My Favorite Writing Teacher.


Most poetry sucks.

Well, most everything sucks when you get right down to it; most advertising, most TV shows, most novels.

But poetry? Ugh! If I see one more impenetrable little block of word salad in the New Yorker, I’m gonna need someone to hold my hair while I write my review into the big white telephone.

“O’ tin can in the street. Speaks to me. While heaven beckons.”

Hey, “O’ tin can in the street”? King Tut called. He wants his hieroglyphics back.

Then one day someone turns me on to Billy Collins and ever since I have been a complete Collins groupie. (Unbidden comes the disturbing image of my boxers landing on the stage at his next reading; an image I apologize for very deeply.)

I encourage anyone who fancies him or herself a writer to buy all the poems this man has written and study every turn of phrase, every perfectly chosen word. As writers, we improve by studying the work of those we admire.

At the risk of getting a cease-and-desist order from his publisher, I am going to include three of my favorites here. The first one is funny. The second, sort of wistful and sad. And the third (in addition to just being extraordinary) is a 479-word course in the structure of classic storytelling – a beginning, middle and end.

As you can see, this guy absolutely blows me away. See if he doesn’t do the same for you. My favorite three books of his are Sailing Alone Around The Room, Nine Horses, and The Art of Drowning.

As good as he is, I suppose the law of averages says there has to be at least one other writer out there writing poetry this accessible, this evocative; poetry that doesn’t need to be decrypted. If you have a favorite poem, feel free to post it here. I’d love to see it.

Before I go, a cool link to some of his poetry brought to life visually. (I think from a project done by JWT. There are a few others online too. Just sniff around.) The coolest part is that they’re read by Billy Collins himself.

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The Rival Poet

The column of your book titles,

always introducing your latest one,

looms over me like Roman architecture.

It is longer than the name

of an Italian countess, longer

than this poem will probably be.

Etched on the head of a pin,

my own production would leave room for

The Lord’s Prayer and many dancing angels.

No matter.

In my revenge daydream I am the one

poised on the marble staircase

high above the crowded ballroom.

A retainer in livery announces me

and the Contessa Maria Teresa Isabella

Multilire Eleganza de Bella Ferrari.

You are the one below

fidgeting in your rented tux

with some local Cindy hanging all over you.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •


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.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •


This is the beginning.

Almost anything can happen.

There is where you find

the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,

the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.

Think of an egg, the letter A,

a woman ironing on a bare stage

as the heavy curtain rises.

This is the very beginning.

The first-person narrator introduces himself,

tells us about his lineage.

The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.

Here the climbers are studying a map

or pulling on their long woolen socks.

This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.

The profile of an animal is being smeared

on the wall of a cave,

and you have not yet learned to crawl.

This is the opening, the gambit,

a pawn moving forward an inch.

This is your first night with her,

your first night without her.

This is the first part

where the wheels being to turn,

where the elevator begins its ascent,

before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.

Things have had time to get complicated,

messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.

Cities have sprouted up along the rivers

teeming with people at cross-purposes –

a million schemes, a million wild looks.

Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack

here and pitches his ragged tent.

This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,

where the action suddenly reverses

or swerves off in an outrageous direction.

Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph

to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.

Someone hides a letter under a pillow.

Here the aria rises to a pitch,

a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.

And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge

halfway up a mountain.

This is the bridge, the painful modulation.

This is the thick of things.

So much is crowded into the middle –

the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,

Russian uniforms, noisy parties,

lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall –

too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,

the car running out of road,

the river losing its name in an ocean,

the long nose of the photographed horse

touching the white electronic line.

This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,

the empty wheelchair,

and pigeons floating down in the evening.

Here the stage is littered with bodies,

the narrator leads the characters to their cells,

and the climbers are in their graves.

It is me hitting the period

and you closing the book.

It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen

and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.

This is the final bit

thinning away to nothing.

This is the end, according to Aristotle,

what we have all been waiting for,

what everything comes down to,

the destination we cannot help imagining,

the streak of light in the sky,

a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

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