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:


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.