I don’t remember when or how I first discovered Billy Collins, although I think it was graduate school and I think it was me, wandering slowly though the library stacks on an odd off hour. I used to think locking a kid in a library was probably the cheapest and most direct route to education, and I’m still not sure the idea’s completely wrong.
I’ve told this story before, but when I was in college and still unable to drive, I used to have a 2 hour period where I would sit in the library alone, and of course doing homework was never fun. So I read fiction and those little green books of Latin historians in translation and history and art books and otherwise roamed the shelves looking for things that might interest me.
That’s how I found Jane Austen.
I still remember those strange, old-fashioned copies. At the bottom of each page they would have, dropped below the last line, the very first word of the next page—in case your curiosity was too much to bear for that half second it before you could turn the page.
I loved that.
But about Billy Collins.
I didn’t know much about him when I slid a copy of one of his books into my blue backpack for spring break, but I do remember sitting by a pool in Florida when the sun was just heaving over the snack bar, my beach towel wrapped around my knees against the morning air, feeling that satisfied glow that comes when you find a writer you know you’re going to love forever.
He was the US poet laureate for a couple years at the start of the 2000s, and I’m sure he has lots of other great honors if you’re into that kind of thing, but basically I love the easiness of his language, the ordinariness of his subjects, and the quiet, good-humored kindliness of it all.
And in honor of having nothing better to talk about on this cold, unexceptional January day while Carl and his brother hand the molding in our living room, I’m going to give you my favorite poem of his and recommend you borrow or buy lots, lots more. Here you go (also, you’re welcome):
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”