That's the game of poetry for me, is part—much of the enjoyment comes from solving that puzzle or figuring out where the poem is going to go.

Now, the wastebasket, the writer's best friend you might say, is filled with poems that don't go anywhere or don't find an ending, failed to. So that's a big part of the curiosity that pushes the poem forward.

But I think it's… most of the poems I started and spent time on will find an ending. I think it's because from the very beginning, they're going somewhere. You mentioned that kind of forward roll. That progression as the poem is a sense in motion. And, because it's in motion, I would say it has a better chance. The more it's in motion, the better the chance of finding an ending; a place to where I don't want to say anymore, and I feel the reader doesn't want to hear anymore.

BOGAEV: I'm thinking back also to the beginnings. In radio, we're taught that you have to draw people in in the first 20, 30 seconds of any broadcast. And if they're confused at all, or not intrigued or not hooked, then you lost them and they just go to the next podcast or radio station or whatever. Is that how you think of poems too?

COLLINS: I do. I think one of the things if I—whenever I conduct a workshop, if there's a board there, I tend to write the words, “The indifference of the reader.” The readers are basically indifferent to your inner life, to the trip you took with your uncle, to your memories, to your feelings.

The reader comes to the poem interested in poetry, not you. So that's where these seductive techniques come in, as you said, in journalism. The reader needs some kind of bright, shiny object or to be led into the poem to be lured into the poem. Or the reader just needs to hear something that is undeniably true.

So, if you start a poem by saying, you know, “It's Wednesday, it's raining, and the dog needs to go out,” or something like that. The reader can't deny that. And once you get the reader in that way, the poem can be more challenging, more difficult, more, even surreal.

A kind of a pet metaphor for that is the poem begins in Kansas and ends in Oz. Poems I don't finish are often poems that begin in Oz without telling me how you got there.

BOGAEV: I guess they could begin in Kansas and end in, I don't know, Missouri or something.

COLLINS: Missouri, right.

BOGAEV: Well. that is… that's an unusual amount of consideration for a writer to think about their reader in that way. I think for many writers, they don't. I'm also thinking that the poems in your newest collection, they don't demand a lot in terms of time from your readers. They're all under 10 lines.

COLLINS: Oh, they're much, much shorter than that. The average is about four lines. I think there are a couple of poems where I get kind of gabby and they might go onto six lines.

I just call them small poems, and they kind of end as they begin. In these poems, one eliminates a lot of things, like there's no room for landscape or memory or meditation or development or suspense or drama or even a theme. But what there is, is what I call torque—torque being a force that is applied through turning or twisting. The poems just twist on themselves and create a moment of torque and then they're over. Let me read one as an example. The title is “English 243: The History of Egotism.”

You will notice, class,
that Wordsworth did not write,
“Edward, the butcher's son,
wandered lonely as a cloud.”

BOGAEV: Okay. I'm feeling the torque there. A couple of things. So I read that and laughed. Then I read it a couple more times, and the first thing I thought was, “The funny thing is that Wordsworth didn't write that, but that maybe you would.” You would write something like, ‘Edward, the butcher’s son did something highfalutin.’”

COLLINS: Well, it's a big moment in English literature when he wanders lonely as a cloud and then finds some daffodils as companions. I mean, that is a good watermark in a way: the point at which the eye is foregrounded. Remember, in 1798 or so, Wordsworth was kind of laughed at for writing poems that were merely based on personal experience.

Just as Rousseau, writing his Confessions a little before that, opens the Confessions by saying, “I'm about to do something that no one has ever done in the history of literature. I'm going to tell the story of my life and tell the truth about it.” Autobiography was really nonexistent.

So, yeah. “Edward, The Butcher's Son,” would be the novel.

BOGAEV: That's true. And now you're anticipating my other questions which were, you taught college for so long and you conduct lots of workshops. I can just hear you saying something like this in a class about Wordsworth, but maybe you're not this irreverent in a classroom. I don’t know.

COLLINS: Well, a lot of these poems are not very nice, in a way. They come to me unbidden, really. They're like visitations. I don't really work on them. There's almost no revision. They just roll out.

And I've been doing them—I don't do a lot of them, but I've been doing this for years. But take this one: The title is “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”

Trouble was not his middle name.

So, I mean, I think that's hilarious, but you can see that there wouldn't be much work involved. Like, if you compared to The Wasteland, for example.

