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Billy Collins' Concept of Time

Updated on June 29, 2011

The poetic genius of Billy Collins, Poet Laureate, lies in his ability to order his words so an ordinary moment turns into a meaningful experience. By pulling from everyday events inspired by his former suburban New York lifestyle, Collins has mastered the art of what he calls “clear poetry” so the reader can never “scratch his head and say, ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on here’” (Foderaro).

Collins doesn’t end by describing only blasé experiences, but in his “deceptively simple” manner transforms something familiar like eating osso buco and the story of the three blind mice into a deeper theme by the last line (Snell). One of Collins’ recurring themes is time. In what originally appears to be a paradoxical view, Billy Collins through poems found in his collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room, introduces the necessity to live in the present, hold onto our beginnings, and forget the past.

Living in the Present

On first impression, based upon Collins’ simplistic writing style that deals with ordinary daily experiences, he appears to be a man that lives in the present. Certain critics like Jeredith Merrin argue that Billy Collins “takes you for a walk on the mild side” with his patronizing comments and jokester charm that tells you “what you already know on earth…is all you need to know” (“Art Over Easy” 214). To some, Billy Collins is a nuisance who doesn’t take poetry seriously, while to others, he is a constant reminder to enjoy the little things in life that otherwise would go unnoticed.

He brings awareness and vivacity to the simplicity of the present. His poem “Some Final Words” ends with a description of himself going for a walk on a cool October evening as

a man of the present who has forgotten

every composer, every great battle,

just me,

a thin reed blowing in the night. (Collins 83)

His isolation of the words “just me” shows he has put aside everything in the past and focuses only on himself and that moment as the center of the universe. The self trumps over every other event in history as he lives with only the influence of present environmental reactions such as the wind blowing him like a reed. Everything outside this moment holds no value in his calculation of his worth of life.

Writing About Writing

In other poems such as “Budapest” and “Tuesday, June 4, 1991” Collins takes his concept of living in the present to an extreme by writing about how he is currently writing.

In “Budapest” he imaginatively compares his pen to “the snout of a strange animal / shaped like a human arm / and dressed in the sleeve of a loose green sweater” (Collins 69). As he sits down to write, he looks at his environment as a snapshot and through a playful selection of words, transforms his very arm holding a pen into an image of a foreign animal. Instead of writing about memories or future hopes, Collins simply writes about what he sees in front of him.

Another scene that depicts this snap shot technique is found in the seventh and beginning of the eighth stanza of “Tuesday, June 4, 1991” (the title itself displays the importance of capturing the day to day tasks). It says:

Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks

on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix,

hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out

a running record of this particular June Tuesday

as it unrolls before my eyes. (Collins 59)

The cat bears witness to his recording of the lines preceding and following that stanza which tell of simple things like his wife’s botany final, the painter outside, and the view from his window as nothing extraordinary, but “things you would expect to find outside a window, / all written down now and placed in the setting / of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated” (Collins 59).

The only things that influence him are the things in his current environment. These are the things that make it onto his paper. He has succeeded in these few poems alone at depicting the sanctity and pleasure in basking in a single present moment.

Inspired By The Dawn

Collins finds pleasure in the present but also holds sweetly onto the past, especially the origins and beginnings of experiences. In the same poem, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991”, after he has observed the scene around himself and decides that being a poet always surrounded by beautiful things is a good career choice he makes the ambitious goal that “tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn” (Collins 59).

The final three stanzas build off of the idea of the dawn and carry a magical atmosphere with a classical allusion to Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn. He praises the early hours of the morning and personifies dawn as his wife, “barefoot and disheveled… / offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light” to aid in a new day of writing (Collins 60). The reader can picture a tousled yet graceful woman peering into his window as soft golden light inspires him out of bed and to his pen.

In another poem, aptly named “Morning”, Collins begins by plainly asking, “Why do we bother with the rest of the day” (Collins 100). The morning is depicted in this poem as the time of day when anything is possible as soon as the covers are thrown off, while the rest of the day bring tedious darkness. He writes about a whirlwind of morning activities while “buzzing around the house on espresso” that gives the reader a sense of exciting urgency to seize opportunities (Collins 100). The morning has begun and the energy the espresso gives is enough to set new goals and be productive in filling them.

Cherishing and Longing for Beginnings

This cherishing of beginnings is solidified in his poem “Aristotle”, which is appropriately split into three stanzas: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The first stanza starts with: “This is the beginning. / Almost anything can happen” (Collins 132). During this stanza on beginnings, Collins’ words and lines are brisk as he depicts the anticipation for new experiences all laced with adventure and the unknown, echoing the espresso infused tone of “Morning”.

The next stanza begins “This is the middle. / Things have had time to get complicated, / messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore” (Collins 132). Already the words have become sluggish and the tone wearisome. The energy of the beginning has been overshadowed with disappointment and the worries of life with the possibility for future failure.

