SOL 17 & Poetry Friday: Happy Birthday, Billy Collins!

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Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the U.S., is one of our most beloved poets. In honor of his birthday later this month, many Poetry Friday regulars are sharing their favorite Billy Collins poem.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mr. Collins read his poetry twice. Like his poetry, he is humble and filled with good humor. At both readings, he shared “The Lanyard.” The first time I heard him read this poem, I actually had my car keys on a lanyard my son had made at camp. Michael’s lanyard is long gone, but because of Billy Collins’s poem, I’ll never forget it.

Billy Collins at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, August 2013
Billy Collins at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, August 2013

“The Lanyard”

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly–
a past where I sat a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Edited to add: Because Heidi shared the same poem, I’m adding another poem. Since “The Lanyard” stirs up many memories, I thought “Forgetfulness” would be a fitting contrast. Enjoy!

by Billy Collins

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 good-bye
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 Paraquay.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Please be sure to visit Heidi Mordhorst at My Juicy Little Universe for more Billy Collins and the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Thank you also to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, MelanieLisa and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

19 thoughts on “SOL 17 & Poetry Friday: Happy Birthday, Billy Collins!

  1. Billy Collins is the perfect Slice of Life Poet in Residence — he observes the common world around him and then uses language to take the moment higher. Thanks for reminding me to remember to read him more often.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Using “language to take the moment higher.” That is the trick, isn’t it? This description of Billy Collins’s poetry is perfect. Thank you for being so articulate about the power of his work!


  2. I know I’m going to like this Poetry Friday, becoming immersed in Billy Collins’ poems. How lucky you’ve been to hear him read, Catherine. I love The Lanyard, and thanks for the 2nd one too, amusing and sad all at the same time: “It has floated away down a dark mythological river ” That’s it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Forgetfulness is a poem that often comes to mind when I speak to my parents, Catherine…I have a lanyard my son made somewhere in our attic – a talisman of long ago days. Thanks for sharing the videos – always lovely to hear Collins’ voice!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I once shared Forgetfulness with my mother in law and she was offended. She is not handling the loss of memory with any sense of humor. The Lanyard was a poem I used to have students write from a word in the dictionary. So many favorites!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Catherine, the poem The Lanyard, takes me back to my growing up years when my mother was a summer arts and crafts counselor. She created hundreds of lanyards with the children but the what she really gave them was her heart. Billy Collins delivering is always so special. I, too, had the privilege of hearing him read his poems. I am always taken by his voice.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “The name of the author is the first to go…” Isn’t it interesting that Billy Collins chooses to have the name of the author go first? I love both of these poems and am having fun discovering new ones in the midst of this Poetry Friday Collins celebration. I also really enjoyed listening to the attached video. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, my mother’s heart……that lanyard that we get from the kid. Who knew how much there could be to such a seemingly small exchange?! LOVE this poem, Lanyard. And Forgetfulness is a really nice pairing….sad and sweet and organic in the way that life is. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It is so much fun to hear everyone’s efforts to describe what Billy’s genius actually is! Some parts of it are commonly understood, but as Steve notes, we each keep lining up our own language to try and take the description to a higher level. I love thinking of you hearing this poem with your lanyard in your hand. I have a lovely one made by my daughter, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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