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Best Famous Billy Collins Poems

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by Billy Collins | |

Flames

 Smokey the Bear heads
into the autumn woods
with a red can of gasoline
and a box of wooden matches.
His ranger's hat is cocked at a disturbing angle.
His brown fur gleams under the high sun as his paws, the size of catcher's mitts, crackle into the distance.
He is sick of dispensing warnings to the careless, the half-wit camper, the dumbbell hiker.
He is going to show them how a professional does it.


by Billy Collins | |

Introduction To Poetry

 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.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem's room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author's name on the shore.
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.


by Billy Collins | |

Another Reason Why I Dont Keep A Gun In The House

 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.


More great poems below...

by Billy Collins | |

Snow Day

 Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
In a while I will put on some boots and step out like someone walking in water, and the dog will porpoise through the drifts, and I will shake a laden branch, sending a cold shower down on us both.
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.
So this is where the children hide all day, These are the nests where they letter and draw, where they put on their bright miniature jackets, all darting and climbing and sliding, all but the few girls whispering by the fence.
And now I am listening hard in the grandiose silence of the snow, trying to hear what those three girls are plotting, what riot is afoot, which small queen is about to be brought down.


by Billy Collins | |

For Bartleby The Scrivener

 "Every time we get a big gale around here
 some people just refuse to batten down.
" we estimate that ice skating into a sixty mile an hour wind, fully exerting the legs and swinging arms you will be pushed backward an inch every twenty minutes.
in a few days, depending on the size of the lake, the backs of your skates will touch land.
you will then fall on your ass and be blown into the forest.
if you gather enough speed by flapping your arms and keeping your skates pointed you will catch up to other flying people who refused to batten down.
you will exchange knowing waves as you ride the great wind north.


by Billy Collins | |

The Art Of Drowning

 I wonder how it all got started, this business
about seeing your life flash before your eyes
while you drown, as if panic, or the act of submergence,
could startle time into such compression, crushing
decades in the vice of your desperate, final seconds.
After falling off a steamship or being swept away in a rush of floodwaters, wouldn't you hope for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand turning the pages of an album of photographs- you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat.
How about a short animated film, a slide presentation? Your life expressed in an essay, or in one model photograph? Wouldn't any form be better than this sudden flash? Your whole existence going off in your face in an eyebrow-singeing explosion of biography- nothing like the three large volumes you envisioned.
Survivors would have us believe in a brilliance here, some bolt of truth forking across the water, an ultimate Light before all the lights go out, dawning on you with all its megalithic tonnage.
But if something does flash before your eyes as you go under, it will probably be a fish, a quick blur of curved silver darting away, having nothing to do with your life or your death.
The tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all as you sink toward the weedy disarray of the bottom, leaving behind what you have already forgotten, the surface, now overrun with the high travel of clouds.


by Billy Collins | |

Today

 If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.


by Billy Collins | |

Litany

 You are the bread and the knife,
 The crystal goblet and the wine.
.
.
-Jacques Crickillon You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker, and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard, the plums on the counter, or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge, maybe even the pigeon on the general's head, but you are not even close to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show that you are neither the boots in the corner nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know, speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world, that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star, the evening paper blowing down an alley and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.


by Billy Collins | |

I Ask You

 What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside--
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.
But beyond this table there is nothing that I need, not even a job that would allow me to row to work, or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4 with cracked green leather seats.
No, it's all here, the clear ovals of a glass of water, a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin, not to mention the odd snarling fish in a frame on the wall, and the way these three candles-- each a different height-- are singing in perfect harmony.
So forgive me if I lower my head now and listen to the short bass candle as he takes a solo while my heart thrums under my shirt-- frog at the edge of a pond-- and my thoughts fly off to a province made of one enormous sky and about a million empty branches.


by Billy Collins | |

Candle Hat

 In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrant looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.
But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.
He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head which is fitted around the brim with candle holders, a device that allowed him to work into the night.
You can only wonder what it would be like to be wearing such a chandelier on your head as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.
But once you see this hat there is no need to read any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.
To understand Goya you only have to imagine him lighting the candles one by one, then placing the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.
Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention, the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.
Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house with all the shadows flying across the walls.
Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
"Come in, " he would say, "I was just painting myself," as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush, illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.


by Billy Collins | |

Nightclub

 You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing I am so beautiful and you are a fool to be in love with me, even though this notion has surely crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool is another one you don't hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.
For no particular reason this afternoon I am listening to Johnny Hartman whose dark voice can curl around the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness like no one else's can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette someone left burning on a baby grand piano around three o'clock in the morning; smoke that billows up into the bright lights while out there in the darkness some of the beautiful fools have gathered around little tables to listen, some with their eyes closed, others leaning forward into the music as if it were holding them up, or twirling the loose ice in a glass, slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty, borne beyond midnight, that has no desire to go home, especially now when everyone in the room is watching the large man with the tenor sax that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage and hands the instrument down to me and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish, my long bebop solo begins by saying, so damn foolish we have become beautiful without even knowing it.


