Archive for the ‘Billy Collins’ Category

I’ve been posting submissions in the order in which I received them, which led to the mistiming of today’s entry of Billy Collins’ tribute to his mother, “The Lanyard.” Should have been last week, before Mother’s Day. That said, (said the mother), Hallmark doesn’t have a monopoly on appropriate days to thank one’s mother.


Today’s poem and picture are from Lizzie, my daughter, a nurse in northern Michigan. She noted that the first stanza sounds like a re-cap of daily life under shelter-at-home orders. Indeed it does!


Thanks, Lizzie, the floor is yours—




I put the poem in the aisle where the toilet paper should be, across from the mother/baby aisle. Hoped it would get more traffic there. I felt very protective of it and lingered for a little too long, not wanting the poem to get taken down before it made some meaning for someone!


I like the poem because it captures the absurdity and difficulty of thanking a mother for mothering, and makes me think how beautiful and pure is a mother’s love, a love that does not ask to be repaid.



The Lanyard

by 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.


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First, an apology to anyone eating when they read my last post.  Several people told me they mis-read “Bloody Bowls” as “Bloody Bowels.”  I missed that somehow when I was coming up with a title.  Now Bloody Bowels is all I see. Apologies to Laura Kasischke as well.  No poet would want her poem associated with hemorrhoids.


I also wanted to highlight a few excerpts from an interview with poet Billy Collins on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday.  A listener asked Mr. Collins if he thought tweeting was a new form of poetry.  He didn’t mince words in his reply:

Well, if it is it’s a very degraded form of poetry. Someone said recently that what we are suffering from in contemporary times is not an excess of information. We are suffering from an excess of insignificance. And it is that I think with media like Facebook, there is a kind of presumption that the world wants to know that you’re going out to have a pizza. Not only that but people will then respond and say, oh pizza. I like pizza or good for you. What kind are you getting? This is just beyond me. I mean, there must be better things to do like studying Latin or something, besides indulging in that.


I love this:  we are suffering from an excess of insignificance.


Later he responds to a listener who hosted a “poetry dinner party” in which each dinner guest had to bring a poem to share:


I think it’s a great idea to get poetry out of the libraries. I mean not to take the books out, but to see that poetry can have a life outside of the classroom, outside of the library.


Sounds like a Poem Elf Manifesto to my ears.


You can read the transcript of the interview here.





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Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the first day of National Poetry Month, a celebration most people observe by deleting Poem-a-Day emails.


Today is also the most important secular holiday of the year: April Fool’s Day.


And I am Marie of Romania, as Dorothy Parker would say.


Actually I’m as serious as a person who hides poems in the grocery store can be.


Bright among all the other days of the year is this one day when we take ourselves less seriously, laugh at our own expense, shake up routine and defy expectations.  The fact that April Fool’s Day has been celebrated since ancient Roman times and today is celebrated all over the world should give the holiday a little respect.


I’m celebrating April Fool’s Day with light verse, another underappreciated cultural artifact.  Light verse is the adult version of nonsense rhyme, which is usually a child’s first introduction to poetry.  Gene Kelly couldn’t leap onto the lamppost if he hadn’t learned to walk first, and so the value of Mother Goose, riddle poems and jump rope rhymes.  I was lucky to have a mother well-versed in silliness, so I grew up with limericks about Paul who went to the Halloween ball, ditties at bedtime like good night sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite, and the gruesome and delightful Little Willie poems.


I left a few samples of light verse and nonsense rhymes around town.  (The Billy Collins’ poem is not light verse, but I thought it was funny so I included it.)


At the Costco gas station I left a poem called “Three Riddled Rhymes.”

poem is on pump above Wrong Way sign

poem is on pump above Wrong Way sign


I collect stamps/and coconuts is going to be my answer the next time someone asks me what I do.

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I taped a set of Little Willie poems outside an Irish bar.  My mother is Irish and she learned the poems from her Irish father.

poems are on post below Brady's sign

poems are on post below Brady’s sign


I’m just noticing that I duplicated the first poem.  Oh well, much worse things happen in these poems.  You can read more here and also the history of these great little poems.

Image 4



I went to the wake of the father of a friend and left “The Optimist” in the funeral home bathroom.  He was Irish too, so I figured he’d enjoy a little humor.

