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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Trouble with Poetry: A Poem of Explanation

A U.S. poet laureate shares.
By Billy Collins
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Billy Collins

Credit: Corbis Images

The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night --
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky --

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti --
to be perfectly honest for a moment --

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.

Billy Collins, the U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, is the author of seven collections of poetry and is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He serves as the poet laureate of New York State.

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Mary Alice DeVirgilis  -  Venice, FL's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Mr. Collins,

I love reading your poetry for many reasons. Besides for the pure joy of it, it is knowing that my English teacher son shares it with his students. The results are astounding! Thank you for sharing your talent!
Mary Alice DeVirgilis

mercedes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Very clever, it's poetic in itself.

Peter Black's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just a wonderful piece -- experientially evocative, poetically provocative, and inspirationally invocative.
Thank you Sir.

Charles Youngs's picture
Charles Youngs
Teacher of English Language Arts - Secondary Level

Uh-oh, Billy Collins has done it again--made me feel like writing a poem.

Carolyn Garner's picture
Carolyn Garner
High School Language Arts/APEnglish Teacher

I love these lines: "What an unmerry band of thieves we are,/Cut-purses, common shoplifters"! Last week, I showed a class a few lines that I had "written" to illustrate the rhetorical use of parallel structures. I modeled one of my sentences after something I had found in my old Harbrace. They asked, "How did you DO that?" I replied, "I STOLE it!" Thanks, Mr. Collins. I feel validated. The best writers read good writing.

Wilken Baldwin's picture
Wilken Baldwin
Science Teacher

Thank you good friend. Your words are true, bold, and brilliant. I love you more than you could fathom.

Nathan(poetrylovr) Davis's picture

Ah, the feeling is mutual, old chap. I relish in your abundant waterfall of a symphony of words put together as if a tide pool overfloweth with the wild yet intricate extracts from the deep blue. Now I walk along the sandy shores and view the starfish stranded upon the beach, I cannot help but be reminded of your poetic genious.

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