Poet Billy Collins reads poetry at White House Poetry Night



gentlemen Billy Collins good evening what a thrill and an honor it is to be here and how grateful we are to the President and mrs. Obama for hosting this for drawing attention to poetry in America I'm only sorry that so many of my fellow poets could not be here to join us tonight well not really some it's important that I'm here one of my poet friends phoned me earlier in the week and said you know you're gonna you're gonna make so many poets jealous going to the White House and I said well isn't that the whole point of writing I mean and then he reminded me that the point of writing was to marry truth and beauty so hats off to him but he's not he's not he's not here either well I was told originally that I could read only one poem but I pulled former poet laureate privilege and I've extended it to two poems so it's customary toward the end of poet readings to give what is called the two poem warning but I'm gonna start by giving you the two poem warning so you've been warned the first poem is called forgetfulness and it's a meditation on on forgetting and it begins with something called literary amnesia that is forgetting books you've read forgetfulness the name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title the plot the heartbreaking conclusion the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read never even heard of it is as if one by one the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain to a little fishing village where there are no phones long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye and you watch the quadratic equation packets bagged and even now as you memorize the order of the planets something else is slipping away a state flower perhaps the address of an uncle the capital of Paraguay whatever it is you are struggling to remember it is not poised on the tip of your tongue not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen it has floated away down a dark mythological River whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall well on your own way to oblivion where you'll join those who have forgotten even how to swim and how to ride a bicycle no wonder you rise in the middle of the night to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war no wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart and this is a poem about something children do in the summertime at camp and it's called the lanyard the other day as I was ricocheting slowly off the pale blue walls of this room bouncing from typewriter to piano from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor I found myself in the L section of the dictionary where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard no cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one more subtly into the past a past where I sat at a work bench at a camp by a deep a tear on deck lake learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard a gift from my mother I had never seen anyone use a lanyard or wear one if that's what you did with them but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother she gave me life and milk from her breasts and I gave her a lanyard she nursed me and many are sick room lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips set cold face cloths on my forehead then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with the land area here are thousands of meals she said and here is clothing and a good education and here is your lanyard I replied which I made with a little help from a counselor here is a breathing body and a beating heart strong legs bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world she whispered and here I said is the lanyard I made a Kim and here I wish to say to her now is a smaller gift not the Erik archaic truth that you can never repay your mother but the rueful admission that when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hands I was as sure as a boy could be that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even [Applause]

17 thoughts on “Poet Billy Collins reads poetry at White House Poetry Night

  1. This "useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom" reminds me of that Oscar Wilde quote: The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. You know the saying about gifts, "It's the thought that counts"? Well, maybe it really is the thought that counts.

  2. Billy Collins is fantastic! He's one of my favorite poets. I actually enjoy reading his poetry. Too many other poems are too hard for me to understand. The "Lanyard" poem is the perfect poem for Mother's Day.

  3. This is one of the most heartbreaking poems I know. I don't understand why people are laughing, and it kind of ruins it.

  4. Love at first read. That's how i would describe my experience when I first laid my eyes on Billy Collins' work. He's really good with words.

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