Friday, June 24, 2011

I Wish I'd Written This

Billy Collins is probably my favorite poet.  He gets knocked for being "accessible."  I don't understand why being easily understood when seeing big things in the ordinary is bad.  In the poem below, he shows-off his ability to use simple metaphors with good effect.  The line I most wish I'd written?  This is the thick of things.

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces hirnself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

from Picnic, Lightning. Copyright © 1998 by Billy Collins

Click on the title to go to's posting of Aristotle, where you can hear Mr. Collins read this poem.  Click on the poet's name to learn more about Billy Collins.


  1. "Accessible" poetry is my favorite kind...this is beautiful. I will definitely click on his name now to learn more about him! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for turning me on to Billy Collins...I am looking forward to reading more of his poetry.

    I could not help but to see as well as feel some of my own life.... and thoughts in his words.

  3. that is a great poem. first I've read from Collins. I'll have to look for more.

  4. I really enjoyed this. I shall be reading more from Billy Collins, thanks for introducing me to his words. :-)

    My favourite line...."the river losing its name in an ocean"

  5. "Accessible" , that is what you call a poem which is understandable, a poem which richly creates imagery in your mind and leads you through a tangible story. Huh, well I like it. Thanks for posting it.

  6. I'm such a Billy Collins fan! Had lunch with him earlier this year. Was wonderful. Wrote about it here:

  7. I always try to be accessible. Being obscure for its own sake is nothing but ego propping and a way to keep others out so one can feel above them. It's idiotic.

  8. Line I most wish I'd written? "the river losing its name in an ocean". Thank you Danny Earl Simmons and Poets United for making a great example of "accessible" accessible!


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