"The trouble with the present is
that it's always in a state of vanishing.
Take the second it takes to end
this sentence with a period – already gone."
~ Billy Collins
The Art Of Drowning
by Billy Collins, from The Art of Drowning
I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.
After falling off a steamship or being swept away
in a rush of floodwaters, wouldn't you hope
for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand
turning the pages of an album of photographs-
you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat.
How about a short animated film, a slide presentation?
Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model photograph?
Wouldn't any form be better than this sudden flash?
Your whole existence going off in your face
in an eyebrow-singeing explosion of biography-
nothing like the three large volumes you envisioned.
Survivors would have us believe in a brilliance
here, some bolt of truth forking across the water,
an ultimate Light before all the lights go out,
dawning on you with all its megalithic tonnage.
But if something does flash before your eyes
as you go under, it will probably be a fish,
a quick blur of curved silver darting away,
having nothing to do with your life or your death.
The tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all
as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom,
leaving behind what you have already forgotten,
the surface, now overrun with the high travel of clouds.
by Billy Collins, from The Art of Drowning
You can use the brush of a Japanese monk
or a pencil stub from a race track.
As long as you draw the line a third
the way up from the bottom of the page,
the effect is the same: the world suddenly
divided into its elemental realms.
A moment ago there was only a piece of paper.
Now there is earth and sky, sky and sea.
You were sitting alone in a small room.
Now you are walking in the heat of a vast desert
or standing on the ledge of a winter beach
watching the light on the water, light in the air.
Every morning since you fell down on the face of the earth,
I read about you in the newspaper
along with the box scores, the weather, and all the bad news.
Sometimes I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you,
nor will you be challenged by educational goals
nor will you need to be circumspect at the workplace.
Another day, I learn that you will miss
an opportunity to travel and make new friends
though you never cared much about either.
I can’t imagine you ever facing a new problem
with a positive attitude, but you will definitely not
be doing that or anything like that on this weekday in March.
And the same goes for the fun
you might have gotten from group activities,
a likelihood attributed to everyone under your sign.
A dramatic rise in income may be a reason
to treat yourself, but that would apply
more to all the Pisces who are still alive today,
still swimming up and down the stream of life
or suspended in a pool in the shade of an overhanging tree.
But it will come as a relief to learn
that you don’t need to reflect carefully before acting
nor do you have to think more of others,
and never again will creative work take a back seat
to the business responsibilities that you never really had.
And don’t worry today or any other day
about unwanted problems caused by your failure
to interact rationally with your many associates.
No more goals for you, no more pressing matters,
no more money or children, jobs or important tasks,
but then again, you were never thus encumbered.
* * * * *
A response from Billy Collins to the question, Could you say a little about the deal breakers that keep you from reading a poem?
"Well, the word cicada. I won’t tolerate that. I’m just sick of them. So if I’m reading a poem and I come across the word cicada, I stop. Deal breaker. That’s it. I mean, that’s one easy one to answer.
I guess other poems that I tend not to finish are poems that exhibit a kind of presumptuousness in that the first couple of lines, I feel like I’m suddenly in an ambulance with someone and he or she is being taken to the psychiatric ward and is telling me about some inner psychic terror that their suffering from without having really introduced themselves. And that seems to be a form of kind of psychological bad manners.
I appreciate poems that are clear and then mysterious. I think poems that work for me are poems in which a writer really appreciates and understands the difference between what to be clear about and what to be mysterious about. So what cards to turn over and what cards to leave face down. And if you leave all the cards face down—I mean some poems read that way to me—there’s really no game. It’s just kind of fifty-two bits of obscurity. And if you turn them all over, it’s just too obvious. So I think the manipulation of the clear and the mysterious, in the right way, are deal makers for me.”
“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.”
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:
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.
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,
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.
The Trouble with Poetry
by Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry
The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night —
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky —
the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,
and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.
Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.
But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti —
to be perfectly honest for a moment —
the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.
You know the brick path in back of the house,
the one you see from the kitchen window,
the one that bends around the far end of the garden
where all the yellow primroses are?
And you know how if you leave the path
and walk up into the woods you come
to a heap of rocks, probably pushed
down during the horrors of the Ice Age,
and a grove of tall hemlocks, dark green now
against the light-brown fallen leaves?
And farther on, you know
the small footbridge with the broken railing
and if you go beyond that you arrive
at the bottom of that sheep’s head hill?
Well, if you start climbing, and you
might have to grab hold of a sapling
when the going gets steep,
you will eventually come to a long stone
ridge with a border of pine trees
which is as high as you can go
and a good enough place to stop.
The best time is late afternoon
when the sun strobes through
the columns of trees as you are hiking up,
and when you find an agreeable rock
to sit on, you will be able to see
the light pouring down into the woods
and breaking into the shapes and tones
of things and you will hear nothing
but a sprig of birdsong or the leafy
falling of a cone or nut through the trees,
and if this is your day you might even
spot a hare or feel the wing-beats of geese
driving overhead toward some destination.