BOGAEV: Why do you like these short poems now, at this moment in your life or career? And does it have anything to do with COVID?

COLLINS: Well, I don't think so. My editor thought—I have a wonderful editor, David Abrashoff at Random House—and he, when I gave him a manuscript, he took this as an interesting step in my literary development. I, on the other hand, thought it probably is the beginning of the end. That I'm just going to write shorter and shorter poems.

BOGAEV: Until they're one word.

COLLINS: One word and then flatline.

BOGAEV: One letter.

COLLINS: One word, and then a letter or two, and then put a blanket over my knees and just put me out in the sun somewhere. But I've always liked short poems.

I mean, it certainly goes back to haiku. I just love the ability to write a very tiny poem, which is kind of at the extreme, kind of the experimental extreme, of how much condensation and compression a poem can withstand.

One of the hallmarks of a poem is commonly thought of as a poem's ability to, in say a sonnet, to express huge feelings and broad thoughts in a very confined space. And these poems that, you know, are three or four lines long, really pare that down to an intensely, limited space.

BOGAEV: Well, let's get to a sonnet. Could we? Are you up for reading your poem Sonnet?

COLLINS: Always. Yes, here it is.

I mention Petrarch, who was—who might as well be called the father of the sonnet. And, then it was imported into England, and as someone said, “Perfected and killed by Shakespeare.” And Petrarch’s inamorata, his love of his life, was Laura.

Sonnet

All we need is fourteen lines. Well, thirteen now,
and after this one, just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed sea,
then only 10 more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played,
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights and come at last to bed.

BOGAEV: Now I always think of the phrase, “Iambic bongos,” when I read Shakespeare's sonnets now.

COLLINS: I'm sorry about that.

BOGAEV: You've written a lot of poems, I think, that gently kind of make fun of poets or poetry workshops or just the whole business. Does the Poet-with-capital-“P” image just annoy the hell out of you or do you have a different mission here?

COLLINS: It makes me itchy. Yeah, it makes my skin crawl. I guess, suppose because it's well, two reasons. I mean, it's publicly misunderstood, you know, so, so horribly. I mean, most people never read poetry after getting out of school, and they take with them all the kind of nightmare of having to either memorize or analyze.

Also, it's internally, I think, attached to such, kind of, pretentiousness and egotism. It's certainly the most egotistic art form. And… talking about Wordsworth’s foregrounding, the capital “I.” So I get—yeah, I'm very self-conscious about it still. And, I do have a lot of poems that mock the enterprise.

But, here it takes on a beatnik flavor, here with “iambic bongos.” And then Laura says, “Take off those crazy medieval tights, baby,” y’know?

The real thing, the real comment on the sonnet, is because it's affirmed and supported by the manners of courtly love, there's no sex. There's just dating, pleading, blandishments, panting. The male poet suffering, basically, and asking not for love—that would be too much to ask—but for pity.

He is imprisoned. He's a ship lost at sea. He has simultaneous chills and fever. He has love sickness. He's a prisoner of love, et cetera.

BOGAEV: He’s a mess. A hot mess, Billy.

COLLINS: Yeah. You're good at this too. And here's saucy Laura, says, “Put down your pen. Blow out the lights and come to bed, baby. Go on.” So that's… it's anti-courtly.

But it also… I mean, it also shows the woman as being realistic, sexual, impatient, and not needing the kind of flattery and panting that all of these love poets are performing.

BOGAEV: Right. It really puts the fireworks that they labor over in high relief there. It kind of blows my mind to think of how many poets like Shakespeare were expressing themselves in this really demanding form about love—or sex—without ever intending to publish these things. It does seem like it's like solving multi-variable calculus in your underwear after a hard day at the office.

COLLINS: Yeah, well, it's like the cell where a nun would live or a monk would live. It's an enclosed space, as this example is. But, I mean, the first line sets the tone: “All we need is fourteen lines. Well, thirteen now.” So… this is going pretty well! Hang on here, here's the six—here's the final six. Anyway, fun to write.

BOGAEV: Yeah, it seemed very fun to write, although it is very technical. I understand you made up a very complex poetic form yourself. The paradelle.

COLLINS: Well, just that  I was going to… Auden said, “There's nothing more hilarious than a badly written formal poem.” And I thought I would go from that, and I’d write a really bad sonnet. But then I wondered, well, how would that be? How would people distinguish that from all the other bad sonnets that are being written?