by Billy Collins | |

Forgetfulness

 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.


by Billy Collins | |

Invention

 Tonight the moon is a cracker,
with a bite out of it
floating in the night,

and in a week or so
according to the calendar
it will probably look

like a silver football,
and nine, maybe ten days ago
it reminded me of a thin bright claw.
But eventually -- by the end of the month, I reckon -- it will waste away to nothing, nothing but stars in the sky, and I will have a few nights to myself, a little time to rest my jittery pen.


by Billy Collins | |

Picnic Lightning

 It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home.
Pedestrians are flattened by safes falling from rooftops mostly within the panels of the comics, but still, we know it is possible, as well as the flash of summer lightning, the thermos toppling over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be delivered from within.
The heart, no valentine, decides to quit after lunch, the power shut off like a switch, or a tiny dark ship is unmoored into the flow of the body's rivers, the brain a monastery, defenseless on the shore.
This is what I think about when I shovel compost into a wheelbarrow, and when I fill the long flower boxes, then press into rows the limp roots of red impatiens -- the instant hand of Death always ready to burst forth from the sleeve of his voluminous cloak.
Then the soil is full of marvels, bits of leaf like flakes off a fresco, red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick to burrow back under the loam.
Then the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the clouds a brighter white, and all I hear is the rasp of the steel edge against a round stone, the small plants singing with lifted faces, and the click of the sundial as one hour sweeps into the next.


by Billy Collins | |

On Turning Ten

 The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back, but that is because you have forgotten the perfect simplicity of being one and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly against the side of my tree house, and my bicycle never leaned against the garage as it does today, all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself, as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends, time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life, I skin my knees.
I bleed.


by Billy Collins | |

The First Dream

 The Wind is ghosting around the house tonight
and as I lean against the door of sleep
I begin to think about the first person to dream,
how quiet he must have seemed the next morning

as the others stood around the fire
draped in the skins of animals
talking to each other only in vowels,
for this was long before the invention of consonants.
He might have gone off by himself to sit on a rock and look into the mist of a lake as he tried to tell himself what had happened, how he had gone somewhere without going, how he had put his arms around the neck of a beast that the others could touch only after they had killed it with stones, how he felt its breath on his bare neck.
Then again, the first dream could have come to a woman, though she would behave, I suppose, much the same way, moving off by herself to be alone near water, except that the curve of her young shoulders and the tilt of her downcast head would make her appear to be terribly alone, and if you were there to notice this, you might have gone down as the first person to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.


by Billy Collins | |

The Best Cigarette

 There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.
The heralded one, of course: after sex, the two glowing tips now the lights of a single ship; at the end of a long dinner with more wine to come and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier; or on a white beach, holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.
How bittersweet these punctuations of flame and gesture; but the best were on those mornings when I would have a little something going in the typewriter, the sun bright in the windows, maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee and on the way back to the page, curled in its roller, I would light one up and feel its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.
Then I would be my own locomotive, trailing behind me as I returned to work little puffs of smoke, indicators of progress, signs of industry and thought, the signal that told the nineteenth century it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette, when I would steam into the study full of vaporous hope and stand there, the big headlamp of my face pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.


by Billy Collins | |

Child Development

 As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.
Every day a new one arrives and is added to the repertoire.
You Dumb Goopyhead, You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor (a kind of Navaho ring to that one) they yell from knee level, their little mugs flushed with challenge.
Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.
They are just tormenting their fellow squirts or going after the attention of the giants way up there with their cocktails and bad breath talking baritone nonsense to other giants, waiting to call them names after thanking them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.
The mature save their hothead invective for things: an errant hammer, tire chains, or receding trains missed by seconds, though they know in their adult hearts, even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed for his appalling behavior, that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids, their wives are Dopey Dopeheads and that they themselves are Mr.
Sillypants.


by Billy Collins | |

By A Swimming Pool Outside Syracusa

 All afternoon I have been struggling
to communicate in Italian
with Roberto and Giuseppe, who have begun
to resemble the two male characters
in my Italian for Beginners,
the ones who are always shopping
or inquiring about the times of trains,
and now I can hardly speak or write English.
I have made important pronouncements in this remote limestone valley with its trickle of a river, stating that it seems hotter today even than it was yesterday and that swimming is very good for you, very beneficial, you might say.
I also posed burning questions about the hours of the archaeological museum and the location of the local necropolis.
But now I am alone in the evening light which has softened the white cliffs, and I have had a little gin in a glass with ice which has softened my mood or— how would you say in English— has allowed my thoughts to traverse my brain with greater gentleness, shall we say, or, to put it less literally, this drink has extended permission to my mind to feel—what's the word?— a friendship with the vast sky which is very—give me a minute—very blue but with much great paleness at this special time of day, or as we say in America, now.


by Billy Collins | |

Consolation

 How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets, fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.
There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous domes and there is no need to memorize a succession of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon's little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.
How much better to command the simple precinct of home than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps? Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyes camera eager to eat the world one monument at a time? Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice, I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress known as Dot.
I will slide into the flow of the morning paper, all language barriers down, rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.
And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car as if it were the great car of English itself and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.


