Archives For Billy Collins


Situational Irony

It was situational irony…staring me in the face.

In looking for lessons for poetry month, I came upon a worksheet that asked students to analyze a poem. The poem on the worksheet was “Introduction to Poetry” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

Below the poem on the worksheet were two columns: “Examples of figurative language” go in the left hand column; “Types of Figurative Language” go into the right hand column.

When I came upon this worksheet in a curriculum guide, I was, at first, amused by the situational irony of this assignment.

But I became bothered once I considered that if this worksheet exists, there probably are others just like it in countless number of curriculum guides across the country.

In the poem’s 16 lines, Collins captures the kind of encounter that language arts teachers too often promote. He is able to highlight the absurdity of “worksheet”  analysis used to prepare students to discuss the elements of poetry without regard for the beauty of the poem itself.

Collins’s opening line sets up this poem as a gift, one worthy of wonder and imaginative speculation for the reader:

I ask them to take a poem   
and hold it up to the light   
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.

But Collins is familiar with how literature is “taught” to students. His  attitude towards literary analysis is in the last two lines of the poem. You can hear his speaker’s …what is it….frustration? exasperation? resignation?  in knowing what will happen to his gift of a poem:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.

So here is the situational irony. The poem that tries to make a case for admiring the beauty of a poem rather than reducing it to its elements to find out what it means is reduced to a worksheet in order to beat a confession out of the poem to find out what it means.

I really like this poem. In his typical gentle melancholy fashion, Collins makes a solid case against “teaching” a poem. I would like to think I could honor that purpose and not use a worksheet to teach Introduction to Poetry.

Accept this apology, Billy Collins.

Continue Reading…

Best two words in winter? “Snow Day”.

Yes. I will look back in mid-June and see the extension of school days to meet mandatory requirements, and I will sigh. I  might question the wisdom of school administrators who would keep students cooped up in classrooms on warm sunny summer afternoons, but even then I will still admit, I love a snow day.

snowremovalThe outside lights were on all night so I could check on the progress of snow mounting on the barn roof. I could hear the town’s plows, chained tires rattling, working throughout the night. My eyeglasses were handy so that I could grab them and read the small print of scrolling school closings on the TV screen, but this morning I did not need them since my school district thoughtfully sent a robo-call.

I am not surprised that one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, has a poem titled “Snow Day” where he expresses his appreciation of weather-induced holidays. In stanzas 4-6, he mimics the listings of school closings on the radio:

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.
                    …read more from “Snow Day”
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2001).

I have written about Collins’s poetry (see links below) several times in this blog for Poetry Friday. His lyrics run parallel to my experiences of growing up, so there is a sense of nostalgia, a familiarity, when I read his poems. His poetry is accessible to all grade levels, but it is his wry humor in his observations on the universal human experience that makes me want to share him with students. So much of literature can be serious, or downright depressing, that I am grateful, even a little giddy, to have several books of Collins’s poetry on my shelf ready for an opportune moment.

“Look,” I will say, “here’s a funny poem about Emily Dickinson!” or “Hey, want me to read a comic take on the elements of a sonnet?

This snow day is one more excuse to share Collins’s poetry with others- whatever the climate. And for just a day, I can pity those in those waking up in sunny Southern California who are going to school. They may have the warm sun on their toes sticking out of their sandals, but they will never know the pleasure of warm toes stretching out under warm blankets just as there is the announcement of a school cancellation….to roll over…and to hit the snooze button.

Sleep in. It’s a snow day.

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Twelve years ago, I was teaching my Advanced Placement English class when word came that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Several hours later, all classes were abandoned in the high school. A line of students formed in the office in order to call and know if family members who worked in NYC were okay.  Our school media specialist hooked up televisions around the walls of the library, and students sat on the floor in the middle; everyone was silent and somber. Teachers and students mingled together, some with arms around each other, watching the catastrophic events on that beautiful September morning when the blue skies belied the carnage happening less than 100 miles away.

In December that year, I took those same AP students to see Othello performed at The Public Theatre in downtown NYC. We arrived early enough, so I suggested to the other chaperones that we have the bus take us down to Ground Zero. We reasoned that students should have a chance to witness history.

We travelled downtown, past the business-as-usual activity of stores and heavy traffic. We turned down a side street when the “shroud” suddenly came into view. The mangled frame was eerily illuminated, bending over the dust created by the workers who were working late into the night dismantling the remaining structures of the two buildings. We got off the bus and walked along the chain link fences that were covered with sheets and banners bearing the names of those killed and the sentiments of others who had come down to witness the aftermath.

A policeman approached us. I stepped out to explain our presence, but he turned to the students and asked, “Are you here to sing for us?”
The students stood dumbfounded. Finally, one choked out a sincere response, “No, but we will if you want us to.”
He hugged her with his big arms. “It’s ok, honey,” he smiled sadly, “just coming here is enough.”
There was no question that Shakespeare’s tragedy took a backseat that night.

This year’s graduating class of high school seniors is the last class that experienced 9/11 while in school. They are members of the last class that shared their emotions with teachers who struggled that day to explain the unexplainable. They were in kindergarten that fall. Chances are they had no idea what was happening except that their teachers may have been agitated, emotional, or distracted that day. Throughout the school year, they may have asked their teachers questions about what happened. In all likelihood, their teachers struggled with prepared responses.

The events of 9/11 have been etched indelibly in the hearts and minds of teachers and students who shared that experience. Now, that last group is graduating school. In the future, students will learn about the events of that day in schools in various classes and through a variety of mediums, but they will not be able to say, “I remember, I was in school when…”.

