Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Among the Books with Billy Collins

Many people don't even know that the US has a Poet Laureate, but we do. Every year, the Librarian of the Library of Congress chooses the United States Poet Laureate to promote the reading and writing of poetry. As national poet laureates go, we got started a little late. Our first laureate (the called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) was Joseph Auslander in 1937. Elizabeth Bishop was one. So was William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and...Billy Collins. Collins was named the US Poet Laureate, 2001-2003. Just because he served multiple terms doesn't mean he was loved by all. There were actual protests against his appointment. But, he's loved my me.

Last night I attended a reading at Politics and Prose, which to call it a bookstore would be an understatement. Politics and Prose is a DC institution. Almost all of the major book events that take place in DC are either at, hosted by, or co-sponsored by Politics and Prose. There's a reading nearly every night by a notable author.

Even if you can't make it to Politics and Prose, you can enjoy Billy Collins from wherever you happen to be. The first video is of Collins's humorous poem, "The Revenant," written from the prospective of a dog's ghost. Right?

The second poem is a little more pensive, and it's one of my favorites.

"I Go Back to the House for a Book" (From Picnic, Lightning)

I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor's office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquistion along a shelf,

another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,

a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me—
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.

Sometimes I think I see him
a few people in front of me on a line
or getting up from a table
to leave the restaurant just before I do,
slipping into his coat on the way out the door.

But there is no catching him,
no way to slow him down
and put us back in sync,
unless one day he decides to go back
to the house for something,

but I cannot imagine
for the life of me what that might be.
He is out there always before me,
blazing my trail, invisible scout,
hound that pulls me along,

shade I am doomed to follow,
my perfect double,
only bumped an inch into the future,
and not nearly as well-versed as I
in the love poems of Ovid—

I who went back to the house
that fateful winter morning and got the book.


  1. I hadn't read that one, and I love it, thanks Lori. I need to read more Billy Collins, he's great. And it goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) how jealous I am of your proximity to all these fabulous readings and whatnot.

  2. Everyone should read more Billy Collins. That's my motto. Well, actually my motto is less high-brow and more crass. But everyone should read more Billy Collins anyway. You're in the proximity of Oxford. I think that means you win! Miss you.

  3. Now, here is where I admit in public that I am not really a reader of poetry. But, a friend told me a few years ago that I absolutely had to read some Billy Collins poems, so I bought three thin volumes and they are on the to-be-read shelf of my bookcase. (With many other books, I regret.) Maybe I should take one of them from the shelf and put them on the in-waiting pile beside my favorite reading chair.

  4. You really should, Jack! The great thing about poetry is you don't even have to invest any time; you can just pick up a book and read a short poem. Billy Collins is very accessible, even for people who aren't normally big fans of poetry.