Billy Collins’ “Three Wishes”

Usually after I've chosen a poem I want to talk about I search the net for a copy of that poem, hoping I won't have to type it out from scratch or worry whether I'm giving readers one more reason not to buy a book because they can find the poems online.

I'm surprised how often I find poems online and am often delighted when I can also gain new insights into the poem. Today when I searched for a copy of Collins' "The Three Wishes" I found not only a copy of the poem but an interesting interview with him.

THE THREE WISHES

Because he has been hungry for days,
the woodsman wishes for a skillet of hot sausages.
And because she is infuriated at his stupidity,
his lack of vision, shall we say,

his wife wishes the skillet would stick to his nose.
And so the last wish must also be squandered
by asking the genie to please
remove the heavy iron pan from the poor man's face.

Hovering in the smoke that wafts up
from his exotic green bottle,
the genie knew all along the couple
would never escape their miserable lot,

the cheerless hovel, the thin dog in the corner,
cold skillet on a cold stove,
and we knew this too, looking down from
the cloud of a sofa into the world of a book.

The man is a fool, it is easily said.
He could have wished for a million gold coins,
as his wife will remind him hourly
for the rest of their rueful lives,

or a million golden skillets
if he had a little imaginative flair,
and that is the cinder of truth
the story wishes to place in one of our shoes.

Nothing can come from nothing,
I nod with the rest of the congregation.
Three wishes is three wishes too many,
I mutter piously as I look up from the story.

But every time I think of it
all I ever really feel, besides a quiver
of sympathy for the poor woodsman,
is a gnawing hunger for sausages –

a sudden longing for a winter night,
a light snow falling outside,
my ax leaning by the door,
my devoted heavyset wife at the stove,

and a skillet of sizzling sausages,
maybe some green peppers and onions,
and for my seventh and final wish,
a decent bottle of Italian -- no, wait, make that Chilean red.

Like most people I've heard or read this folk tale many a time and will have to admit that most of the time I haven't gone beyond the "cinder of truth" Collins refers to. In retrospect, it's hard not to see the woodsman, fisherman, etc. as "foolish." Anyone who can't make better wishes than me must be foolish. Right?

And, yes, being a man it's hard not to sympathize with the woodsman whose "wife will remind him hourly/ for the rest of their rueful lives." Does anyone really imagine that even if the woodsman had wished for a million gold coins that he wouldn't still have to endure his wife's complaints?

What's more, I've gotten up on more than one cold Sunday morning with a sudden longing for link sausage fresh out of the skilled rather than Eggs Benedict, Dutch Baby Pancake, or even Huevos Ranchero. You don't have to be a hardy woodsman to work up a hardy appetite, after all, or there would be a lot less Denny's serving breakfast every morning.

Maybe in the end simple wishes simply met are better wishes than fanciful dreams of immense wealth that come at a far greater cost than most of us can ever imagine.

Certainly much of Billy Collins' appeal as a poet is his uncommon, ordinary sense. He makes us see our everyday world more clearly than we would otherwise see it. As he suggests in the above-mentioned interview, he hopes to make us appreciate ever day a little more than we would without his poetry. That's not a bad dream, but neither is it one that is likely to change the world.

12 thoughts on “Billy Collins’ “Three Wishes”

  1. I like the story. The husband thinks of his stomach. The wife thinks of a very creative curse to blight him, then they have to make up, and in so doing squander their last wish. If the wife was really that awful, she would have left the skillet on his face and run off with the gold wouldn’t she? So, in fact, it is a sort of portrait of a successful real-life union, enriched by compromise…

  2. The following has been my favorite joke for quite a while now. Upon reading your latest entry, Loren, I find myself unable to resist posting the joke here.

    Three guys, stranded on a desert island, find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says “I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.”

  3. But about this poem … I may well be missing something here, but to me it’s more like a piece of prose broken up into verses. I can’t honestly say it says more to me than the original story did, and maybe it conveys even less, because it lacks the fairytale ‘aura’ associated with the old dusty, books on my grandmother’s bookshelf – which is where I first discovered stories like this as a boy. In this instance I’d probably wish for an Arthur Rackham illustration before a decent bottle of Italian.

  4. Alan, I’d agree that if I had to give up my Grimm and Anderson books or Collins, Collins would be gone in a heartbeat, hands down, no contest.

    Of course, my favorite movies now days are kids’ movies like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, somebody and the Chocolate Factory, because they seem to address real human values better than the shoot-em-ups or sexploits of some abnormal hunk.

    You’ll notice that I only gave Collins a lukewarm review, but he’s a lot of people’s favorite and, as I said, he’s certainly better than reading the paper or watching TV, unless the Huskies are playing.

    I did like his point, though, that even fairy tales, folk wisdom or not, can be wrong. And that’s important.

    I wouldn’t read Snow White or Sleeping Beauty to my daughter unless it was the “fractured” version because I didn’t like what it taught her about being a girl. Instead, I taught her to run the mile faster than teenage boys and to get tough when you’re carrying a backpack in the mountains.

  5. Ha ha. After I dropped the ONE shoe I remembered I was going to say something about the poem, so I started to write it, then the phone rang, then the doorbell went, then I came back and finished the poem comment, then I saw your ‘ONE shoe’ comment …

    OK. I hope it doesn’t lower the tone of your blog Loren, but I’ll give you the bare bones of the joke:

    Man, dog, and pig are stranded together on desert island. The three become inseparable, but as the months pass the man finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to the pig. He is, however, unable to do anything about it because the dog is always there. Then one day he rescues a stunningly beautiful woman who is washed up on the shore, and revives her by administering the kiss of life. That night as the four of them are sitting round the campfire the woman snuggles up beside him. ‘You saved my life’, she whispers seductively in his ear, ‘and if there’s anything – and I mean ANYTHING – I can do to repay you, you only need to ask.’
    The man ponders briefly then says, ‘As a matter of fact there is something you can do for me.’
    ‘Certainly’, says the woman, ‘What is it?’
    ‘I don’t suppose you could take the dog for a walk could you?’

  6. Yes I agree with what you say Loren. I just read the Billy Collins interview, and I understand better where he’s coming from. He’s quite lightweight maybe, but if he brings people to poetry that can only be a good thing. In a way he reminds me of Britain’s Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, affable and articulate but lacking the killer touch of a great poet. And of course it’s true what you say about Sleeping Beauty etc.. Times have changed, and for the better in many ways.

  7. Oh boy Alan, now you’ve got me wondering what it means that I’m the main dog walker in my family.

    Loren, thanks for the exposure to so many poets.

  8. I wouldn’t be too quick in dismissing this poem as unsubstantial. The appeal of the poem (and it is appealing) is something visceral, satisfying like the sausage, which Collins contrasts neatly with the truth “cinder” of the fairy tale moral. The true appeal of the fairy tale, Collins is saying, is in transporting us magically to its earthy setting. How many “great poets” are serving cinders.
    By the way, after I read this poem I grilled some sausage.

What do you think?