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.


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.

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