Billy Collins on his old typewriter

I am reading the poems of Billy Collins for the first time. And what can I say? Imagine Keats living into middle age, developing a dry wit and writing poems about domestic life without rhymes – but still showing flashes of his youthful romanticism. That’s Billy Collins.

Collins, who was the US Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, teaches English at Lehman College, New York. Maybe that explains the literary turn of some of his poems such as Birthday, where he writes about reading Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel Clarissa, and The Literary Life, where he writes about the 19th century English poet Coventry Patmore.

But one doesn’t have to know Richardson and Patmore – neither of whom have I read – to appreciate Collins.

He can be enjoyed on his own for the loving detail with which he writes about home life. The imagery is so vivid. He can also tease, write in riddles and weave a spell. Some of his poems are so hypnotic and incantatory they are simply crying to be read aloud. Read the poem, Litany.  Also read the poem Birthday, where he meditates on age and time as he begins reading the novel, Clarissa, which runs to more than 1,000 pages,

But first let’s read his poem about his old typewriter, a Royal Aristocrat. Now that’s an old contraption you may have never heard of, never having had to use a typewriter in your life. But if you have ever had to sit down and write anything, and enjoyed doing it, this is a poem you will appreciate. I think this poem will be appreciated by bloggers especially typing away at their computers. Read to the last verse please. That’s as romantic as anything written by Keats or Dylan Thomas.

Royal Aristocrat
By Billy Collins

My old typewriter used to make so much noise
I had to put a cushion of newspaper
beneath it late at night
so as not to wake the whole house.

Even if I closed the study door
and typed a few words at a time —
the best way to work anyway —
the clatter of keys was still so loud

That the grey and yellow bird
would wince in its cage.
Some nights I could even see the moon
frowning down through the winter trees.

That was twenty years ago,
yet as I write this with my soft lead pencil
I can still hear that distinctive sound
like small arms fire across a border,

one burst after another
as my wife turned in her sleep.
I was a single monkey
trying to type the opening lines of my Hamlet,

often doing nothing more
than ironing pieces of paper in the platen
then wrinkling them into balls
to flick into the wicker basket.

Still, at least I was making noise,
adding to the great secretarial din,
that chorus of clacking and bells,
thousands of desks receding into the past.

And that was more than can be said
for the mute rooms of furniture,
the speechless salt and pepper shakers,
and the tall silent hedges surrounding the house.

Such deep silence on those nights —
just the sound of my typing
and a few stars singing a song their mother
sang when they were mere babies in the sky.


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