Billy Collins’ “First Reader”

Personally, I find it difficult to decide exactly how I feel about Billy Collins' poetry, though the quote on the cover of Sailing Alone Around the Room that "It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins, and that in itself is a remarkable literary accomplishment" seems spot on.

It's impossible not to "like" much of what is written here – I marked seven poems that I "liked" in the first 83 pages, selections from poems written between 1988 and 1995. That's a respectable number of poems, but when I thought back on them I couldn't remember what a single one of them was about.

Perhaps too many merely remind me of things I already knew, but have unfortunately managed to forget. There's little here that reaches out and really grabs me, but I'd much rather read these than read the morning paper or watch TV, and I'm sure I'd be a better person for reading his book and foregoing the others.

Forced to pick a favorite in the first half of the book, this would be it:

FIRST READER

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustrations of their neighborhood,
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting,
"Look!" pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.

Part of what appealed to me in this poem wouldn't appeal to anyone too young to have been exposed to the Dick and Jane books as their first reader. The opening paragraph brought back a rush of pleasant memories, though I wondered why Spot wasn't here.

And, yes, most of the other characters are ones who introduced me to a world I might never have known without reading. Of course, I didn't realize at the time that I was giving up the ability to experience something more directly when I spent time exploring these literary worlds.

Worse yet, one begins to suspect that what we see is often determined by what we expect to see, and too often that expectation comes from reading rather than from our own experience.

Of course, this idea is not a new one, but it is one that we all too easily forget when we get caught up in reading books. Collins' poems are often reminders like this, and sometimes its nice to be reminded of important things that have gotten lost in our hectic daily lives.

8 thoughts on “Billy Collins’ “First Reader”

  1. I think the experience of reading, however wonderful, may diminish our lives in ways beyond just the enormous investment of time. In Sun and Steel, Mishima writes of the “corrosive effect” words have on a writer’s experience of reality; I suppose it’s the same for careful readers. Mishima discovered the price of his skill as a writer to be a distancing of his sensitivity to the outside world. To balance that loss, he engaged in body building and boxing.

  2. I read in the Nov. 14 issue of the New Yorker a profile of the poet and former Army Sgt. and combat vet Brian Turner and his recently published collection “Here, Bullet”. I believe I recall correctly you are also a vet. I am interested in your views if you are aware of Turners work. Perhaps some beauty has come out of that tragedy in Iraq after all. I’m reminded of the Samson story…

  3. Unfortunately I’m not familiar with him, troutbum, but I looked his poetry up in the web and the poems I found were quite interesting, though not enough to make a final judgment on.

    I noticed that the book is supposed to be published in November. I’ll be on the lookout for it at my local bookstore.

  4. My comment refers to Billy Collins poem about our iconic first reader.
    He’s done it just right–as usual–with his tongue in cheek and his reverence for the actual world. What he doesn’t mention (and did not need to mention) is that Dick & Jane left their imprint on us in ways that went beyond the pointing and looking. They had the same shaping influence Barbie Dolls had a generation later. Most amusing is the idea that all kids do each day is name the world. Richard Louv (the last child in the woods) suggests that after we finished the book, we all went in the house and never came out. Our own kids just stayed in there with us.

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