So I thought the only way to do this is to make up a form and present it as a real form. And so I did that, and I have a footnote published with the poem that says it's a 14th century French form, and you have to use all these repeat words. And the rules escalate to a point of impossibility.

It was published in the American Scholar when Joseph Epstein was the editor. And he knew. He had a sense of humor, but after he published it, he called me and he said, “They're getting letters from,” you know… this is the magazine of the Phi Beta Kapa Society, the smarty-pantses. And they're getting letters complaining about, “How could you publish this awful paradelle?”

BOGAEV: This is the worst paradelle I’ve ever read.

COLLINS: And one of the worst paradelle I've ever read. He asked me if I'd—Epstein asked me if I wanted to respond, and I said, “Sure, let's keep this rolling.” And there were a couple of options here, but I said, “I tried my best.” I said, “Listen, the paradelle is just… it really is a mind crushing form and this is the best I could do.” And I said, “It appears that you have a lot of time on your hands. Maybe you'd like to try it yourself.” Something like that. But I did make up a false form and it's kind of like a harmless literary hoax.

BOGAEV: I hope to see it the term in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

COLLINS: Then I could die a happy man. It's in—Edward Hirsch has a book called A Poet's Glossary, and it is in there. It hasn't hit the Princeton.

BOGAEV: Thus ends your career as a culture jammer. But a question about form: how do you think about line? Do you think about the shape of your line? Is it a sculptural pleasure for you, or a puzzle?

COLLINS: Well later… yeah. I try to write what are called isometric lines. Those are basically lines about the same length. And I don't write in exact iambic. You know, talk is iambic, and I think, having spent decades reading iambic pentameter and tetrameter, you kind of internalize that rhythm.

But, my lines are very conservative in that I try to follow the grammar of the poem, so that… let's take, I mean, “All we need is fourteen lines. Well, thirteen now. / And after this one, just a dozen to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed sea. / Then only 10 more left like rows of beans.”

So you see every line as a syntactic unit or a grammatical unit, generally. I don't try trick lines. I find them distracting, and I think you risk losing the credibility of the belief of the reader. If you have a line like, “They looked out from the dock and saw,” line break, “Boat.” It's just not worth waiting, you know, for a boat in the next line.

If the poem is chopped into lines that are violating the grammar and the logic of the poem, it just seems to add to the confusion.

BOGAEV: Well, following up on this sonnet idea, you teach a lot and you teach sonnets. What do your students have the hardest time with or what have they had the hardest time with in the past?

COLLINS: Well, if it's Shakespeare, they have a hard time with the language.

I have a hard time with the—not just with the “thees” and “thous”, but with the density of the metaphors. Figuring out the metaphors, figuring out what's being compared and why it is. It's just difficult to leave their own language and their own culture.

I mean, of course the job of the instructor is to unlock the poem and to make it seem—to show the heart of the poem that Shakespeare is… I don't want to compare it to a contemporary, you know, rap song or country song or whatever, but, I mean, the emotions are basically the same: of the pain of separation, and the joy of reunion, and the adoration of the female.

BOGAEV: Or not.

COLLINS: Yeah, or not. And love’s frustrations. It's just dressed up in funny clothes.

BOGAEV: So how do you get them past that? And I'm thinking of your poem, Introduction to Poetry in which you say a lot of great things. One of them is to, “Drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out.”

Because this whole sacred Shakespeare thing is very hard for, or sometimes hard to get people to approach Shakespeare in that playful, down-to-earth way, in a “drop a mouse in a poem” kind of way.

So how do you get them to do that? You have another great line in that poem. How do you get your students to, “Walk inside the poem’s room and feel the wall for a light switch”?

COLLINS: Well, you can see that it's walking into a dark room, right? Well, I try to bring—at some point—I tried to bring my teaching of poetry as a professor in line somewhat with my experience of writing poems as a writer.

To that end, I would try to let them see that the poem is not something that was made in the Library of Congress or that a convention of teachers got together and put this poem together. It was actually written by a living man or a woman.

To that end, I sometimes would bring in the first four lines of a Shakespeare sonnet, let's say, and not give them the rest of it. And then just imagine, well, here's Shakespeare. He’s written these four lines, and Shakespeare at some point must have been at that point in the creation of the sonnet, where he had just four lines. Well, what's the next line? And to try to make them see that… to break the poem down like that, so that you can see, here's a writer who's just—he has nothing but one line at a time. He's working his way through the poem and figuring it out. I, kind of, give them the rest of the poem gradually, so that the poem is not… We don't think about so much what the poem means, but how the poem progresses. How the poem finds its way through itself to an ending. How it rolls forward and how it stops.