Image 6

poem is hidden in candy bowl below mirror


I’m not sure if this is meant to be a poem or would be a better New Yorker cartoon:

Image 5



A guest Poem Elf-er, my daughter Lizzie, left an epitaph poem on a city sidewalk.

poem is on planter

poem is on planter


I used to love these epitaph poems.  Remember Lesley Moore, no less, no more?

Image 2



I swim a few times a week at a high school just after the swim team finishes using the pool.  Entering the locker room full of teenage girls is like entering a birdcage.  Just the place for Billy Collins’ “Oh, My God!”

second top locker from the right. . . poem is peeking through the grate

second top locker from the right. . . poem is peeking through the grate


Having this line, outbursts of praise/spring unbidden from their glossy lips, in my head makes the girls high-pitched chatter less irritating.

Image 9



Enjoy the foolery today.  Any good jokes or tricks?


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poem is inside magazine in hotel bathroom


Baby Listening

by Billy Collins

According to the guest information directory,

baby listening is a service offered by this seaside hotel.


Baby listening—not a baby who happens to be listening,

as I thought when I first checked in.


Leave the receiver off the hook

the directory advises,

and your infant can be monitored by the staff,


though the staff, the entry continues,

cannot be held responsible for the well-being

of the baby in question.


Fair enough, someone to listen to the baby.


But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,

lying there in the room next to mine

listening to my pen scratching against the page,


or a more advanced baby who has crawled

down the hallway of the hotel

and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.


Lucky for some of us,

poetry is a place where both are true at once,

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.


Poetry want to have the baby who is listening at my door

as well as the baby who is being listened to,

quietly breathing by the nearby telephone.


And it also wants the baby

who is making sounds of distress

into the curved receiver lying in the crib


while the girl at reception has just stepped out

to have a smoke with her boyfriend

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.



Recently I googled I hate poetry and poetry sucks. (Professional curiosity or laundry avoidance? I leave it to you.)  While not as many people seem to hate poetry as hate Barry Manilow (let’s hope the poor fellow stays clear of internet searches), there’s still a sizable population who loathe and detest la poésie, a French word for poetry that I include to further annoy poetry-haters Merely hating poetry is not enough for these folks.  They seem to feel it’s necessary to create t-shirts, bumper stickers, websites, comedy routines and yes, even poems, to announce their feelings.


Online I found three objections to poets and poetry:

  1. Poets take themselves too seriously 
  2. Poetry is hard to understand
  3. Poetry is depressing


Shirley Temple by moviemag47Into this discussion let me introduce poet Billy Collins.  Collins is the Shirley Temple of the poetry world, impish, charming, irresistible, a goodwill ambassador come from a misunderstood country, winning over friends and allies with every production.


“Baby Listening” can serve as a response to the three objections outlined above.  To the charge that poets are pretentious and poems impenetrable, I say look how reader-friendly Collins is.  His language is clear, his tone conversational.  Collins has said that poems should “begin in clarity and end in mystery.”  The fact that this poem begins with the poet’s own confusion over the term “baby listening” does not contradict his modus operandi.  From the beginning the reader knows exactly what’s going on:  Collins is reading the directory of a seaside hotel off the coast of England or Scotland.


Collins has also spoken of the need to “establish hospitality” at a poem’s beginning to invite the reader in.  Let me help you into this poem, his tone seems to say, like a friendly stranger saying to an old lady, Let me help you into this taxi.  Then he buckles his reader in and the taxi takes off for a crazy ride.


But even with a writer as considerate and dedicated to clarity as Collins, reading poetry requires effort. Poetry haters are right that poetry isn’t always easy to understand.  We’re used to language that only means one thing at a time, and poetry feeds on ambiguity:

poetry is a  place . . .

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

In the worlds of law, science, math, and cooking, each word’s referent must be crystal clear and singular, else a lawsuit, explosion or failed exam may result.  Collins italicizes the legalistic wording of the hotel’s directory to highlight the difference between poetic and prosaic language.


Poetry’s magic, Collins says, is that all the babies in the poem can exist at once.  The  babies can be associations, connotations, images, meanings, or anything else that flashes in our brains when we read a line.