The final stanza begins “And this is the end, / the car running out of road, / the river losing its name in an ocean” (Collins 133). This is the season where everything is finished with nothing left to look forward to. It could be the end of one day or the end of your life. Adventures come to a brief halt and lines blur to where specific identity is indistinguishable. Collins leaves the reader with a longing for the beginning of the poem where the life experience was fresh and new.

In Collins’ somber poem “On Turning Ten” he depicts a boy about to turn ten years old who also longs to be back at the beginning. Even at a relatively young age, this boy is feeling the impact of the evolution of time depicted in “Aristotle”. The boy’s imagination lessens and his bike loses its adrenaline rushing speed. Most importantly he is losing “the perfect simplicity” of his younger years (Collins 63). Collins ends this poem with the last slice of this boy’s childhood leaving him for the impending hardships of life:

It seems only yesterday I used to believe

there was nothing under my skin but light.

If you cut me I would shine.

But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,

I skin my knees. I bleed. (Collins 64)

In his simpler days, the boy held an internal light, much like the light of the dawn in “Tuesday, June 4, 1991”. In the beginning of his life, everything was glorious that even his wounds would only seep out his light for everyone to see rather than give him pain. Now, upon exiting childhood the boy must trade in his internal dawn and adventure for the realities of pain from human wounds and hurtful experiences.

Learn from the Past

While Collins holds sweetly onto the beginnings of new experiences, he also writes on the importance of learning from the past. In his poem “History Teacher”, he depicts a teacher who is “trying to protect his students’ innocence” by lying to them about major catastrophes and pains of the past (Collins 38).

For example, he tells them that “The War of the Roses took place in a garden, / and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom / on Japan” (Collins 38). Meanwhile the children he is trying to protect go out into the playground and bully other children, acting just like the terrible events he has left them ignorant to.

The teacher in this poem thought it would be beneficial to hide things in the past from his students, but the end result of not learning from the past is only another breed of war hungry citizens.

Forget the Past

Ironically, even though Collins appears to desire beginnings and to learn from the past, he also encourages forgetting the past. In the poem “Some Final Words” he begins with: “I cannot leave you without saying this: / the past is nothing” (Collins 82). He tells the story of Johann Strauss’ younger brother who died after falling from a podium while he was conducting a symphony and the need to forget the entire scene from the curtain’s creak and the people’s reactions. Painful experiences may need to be forgotten to aid healing, but Collins tells the reader to even forget Strauss himself and his notable accomplishments, including the polka he wrote for his mother. Instead of praising Strauss and his past achievements, Collins is disgusted by them and claims in his jokester ways that the polka he composed “is enough to make me flee the past” (Collins 83).

Collins extradites the reader from this historical scene into the image of him swinging his arms outside on an October evening, content in the present without the worries or memories of earlier years. Whether the memories are painful or silly, there is no benefit in dwelling on them or considering them as an influence in the current life as the past only “waters a field of bitter vegetation” that can create nothing constructive (Collins 82).

Collins’ views on time seem contradictory while he simultaneously expresses the importance of living in the present, remembering the beginning, learning from history, while also forgetting the past. On the contrary, through his collection of poetry, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Collins exemplifies the essence of the human mind rather than a string of paradoxes. For him, “a poem ‘is a moment, not a lifelong definition’” as he fully understands that human beings change and evolve their mindsets depending on their season in life (Wetzler).

Every unique human goes through periods where the past may be inextricable because it allows him to see where he comes from while propelling him into a future of wise decisions. Sometimes, however, living in the present while letting go of painful memories is the healthiest alternative and erasing the past may make it possible for a new dawn to emerge. Each path is exclusive to individual experiences and neither can be proved universally right or wrong.

As Billy Collins’ readers are reminded to live with the present moment as the focus, in hindsight each of these moments will prove itself to either be held onto sweetly or released in favor of a new beginning.

Works Cited and Additional Readings

Collins, Billy.Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems.New York: Random House, 2001.

Foderaro, Lisa W. “With the Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, as a Neighbor, the County is Rife With Readings, Slams and Open Mikes.”The New York Times Online.12 Jan 2003. 17 April 2009 <>.

Merrin, Jeredith. “Art Over Easy.”Southern Review38.1 (Winter 2002): 202 (13p).Academic Search Complete.EBSCOHost. Regent University Lib. 18 April 2009 <>.

Snell, Ellen. “Billy Collins: Not Your Average Modern Poet.”The DePauw. 27 Feb 2009. 17 April 2009 <>.

Wetzler, Cynthia Magriel. “With Humor, Poet Lures Fans to the Serious.”The New York Times Online.30 November 1997. 17 April 2009 <>.


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    • Madeline Madison profile imageAUTHOR

      Madeline Madison 

      7 years ago from Anywhere and Everywhere. Home-base in CT


      Thank you very much! He's brilliant, I tell ya! I got the chance to meet and chat with him a few months ago and he's just as witty, random, and hysterical in person as I had imagined him on the page.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      7 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      It sounds like Billy Collins has perfected the art of pointing out the extremely obvious. I am but a fledgling in the art. Terrific hub earning you a vote-up and an awesome.


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