Billy Collins is probably my favorite living poet for several reasons. He never fails to help me see whatever he’s talking about in a new way. He regularly makes me feel like poetry is accessible by making his poetry accessible. He chooses everyday, down to earth topics and uses them to help me see them – and myself – differently. But mostly Billy Collins is my favorite poet because he makes me laugh. Sometimes out loud. Which, to be perfectly truthful, doesn’t often happen when I’m reading poetry. ☺

His poem “Litany” is one of my favorites for just that reason. Starting with a line from a love poem by Belgian poet Jacques Crickillon, he embarks toward the typical and predictable aim of such poetry by offering a tribute to his beloved. But after developing his litany of love ever so briefly, he just can’t help himself and wants to make sure his beloved doesn’t get too carried away. And then – perhaps betraying the narcissistic edge of most romantic love, or at least the infatuation that prompts romantic love poems – the narrator turns to lift up images that pay homage not just to his beloved but to himself. And then he remembers, perhaps, that this isn’t the way love poems are supposed to go so makes a quick course correction at the end, sort of.

Read it and see if you can’t laugh.

And then listen to this 3-year old (really!) recite it and it gets even funnier. Finally, give Collins a chance and listen to his own reading before a live audience (who also finds it funny!) where he talks about “literary theft” and the joys of rewriting someone else’s poetry. Who knew poetry could be such fun!

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.

Billy Collins, from Nine Horses: Poems


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