For example, notice how evocative the poem’s language becomes as we move from the clarity of the beginning to the mysteries of the end.  The baby cries into a “curved receiver.”  The curve suggests a mother, but the “mother” in this case is a girl earning an hourly wage who doesn’t take her responsibilities seriously.  She slips out, also unwatched by a mother (who probably would not approve of smoking and canoodling), to meet her boyfriend, and sex is in the air—

in the dark by the great sway and wash of the North Sea.

The image sets a scene—something out of Local Hero, a favorite movie of mine—but also works to insert danger under the surface of the poem.  The dark ocean is so much bigger and more powerful than the helpless baby and the unhelpful girl that their safety is uncertain.


So why the danger and the darkness?  The poem began with such lightness and comedy, with sweet babies crawling down hotel hallways and pressing little ears to the wall.  Why does the poet have to put one of the babies in mortal danger?  Why, the haters ask, does poetry insist on being depressing?


Collins provides a good answer in an interview he gave to The Cortland Review.  In response to a comment that in a post 9/11 world, people were trying to live life more fully, he said:

Poetry has been saying that for a few thousand years. Seize the day. Do it now. The sense behind that imperative is that we don’t have an unlimited number of days. Television says the same thing all the time—’Everything’s going to be OK.’ Contemporary novels are saying, ‘Things are not OK.’ What poetry is saying is ‘Life is beautiful but you’re going to die.’ So much of poetry asks us to look at life from the perspective that death enhances life.


Which explains why after reading this poem I really wanted to hold a baby again, to kiss its little ears and feet; and why I remembered so sharply what it was like to be a young girl kissing a boy on the beach at night.  It all passes so quickly and then it’s gone forever.


The Chicago hotel I left “Baby Listening” in did not offer baby listening, but they did offer wake-up calls, a service Collins performs in every poem.

Billy Collins is considered the most popular poet in America.  His readings have been called “the literary equivalent of Beatlemania” and he once commanded a six figure advance for book, almost unheard of for a poet.  He served 2 years as the poet laureate of the United States, and has taught and published in the most desirable of places.  You can hear him read a few poems here, and read a previous Collins’ poem-elfing here.

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Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House

by Billy Collins

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius.


My apologies for the awkward dash between stanzas.  It’s the only way I can figure out to separate the stanzas in wordpress.

This poem of Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate (a post that seems much too stiff and ceremonial for a sweet-faced Irish fellow like him), ended up in my mother’s upstairs bathroom for the following reasons: a. she loves dogs; b. she likes little tricks; and c. I knew she’d like the silly humor of this poem. Which she did.  “Arf, arf,” she emailed me when she found it.

Plus, I think Collins, with his nimble imaginative leaps, might enjoy finding himself in that little-used room, with its patched plaster wall, untrustworthy toilet and world map shower curtain.  He seems to like going to unexpected places, at least in his imagination.

The barking dog in the poem suggests an image to me of the poet as he writes.  Collins is holding on, just barely, to a leashed dog, a curious and happy but untrained black lab.  The dog leads him where it wants to go, and Collins, no Cesar Milan, tries to keep up. He starts out for a walk around the block and ends up in a parallel universe bagging doggy turds on the corner of What-If and What-the-Heck-Just-Happened.

This is a poet with total faith in his imagination.  He follows its lead and we chase along, amused and wondering.  A barking pet keeps barking until four stanzas later Beethoven’s written a symphony for dogs.  Walking my own dog, I laughed out loud thinking about the dog sitting in the oboe section and the conductor “entreating him with his baton.” Here the original situation–the poem’s speaker wanting the dog to stop barking–is reversed.  The conductor wants the dog to keep on barking, louder and more expressively.  His efforts are successful.

Man vs. dog is usually a comic scenario (unless you’re trapped in a Stephen King novel), and the dog usually wins.  No exception here:  the dog takes over the orchestra, the symphony, and ultimately the poem itself.

Jane, ready for her solo

(Quirky timing footnote: the very weekend I hid “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” in my mother’s house, she showed me a gun she had just found hidden in my father’s dresser.  It was a black pistol, startling to find among the reading glasses and military pins of his junk drawer.  We have little experience with firearms, so it took us some time to figure out it was just a BB gun.  He must have bought it to scare off intruders who never bothered to intrude.)

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