a three course meal with billy collins

“There’s something very authentic about humor, when you think about it. Anybody can pretend to be serious. But you can’t pretend to be funny.” ~ Billy Collins

Billy Collins (NYC, 2016)

Today we’re serving up a three-course poetic meal in celebration of Billy Collins’s 76th birthday on March 22.

Heidi Mordhorst, who’s hosting Poetry Friday today, is encouraging everyone to share their favorite Collins poems (or Collins-inspired originals).

Naturally I am partial to Billy’s food-related verse. Since he’s written so many good ones it’s impossible to pick a favorite. I love the wit and tenderness of “Litany” (you will always be the bread and the knife,/not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow — the wine), and the wisdom and beauty of “Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant” (and I should mention the light/that falls through the big windows this time of day/italicizing everything it touches).

Come to think of it, Billy always seems to be eating in restaurants. Maybe that’s where he does his best thinking. My kind of poet. πŸ™‚

Ossobuco e risotto alla milanese by mWP

He once said he would rather have his poetry be described as “hospitable” rather than “accessible” (which brings to mind “on-ramps for the poetically handicapped”).

Like it or not, he is undeniably both, a large part of why he remains America’s favorite poet. Doesn’t just seeing his name make you feel good?

Ever hospitable, he welcomes us into each poem with an easy conversational tone and generous spirit, engaging us with humor that lends a deeper poignancy to serious subjects. Enjoy today’s smorgasbord of witty, silly, self-deprecating, contemplative, satirical, ironic, genuine words of gratitude and contentment as only Billy can serve them up. I’m so glad he’s in the world.




One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago
as I waited for my eggs and toast,
I opened the Tribune only to discover
that I was the same age as Cheerios.

Indeed, I was a few months older than Cheerios
for today, the newspaper announced,
was the seventieth birthday of Cheerios
whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.

Already I could hear them whispering
behind my stooped and threadbare back,
Why that dude’s older than Cheerios
the way they used to say

Why that’s as old as the hills,
only the hills are much older than Cheerios
or any American breakfast cereal,
and more noble and enduring are the hills,

I surmised as a bar of sunlight illuminated my orange juice.

~ from Poetry (September 2012)


“Salema and Figs” by Salvador Dali (1918)



As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.

I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.

And I feel sorry for you, too —
yanked from the sea and now lying dead
next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh —
I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.

And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow

even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.

~ from Ballistics (Random House, 2010)


Osso Buco recipe at Fine Cooking


I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed down
with cold, exhilarating wine.

I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach —
something you don’t hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.

But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife’s laughter
on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso buco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief’s favorite son.

Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rock hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.

But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaak Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.

In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other one will follow.
Then we will slip below the surface of night
into miles of water, drifting down and down
to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock,
beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure,
into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know.

~ from The Art of Drowning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)


How many poets can tap into the marrow of human existence with such aplomb? Who else is so casually profound? And I love the second stanza in “Osso Buco” where he pokes fun at *ahem* serious poetry. I admit I don’t usually commune with my fish while I’m eating it — I’d rather my food not look at me anyway. Rest assured, it’s good to know I’m younger than Cheerios.

Finally, just because it’s Billy’s birthday, here’s a little digestif from Billy’s latest book, The Rain in Portugal (Random House, 2016). My little English major self is highly amused. πŸ˜€


I just dared to eat
a really big peach
as ripe as it could be

and I have on
a pair of plaid shorts
and a blue tee shirt with a hole in it

and little rivers of juice
are now running down my chin and wrist
and dripping onto the pool deck.

What is your problem, man?




We are pleased to announce that the winner of a brand new copy of Elaine Magliaro’s new poetry picture book is






drum roll, please




Please send your snail mail address to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com so we can get the book out to you pronto!

Thanks, Everyone, for all the nice comments. It truly is a beautiful book, hope you get to see it soon!!


poetry fridayThe lovely and talented Heidi Mordhorst is hosting the Roundup at My Juicy Little Universe. Check out the full menu of Billy Collins goodness and have a great weekend!!


Shall we let our favorite only-a-tad-older-than-Cheerios poet have the last word?


via Life of Dad



Copyright Β© 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

53 thoughts on “a three course meal with billy collins

  1. LOVE LOVE Billy Collins–
    so often people only skim over the top of his words for the humor, but many of his poems have a much deeper layer to consider and appreciate. As always, thanks, Jama!


  2. You put together a great Billy post, Jama! Love that “shroud of parsley.”
    He makes me want to find something that I am older than, so I can have an interesting, personalized expression. I just looked it up and I am older than hacky sack and post-its, but I’m not sure that’s what I was going for…
    The child with the Cheerios at the end was the perfect finis!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to have an interesting personalized expression too. I’m older than lots of things . . . the trick is to find just the right one. πŸ™‚


  3. I so needed this today, Jama!! I love Billy Collins, and poetry has been helping me stay afloat during our troubled times. I just read a bunch of Mary Oliver poems, and now I’ll go on a Billy Collins binge thanks to you :).

    I subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac for my daily dose of poetry, like vitamins :). Today Billy Collins’s I Love You was featured. I love how he is funny, not earnest and yet his poetry is so moving and profound. One of my very favorites of his is “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.”

    Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes

    First, her tippet made of tulle,
    easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
    on the back of a wooden chair.

    And her bonnet,
    the bow undone with a light forward pull.

    Then the long white dress, a more
    complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
    buttons down the back,
    so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
    before my hands can part the fabric,
    like a swimmer’s dividing water,
    and slip inside.

    You will want to know
    that she was standing
    by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
    motionless, a little wide-eyed,
    looking out at the orchard below,
    the white dress puddled at her feet
    on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

    The complexity of women’s undergarments
    in nineteenth-century America
    is not to be waved off,
    and I proceeded like a polar explorer
    through clips, clasps, and moorings,
    catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
    sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

    Later, I wrote in a notebook
    it was like riding a swan into the night,
    but, of course, I cannot tell you everything –
    the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
    how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
    how there were sudden dashes
    whenever we spoke.

    What I can tell you is
    it was terribly quiet in Amherst
    that Sabbath afternoon,
    nothing but a carriage passing the house,
    a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

    So I could plainly hear her inhale
    when I undid the very top
    hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

    and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
    the way some readers sigh when they realize
    that Hope has feathers,
    that reason is a plank,
    that life is a loaded gun
    that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

    I love the “sudden dashes whenever we spoke” and the explosively powerful ending.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yes, – just seeing the name Billy Collins DOES make me feel good. Thanks for this hearty contribution to the celebration, Jama. And, by the way, the “hot, companionable cup of tea” makes me think of YOU, and that always makes me feel beyond good!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Jama! I love the “lion of contentment” and the “cup of hot companionable tea.” It is lovely to read a poet who takes joy in the small pleasures of life.


  6. I’m giggling over his dismay at being older than Cheerios. πŸ˜€ I’ll be thinking of that poem every time I have some!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I feel like I need to find more of Billy’s books, but after today I will have pages and pages of them! Cheerios is one of my ‘go-to’ poems for my students. Despite the age difference, it was revealing to them that poets wrote about cereal! I love that you shared favorite food poems, Jama. I’m not sure I want my food looking at me either, but I did enjoy Bily’s ideas in The Fish, and this: “the meat soft as the leg of an angel”. I read his words, and marvel at them every time. Thanks for a full meal today!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m forever marveling — that’s a beautiful line. Like you, I want to find (and own) more of his books!


  8. Ah, I know he doesn’t want to be “accessible,” but the man’s name is BILLY. The kids we played with were Billys. If he wants to be serious, he’s Will. It’s just how it goes.

    Meanwhile, I raise a peach in his honor – he’s such a funny, Cheerio-crunching heart-lifter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peaches and Cheerios have new meaning now. I hear you on the Billy/Will thing. He’s called himself “just a blue-jeans kind of poet” or something I think. So yes, accessible is valid and true.


  9. Osso Bucco is new to me – and how I enjoyed its delicious sense of humor, and earthy celebration . And I’ve always loved the way Fish begins…suddenly, I am right beside Collins, the fish glaring mournfully upon me, as well!


    1. Now I’m craving his wife’s osso buco. Of course the poem may not be autobiographical at all. The one eye of the fish staring reminded me of my father — who used to like eating fish eyeballs, more like sucking the liquid out of them or something. We thought it was gross.


  10. Yes, thank you, Jama. I’ve discovered a new poet thanks to you. I love his down to earth subjects and soft humor. Happy Birthday to Billy Collins and lucky me for discovering a new world of poetry!


  11. Billy Collins is like dessert, don’t you think? It goes into a separate compartment where there’s always enough room. Thank you for sharing these yummies today, Jama, and for closing with that adorable photo of the Cheerios stack on the baby’s nose. I’ll be smiling all the way to my next poetry stop.


  12. “Doesn’t just seeing his name make you feel good?”

    Why yes, yes it does. πŸ™‚

    And my little English major self is also highly amused at the note to Prufrock.

    Delightful post, as always, friend!

    And…I won?!? Thank you! How fun! Can’t wait to see Elaine’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “the lion of contentment
    has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,”

    He describes so much so perfectly…but especially this feeling, along with the feeling, at the end of the poem, of falling asleep.

    His poems sound like he’s just talking to you. I can’t imagine them being revised. They seem to have just come out of his pen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He makes it look so easy — just talking to you. Sometimes the weight of what he’s saying doesn’t sink in right away, too, and then you’re left sighing, thinking, amazed.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. It’s a tonic to visit here, Jama.

    And I guessed you’d include Cheerios & you did! But you gave us the good crunch, twice with BC in person, almost. