In Honor of Billy Collins

I guess it’s OK for me to reprint a poem by Billy Collins, even though it is the title poem of a collection still for sale and certainly still under copyright. After all, it’s available online, and I offer it here to celebrate the poet and perhaps to inspire others to become his avid and book-buying fans.

Some claim that Collins’ “accessibility” is a sign of superficiality. I think those critics are failing as readers — failing to appreciate the cleanness of his language, the wryness of his self-deprecation, and the significance of his insights, which should inspire both laughter and thoughtfulness. It takes a great deal of craft to seem so conversational. I wish I could do so much through simplicity and clarity.

The Trouble with Poetry
by Billy Collins

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.


That “little amusement park of a book” is A Coney Island of the Mind, which I also savored in my high school life (even though, happily enough, I didn’t find high school treacherous). I can’t find my old copy but think I’ll go looking for it through one of our few remaining local book stores still surviving the amazon age.

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