One way they will learn about the impact of 9/11 is through poetry, and there are many poems written from different perspectives. Billy Collins’s poem “The Names” captures the loss of 2,763 individuals in the Twin Towers by using the names of 26, one for each letter of the alphabet, with the exception of the letter X -“(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)”.

Television’s PBS invited Collins to read “The Names” on a broadcast September 12, 2012. The video and full text of the poem are on the PBS website.

BILLY COLLINS, poet (speaking): “The Names,” for the victims of September 11th and their survivors.

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.

A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,

And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,

I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,

Davis and Eberling, names falling into place

As droplets fell through the dark. (continued on Billy Collins’s website)

This graduating Class of 2014 is the last where teachers and students were together when the world changed. The images and the aftermath were part of their school experience in 2001. Together, they learned the fate of so many, as Collins says,

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Continue Reading…


Photo on Sunken Garden Poetry website:

Last Wednesday night, the rain held off for Sunken Garden Poetry at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, and the largest crowd of the year heard the former United States Poet Laureate (2001–2003) Billy Collins read his poetry for a little more than an hour. His casual demeanor and the context of the garden setting, peopled with picnickers, contributed to a informal, intimate listening experience, a tone he tries to strike with his poetry:

 “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.” (

Based on the reaction from the crowd, his concerns about a wrong step was unfounded. Since most of his poems are fairly short, he was able to offer a broad range of topics and observations. There were mice, glistening bars of soap, ill-fitting dinner jackets, a few “frog-less” haikus, and commentaries on adolescent behavior. Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 2.57.00 PM

He began the reading with You Reader:

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you

He followed that up with the hilarious Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House where the opening line explains “another reason why”…

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

Over the course of the evening, Collins read his poems to the appreciative audience. His themes ranged from comical to heartbreaking. You can click the following links to the published texts or video recordings in the order he read them to “attend” your own Billy Collin’s reading:

The Sand Hill Cranes of Nebraska
Drinking Alone after Li Po
After the Funeral (p. 62)
Dress Code (pg.19)
To My Favorite 17-year-old High School Girl
The Dog on His Master and The Reverent
Oh My God (audio poor)
Flock (poem read in interview)
Hippos on Holiday
Aimless Love
The Lanyard
I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version Of “Three Blind Mice”
The Dead

Collins delivered each of his poems in his conversational tone- dry, wry, and understated. Leaving the poetry reading, I could not help but start to “think” in Collins’s cadence. Later that evening, my thoughts matched his tempo:

I had heard the poet at a reading once before,
when he read the blind mice poem that made me laugh.

I bought the book Sailing Alone Around the Room
and found inside the poems Sonnet and Aristotle that I now use
with my Advanced Placement students, but I do not teach
Taking Off Emily Dickenson’s Clothes.

They do not appreciate the Belle of Amherst the way Billy and I do.


The standing ovation
became a mass migration,
some to their cars and some to the table
where the poet scrawled his signature
repeatedly into book after book after book.

Later when I crushed my bedroom pillow
up to the headboard, I wondered
if he was still held hostage to his adoring fans?

Sunken Garden Poetry should be commended for organizing a memorable summer evening. This coming winter, I suspect that a number of those who attended will turn to a companion, and quote Billy Collins and say, “Too bad you couldn’t have been here six months ago.”

Mother’s Day is coming! There will be tributes and flowers and cards and perfume and candy and breakfasts, brunches, suppers, dinners given in honor of mothers. The phone networks will run white hot with continental and international calls with phone calls to mom.

I too will send flowers, and I will make a phone call, but I have already given her a little tribute in person this past month. Mom lives in Idaho, and I spent spring break with her and other members of my (large) family. We had lunch, I cooked dinners, and we did a little shopping. At night we would sit at the dining table and talk. Since April is poetry month, I decided to share one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins.

I found Billy Collins back in 2004 when he contacted teachers to participate in the Poetry 180 project, a poem a day for students in schools to be shared during daily announcements or posted on bulletin boards. Collins believes:

“Poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race. By just spending a few minutes reading a poem each day, new worlds can be revealed.”

Just the thought of sharing a Billy Collins poem makes me start to grin. His verse is so wise and often very funny. The added benefit is that there are plenty of recordings of him reading his poems. His dead pan delivery of his poetry is priceless. Even hearing him give the explanation for a poem’s genesis makes me start to chuckle; on the video below, you can hear the audience do the same.

box stich

How to make a box stitch lanyard

Collins introduces the poem The Lanyard by downplaying his efforts. “I did what most poets tend to do,” he notes in the opening explanation, “which is  write about a topic that is rather large, to choose an image as a point of entry rather than take on the topic in a frontal way.”

That is an understatement since in this poem, the topic is large: “How can you repay your mother?”

The Lanyard – Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

from The Trouble with Poetry. Purchase from Amazon (here).

Like the speaker in the poem, I have given my mother a lanyard I made during day camp. I also have given her a pile of acrylic woven potholders that could not possibly protect a hand against the heat of a pan, several cigarette ashtrays when no one in our immediate family smoked, a plethora of pasta strung on elastic cords that she could wear around her neck, and several tile trivets that left specks of powdery plaster of Paris on the dining table when it was brought out only for special occasions. I understand Billy Collin’s taste in art.

I also understand that I can never repay my mother. I find that hard to communicate to her directly, and so I too have to take on the large topic of a mother’s love with smaller points of entry. I cleaned out the spice rack, consolidating jars and removing a can of mace spice from the A & P that had travelled West with her some 30 years earlier. We found letters, some written by my father or to my father who passed away 23 years ago;  we listened to my brother read the letters aloud and remembered how well my father had cared for all of us. We sat in the sun, and we marveled at her view of the city of Boise on a clear spring afternoon. And I shared Billy Collin’s poem, “The Lanyard” knowing full well that nothing could ever make us even.