by Billy Collins | |

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

 In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word for what he does, or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid? Is this not implied by his serene expression, that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe? But here we are, working our way down the driveway, one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear and become lost to each other in these sudden clouds of our own making, these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church, I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow, and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky, I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow as if it were the purpose of existence, as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway you could back the car down easily and drive off into the vanities of the world with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side, me with my commentary and he inside his generous pocket of silence, until the hour is nearly noon and the snow is piled high all around us; then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks, can we go inside and play cards? Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes and leaning for a moment on his shovel before he drives the thin blade again deep into the glittering white snow.


by Billy Collins | |

Dear Reader

 Baudelaire considers you his brother,
and Fielding calls out to you every few paragraphs 
as if to make sure you have not closed the book,
and now I am summoning you up again,
attentive ghost, dark silent figure standing 
in the doorway of these words.
Pope welcomes you into the glow of his study, takes down a leather-bound Ovid to show you.
Tennyson lifts the latch to a moated garden, and with Yeats you lean against a broken pear tree, the day hooded by low clouds.
But now you are here with me, composed in the open field of this page, no room or manicured garden to enclose us, no Zeitgeist marching in the background, no heavy ethos thrown over us like a cloak.
Instead, our meeting is so brief and accidental, unnoticed by the monocled eye of History, you could be the man I held the door for this morning at the bank or post office or the one who wrapped my speckled fish.
You could be someone I passed on the street or the face behind the wheel of an oncoming car.
The sunlight flashes off your windshield, and when I look up into the small, posted mirror, I watch you diminish—my echo, my twin— and vanish around a curve in this whip of a road we can't help traveling together.


by Billy Collins | |

Japan

 Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.
It feels like eating the same small, perfect grape again and again.
I walk through the house reciting it and leave its letters falling through the air of every room.
I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.
I listen to myself saying it, then I say it without listening, then I hear it without saying it.
And when the dog looks up at me, I kneel down on the floor and whisper it into each of his long white ears.
It's the one about the one-ton temple bell with the moth sleeping on its surface, and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating pressure of the moth on the surface of the iron bell.
When I say it at the window, the bell is the world and I am the moth resting there.
When I say it at the mirror, I am the heavy bell and the moth is life with its papery wings.
And later, when I say it to you in the dark, you are the bell, and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you, and the moth has flown from its line and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.


by Billy Collins | |

Madmen

 They say you can jinx a poem
if you talk about it before it is done.
If you let it out too early, they warn, your poem will fly away, and this time they are absolutely right.
Take the night I mentioned to you I wanted to write about the madmen, as the newspapers so blithely call them, who attack art, not in reviews, but with breadknives and hammers in the quiet museums of Prague and Amsterdam.
Actually, they are the real artists, you said, spinning the ice in your glass.
The screwdriver is their brush.
The real vandals are the restorers, you went on, slowly turning me upside-down, the ones in the white doctor's smocks who close the wound in the landscape, and thus ruin the true art of the mad.
I watched my poem fly down to the front of the bar and hover there until the next customer walked in-- then I watched it fly out the open door into the night and sail away, I could only imagine, over the dark tenements of the city.
All I had wished to say was that art was also short, as a razor can teach with a slash or two, that it only seems long compared to life, but that night, I drove home alone with nothing swinging in the cage of my heart except the faint hope that I might catch a glimpse of the thing in the fan of my headlights, maybe perched on a road sign or a street lamp, poor unwritten bird, its wings folded, staring down at me with tiny illuminated eyes.


by Billy Collins | |

The Iron Bridge

 I am standing on a disused iron bridge
that was erected in 1902,
according to the iron plaque bolted into a beam,
the year my mother turned one.
Imagine--a mother in her infancy, and she was a Canadian infant at that, one of the great infants of the province of Ontario.
But here I am leaning on the rusted railing looking at the water below, which is flat and reflective this morning, sky-blue and streaked with high clouds, and the more I look at the water, which is like a talking picture, the more I think of 1902 when workmen in shirts and caps riveted this iron bridge together across a thin channel joining two lakes where wildflowers blow along the shore now and pairs of swans float in the leafy coves.
1902--my mother was so tiny she could have fit into one of those oval baskets for holding apples, which her mother could have lined with a soft cloth and placed on the kitchen table so she could keep an eye on infant Katherine while she scrubbed potatoes or shelled a bag of peas, the way I am keeping an eye on that cormorant who just broke the glassy surface and is moving away from me and the iron bridge, swiveling his curious head, slipping out to where the sun rakes the water and filters through the trees that crowd the shore.
And now he dives, disappears below the surface, and while I wait for him to pop up, I picture him flying underwater with his strange wings, as I picture you, my tiny mother, who disappeared last year, flying somewhere with your strange wings, your wide eyes, and your heavy wet dress, kicking deeper down into a lake with no end or name, some boundless province of water.