Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I am constantly either telling people about this poem or remembering it myself, because I love the poem because it's so artful and wise. So now I'll be able to say, "I blogged that poem once." And if I forget the name of the poem--which I know now is quite likely--I can always tell people to come to the blog and search "Billy Collins," and they will find it. (I'm not going to forget Collins's name, I don't think.) And every so often I read it again, as I did today when it appeared in "Writer's Almanac." I determined then and there that I would blog it, so I would always be able to find it.

Collins stuff strikes you like: oh, anybody can do this. He is so accessible and clear and easy to understand, it's easy to forget the artistry that's in these poems and the skill it takes to put something like this together. I was lucky to have started writing poems for real and seriously until I was almost in my sixties. So I missed going through a stage where I thought dense, inexplicable complexity was the heart of poetry. (Apparently lots of poets do, and sadly, a great many never grow out of it.) It is not. So I never wrote a single poem that I thought was inaccessible to people with a modicum of literacy. I try to be clear when I write anything, but I'm told by my wife because she's the only one who would tell me, that sometimes I am not. It always cuts to the quick. Like: damn!

Which gets us back to Billy Collins and why he's such a treasure. Not only clear, he's also funny. He's a great proponent of the view that humor in poetry is a good thing. No serious long face upon which you could drive to Vancouver for him!


by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart. 
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