My Favorite Poem by Billy Collins: “Velocity”

On this pleasant first Sunday in June, with the sun high, leaves unabashedly regrown, and a breeze with no trace of chill left in it stirring them, I feel like I want to relax…

We’ve made it to June.  Winter is completely over and summer, more or less, has begun.  It would be nice to enjoy some repose and contemplate the new season.

As a blogger, though, you are aware of the relentless suck of the Internet calling you to produce more, ever more.  That’s what the pundits encourage you to do, anyway.  If you want people to notice you, produce more.  Doesn’t matter how good it is, people just need more of it.  Which I suppose is mostly true, since if you search on almost any topic these days via Google or Yahoo (“bungee cord reviews,” for example) you notice a variety of websites that come up high in the results that are rather mediocre.  But they’re the ones that have become popular for whatever reason — mostly because they’re popular.  So they remain popular. 

As a discerning user of the World Wide Web, you might hope that there are hidden gems languishing on page 20 of the search results — creative, informative, thoughtful, well-researched blogs that would reward readers if only they came across them.

But the people who’ve made the popular sites popular might not really like them, after all.  Google, especially, doesn’t think they will.  Google no longer attempts to bias search results toward quality.  What they emphasize are sites that can be easily commercialized. 

So instead of relaxing in some outdoor setting and enjoying the bright blue sky on this first Sunday in June, I am indoors, typing.  I suppose I could be working on my laptop in a coffee shop.  But I am not quite that hip.

I am overly aware of the hazard of unproductive time.  So, in keeping with that, and in the spirit of vague rebellion against the relentless suck of the Internet, I am going to post my favorite poem by Billy Collins.

Billy Collins writes poetry that often enters through mundane doorways but leaves you smiling on the shore of a new land -- or at least a new perception of where you find yourself.

Poet Billy Collins (Photo: Patty Mooney, 2002.)

Billy Collins is an American poet, 72 years old this year.  He was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.  He is one of the most popular poets ever in the U.S.  His readings are regularly packed and he is a frequent guest on National Public Radio — which doesn’t actually mean much in a society where Justin Bieber accrues almost 40 million followers on Twitter, most of whom wouldn’t know Billy Collins from Werner Heisenberg.  Even so, Billy Collins believes poetry should occupy the public sphere.  If you wonder why he’s been so popular, you may get a better idea from this TED talk he gave in 2012.  But read the poem below before watching the talk. 

The title of the poem is Velocity and it’s from Billy Collins’ book Nine Horses.


In the club car that morning I had my notebook
open on my lap and my pen uncapped,
looking every inch the writer
right down to the little writer’s frown on my face,
but there was nothing to write about
except life and death
and the low warning sound of the train whistle.
I did not want to write about the scenery
that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture,
hay rolled up meticulously —
things you see once and will never see again.
But I kept my pen moving by drawing
over and over again
the face of a motorcyclist in profile —
for no reason I can think of —
a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin,
leaning forward, helmetless,
his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind.
I also drew many lines to indicate speed,
to show the air becoming visible
as it broke over the biker’s face
the way it was breaking over the face
of the locomotive that was pulling me
toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha
for me and all the other stops to make
before the time would arrive to stop for good.
We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity,
the college theologians used to insist,
from which, I imagine, we would all
appear to have speed lines trailing behind us
as we rush along the road of the world,
as we rush down the long tunnel of time —
the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,
but also the man reading by a fire,
speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,
and the woman standing on a beach
studying the curve of horizon,
even the child asleep on a summer night,
speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillowcases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.


The poem begins somewhat whimsically (“on my lap,” “pen uncapped” — this writer has a job to do but nothing to write about except life and death), then turns poignant while observing cows and a passing biker he’ll never see again and then, like all good poems do, ends magically:  the world and yourself vibrate differently.  You feel something new about the topic he’s uncovered while keeping his pen moving — the topic teased out on a moving train headed for Omaha:  the relentless velocity of our headlong, drunken, heedless, exquisite rush through time.

Nine Horses by Billy Collins - book cover.  Billy Collins is one of the most popular living American poets.There are many other good poems in Nine Horses, which you can get by clicking here.

Support some quality.  And, if you happen to be a blogger, may you be able to write stuff that’s at least half as good as Billy Collins as you keep your fingers tapping away.

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