But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories
how the earth holds us painfully against
its breast made of humus and brambles
how we who will soon be gone regard
the entities that continue to return
greener than ever, spring water flowing
through a meadow and the shadows of clouds
passing over the hills and the ground
where we stand in the tremble of thought
taking the vast outside into ourselves.
Still, let me know before you set out.
Come knock on my door
and I will walk with you as far as the garden
with one hand on your shoulder.
I will even watch after you and not turn back
to the house until you disappear
into the crowd of maple and ash,
heading up toward the hill,
piercing the ground with your stick.
It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians
are flattened by safes falling from
rooftops mostly within the panels of
the comics, but still, we know it is
possible, as well as the flash of
summer lightning, the thermos toppling
over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be
delivered from within. The heart, no
valentine, decides to quit after
lunch, the power shut off like a
switch, or a tiny dark ship is
unmoored into the flow of the body's
rivers, the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore. This is
what I think about when I shovel
compost into a wheelbarrow, and when
I fill the long flower boxes, then
press into rows the limp roots of red
impatiens — the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth from the
sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then
the soil is full of marvels, bits of
leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam. Then
the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the
clouds a brighter white, and all I
hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone, the small
plants singing with lifted faces, and
the click of the sundial as one hour
sweeps into the next.
Instructions to the Artist
by Billy Collins, from Questions About Angels
I wish my head to appear perfectly round
and since the canvas should be of epic dimensions,
please trace the circle with a dinner plate
rather than a button or a dime
My face should be painted with
an ant-like sense of detail;
pretend you are executing a street map
of Rome and that all citizens
can lift thirty times their own weight
The result should be a strained
but self-satisfied expression,
as if I am lifting a Volkswagen with one foot.
The body is no great matter;
just draw some straight lines
with a pencil and ruler.
I will not be around to hear the voice
of posterity calling me Stickman.
The background I leave up to you
but if there is to be a house,
lines of smoke rising from the chimney
should be mandatory.
Never be ashamed of kindergarten--
it is the alphabet's only temple.
Also, have several kangaroos grazing
and hopping around in the distance,
an allusion to my world travels.
Some final recommendations:
I should like to appear hatless.
Kindly limit your palette to a single
primary color, any one but red or blue.
Sign the painting on my upper lip
so your name will always be my mustache.
On Turning Ten
by Billy Collins
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
The Lamps Unlit
by Billy Collins
which is at least a beginning
and better than the usual blind rush
into the future, believed to reside
over the next in an infinite series of hills.
I'm all for noticing that the light
in the tops of the trees,
is different now with the grass cold
and moist, the heads of flowers yet unfolded,
all for occupying a chair by a window
or a wayside bench for an hour—
time enough to look here and there
as the caravan of time crosses the sand,
time to think of the dead and lost friends,
their faces hidden in the foliage,
and to consider the ruination of love,
a wisp of smoke rising from a chimney.
And who cares if it takes me all day
to write a poem about the dawn
and I finish in the dark with the night—
some love it best—draped across my shoulders.
From A Public Space (Issue 6)
by Billy Collins
I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.
Beyond the simple illustrations of their neighborhood,
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.
But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.
It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting,
“Look!” pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.
They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet’s small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.
From Questions About Angels: Poems, (1999)
Download free MP3s of Billy Collins reading his poems.
Poetry speaks to all people, it is said,
but here I would like to address
only those in my own time zone,
this proper slice of longitude
that runs from pole to snowy pole
down the globe through Montreal to Bogota.
Oh, fellow inhabitants of this singular band,
sitting up in your many beds this morning—
the sun falling through the windows
and casting a shadow on the sundial—
consider those in other zones who cannot hear these words.
They are not slipping into a bathrobe as we are,
or following the smell of coffee in a timely fashion.
Rather, they are at work already,
leaning on copy machines,
hammering nails into a house-frame.
They are not swallowing a vitamin like us;
rather they are smoking a cigarette under a half moon,
even jumping around on a dance floor,
or just now sliding under the covers,
pulling down the little chains on their bed lamps.
But we are not like these others,
for at this very moment on the face of the earth,
we are standing under a hot shower,
or we are eating our breakfast,
considered by people of all zones
to be the most important meal of the day.
Later, when the time is right,
we might sit down with the boss,
wash the car, or linger at a candle-lit table,
but now is the hour for pouring the juice
and flipping the eggs with one eye on the toaster.
So let us slice a banana and uncap the jam,
lift our brimming spoons of milk,
and leave it to the others to lower a flag
or spin absurdly in a barber's chair—
those antipodal oddballs, always early or late.
Let us praise Sir Stanford Fleming
the Canadian genius who first scored
with these lines the length of the spinning earth.
Let us move together through the rest of this day
passing in unison from light to shadow,
coasting over the crest of noon
into the valley of the evening
and then, holding hands, slip into the deeper valley of night."
-- Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems