Billy Collins Reading Three Poems Brought to Completion

Billy Collins reading three poems and making people laugh.

January in Paris

‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’ Paul Valery

That winter I had nothing to do

but tend the kettle in my shuttered room

on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,

but I would sometimes descend the stairs,

unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city streets

often turning from a wide boulevard

down a narrow side street

bearing the name of an obscure patriot.

I followed a few private rules,

never crossing a bridge without stopping

mid-point to lean my bike on the railing.

and observe the flow of the river

as I tried to better understand the French.

In my pale coat and my Basque cap

I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie

or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,

and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.

I would see beggars and street cleaners

in their bright uniforms, and sometimes

I would see the poems of Valery,

the ones he never finished but abandoned,

wandering the streets of the city half clothed.

Most of them needed only a final line

or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,

but whenever I approached,

they would retreat from their makeshift fires

into the shadows- thin specters of incompletion,

forsaken for so many long decades

how could they ever trust another man with a pen?

I came across the one I wanted to tell you about

sitting with a glass of rose’ at a cafe’ table-

beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,

cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache

by Monsieur Paul Valery himself,

big fish in the school of Symbolism

and for a time, president of the Committee of Arts and Letters

of the League of Nations if you please.

Never mind how I got her out of the cafe’,

past the concierge and up the flight of stairs-

remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.

And never mind the holding and the pressing.

It is enough to know that I moved my pen

in such a way as to bring her to completion,

a simple, final stanza, which ended,

as this poem will, with the image

of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,

her large eyes closed,

a painting of cows in a valley over her head,

and off to the side, me in a window seat

blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.


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,

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 watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

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 will join those

who have even forgotten 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.


When I came across the high—speed photograph

of a bullet that had just pierced a book —

the pages exploding with the velocity —

I forgot all about the marvels of photography

and began to wonder which book

the photographer had selected for the shot.

Many novels sprang to mind

including those of Raymond Chandler

where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed.

Nonfiction offered too many choices —

a history of Scottish lighthouses,

a biography of Joan of Arc and so forth.

Or it could be an anthology of medieval literature,

the bullet having just beheaded Sir Gawain

and scattered the band of assorted pilgrims.

But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,

I realized that the executed book

was a recent collection of poems written

by someone of whom I was not fond

and that the bullet must have passed through

his writing with little resistance

at twenty—eight hundred feet per second,

through the poems about his childhood

and the ones about the dreary state of the world,

and then through the author’s photograph,

through the beard, the round glasses,

and that special poet’s hat he loves to wear.

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