“How to Read Billy Collins” by Jeff Worley

Jeff Worley


Sit by a clean window
in your most comfortable chair.

If it’s morning, a cup of coffee.
Later in the day, a glass of Chardonnay.

Perhaps a brush stroke of sunlight
will fall across the book as you open it.

If you’re wearing a necktie, take it off.
Some background music, to soften the air,

is OK. I’d suggest Bach’s cello suites
or Haydn’s string quartets. The fun is—

you’re moving through the third or fourth
poem by now—you don’t know who’s going

to show up. Here’s Li Po, for example,
taking a seat on a limestone outcropping

some 50 feet away, lifting a bronze chalice
to his lips. A mottled ragged dog clenching

a newspaper in his teeth trots by.
Dante, unmistakeable in his red tunic

and coif, checks out the insistent sun
in its circle of sky, and then Emily Dickinson,

naked except for what appears to be
a fruit pie she holds with both hands,

parades by the window.
Which is when you should go

to the front door, wave,
and invite them all in.

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015


Jeff Worley: “Since my retirement from the University of Kentucky, I’ve been teaching poetry classes at Lexington’s downtown Carnegie Center. A few months back, I brought in a few examples of the poem of instruction or the ‘how-to’ poem. One point I made was that no matter how bad a writing slump you’re in, you can always share some expertise with the reader and have some fun by writing this type of poem. A longtime fan of Billy Collins’s poetry, I went home that evening and did my own assignment. I’ve always admired his ability to write accessible, conversational poems that, through a rhetorical flash here and there, or clever turn of phrase, elevate the poems into the slightly rarified air of poetry. I tried to capture that ‘feel’ in this poem of tribute.” (web)

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