The Love of Strangers

“A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedies, whatever it be, remorse, lost love or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table.”

~ William Butler Yeats, from A General Introduction for My Work

Billy Collins, from “Dear Reader,” a reading and lecture delivered at the Key West Literary Seminar:

A friend of mine was walking along Madison Avenue, let’s say, with the New Yorker writer Roger Angell, one of the great sports writers of America…Someone recognized Angell  and stopped him and began to flatter him about his writing and tell him what a great writer he was. Then my friend and Angell continued to talk…Angell said to my friend, “That’s what it’s all about.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s what writing is all about.”


“The love of strangers.”

Which is a sort of neuroses. Most people are satisfied with the love of people around them, although that love tends to be insufficient at most times. Whereas writers tend to court the love of total strangers and I am probably more guilty than anybody. I tend to begin each of my books with a prefatory poem that’s actually addressed to the reader. It’s my way of acknowledging the presence of the reader.

As I’m reading contemporary poetry, they tend to fall into two categories which are sort of indefinable. In one category, I feel that the poet is aware of my presence and in the other I feel that an act of typewriting or someone is committing an act of literature oblivious to my participation in it.

You might call these two kinds dogs and cats. Dogs are really interested in people, as you know, whereas cats are much more self-referential…I think of the poem as a social encounter.

Jorge Luis Borges writes:

braeburnpage The taste of the apple  lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and the reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book. What is essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion with each reading.


Dear Reader
by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning

Every morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun all over the breakfast things—
curve of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries—
me in a sweatshirt or robe,
you invisible.

Most days, we are suspended
over a deep pool of silence.
I stare straight through you
or look out the window at the garden,
the powerful sky,
a cloud passing behind a tree.

There is no need to pass the toast,
the pot of jam,
or pour you a cup of tea,
and I can hide behind the paper,
rotate in its drum of calamitous news.

But some days I may notice
a little door swinging open
in the morning air,
and maybe the tea leaves
of some dream will be stuck
to the china slope of the hour—

then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up, as always,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.