And you can see there are points in a poem where there's a switch or there's a softening of the address. There's many changes of, you know, the barometric pressure changes or there's more humidity in the poem. There's a weather in the poem. You can see how a poem is moving in different directions and has sniffing toward an ending.

I think that's better than saying like, “What does the fur tree symbolize in the fourth stanza?” That, kind of, takes the poem apart and takes the life out of it. Doing it this way tries to maintain the life of the poem and make it… reveals it to be a creative act

BOGAEV: It's great though that this exercise puts them in Shakespeare's chair, so he’s just a guy writing a poem. It also reminds me of your poem, “Mr. Shakespeare,” in which you seem really annoyed that people would ever—“Don't just call him Shakespeare!” Have you had students call him Mr. Shakespeare?

COLLINS: Occasionally. Yeah. I think it's a little more popular probably in middle school. I mean, they're just trying to be respectful and polite. I think it occurs more frequently in the South, as I understand it, where children are taught to say “sir” and “ma'am” and “mister”.

BOGAEV: It’s still hard though, the language. I mean, do you have to be in a certain mood to read Shakespeare and do you read the plays as… well, as sonnets?

COLLINS: Well, I have. I haven't read—probably haven't read all of them, but I've taught five or six of them repeatedly. You know, Lear and Hamlet and the major tragedies basically. I'm not a Shakespearean, but I certainly enjoy teaching the sonnets.

BOGAEV: But you're not sitting around reading Pericles or King John.

COLLINS: I am not. That's another self that I aspire to, the self that sits around reading Pericles. I might try that. Thank you. I might dust off my…

BOGAEV: I don’t recommend Pericles. Maybe, King John.

But you do teach Sonnet 73. The one that begins, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold, when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

And why that one? Is it a favorite of yours?

COLLINS: Well, as I get older, it becomes much more of a favorite. Well, I love the little irregular line there. “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang,” which should be logically, “Yellow leaves, or few, or none, do hang,” right? Some leaves, few leaves, no leaves.

But I think he says, “Where yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” He likes to say “few” and “do” together. “Few do hang.” He likes those vowels and I think that's a lovely, tiny example of sound triumphing over logic and poetry.

And it has one of the most satisfying couplets, I think. I don't have it in front of me. “You will love me because I'm old, because there's not that much time to love me.” That's sort of a pathetic wish in a way. It seems it's also a kind of an older man talking to a younger woman.

BOGAEV: Yeah, it's very poignant that way. You're bringing me back to the idea of torque, and torque in sonnet, in those last, in that couplet at the end. That's a big turn and we only have a little more time, but that means we have time for about 10 more of your short poems.

Your choice. Anything you’d like to say about them, and any poem you'd like to read, it would be a pleasure.

COLLINS: Okay. I'll just read a little handful here.  

Divorce

No more heavy ball,
just the sound of the drag chain
with every other step.


3:00 AM

Only my hand is asleep,
but it's a start.

And here's one called “Carbon Dating.”

He tried it once
as a last resort,
but most of the women
were a million years old.

And then we have one called “New York Directions.”

It's down in the Village
between bleak and bleakest.

And “Koan in the Rain”:

You want to know the sound of one hand clapping?
It's the same as the sound of the other hand holding the umbrella
only slightly louder.

One more?

BOGAEV: Oh yeah, one more.

COLLINS: Okay.

Motel Parking Lot

Saying goodbye is so sad.
I don't even bother to turn around to see
what it was you just threw at me.

BOGAEV: Did you ever want to be a late-night monologue writer?

COLLINS: Oh no. I'm too busy reading Pericles for any of that nonsense.

BOGAEV: Oh, Billy Collins. It's such fun and an honor. I'm so glad you had the time to do this. Thank you.

COLLINS: Well, thank you for having me on. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

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WITMORE: Billy Collins’s latest book of poetry, published by Random House, is called Musical Tables, and it’s out now.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Evermore Sound in Orlando and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, don’t forget to subscribe on your podcast platform of choice, so that you never miss an episode. And consider telling a friend about the show.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.

 

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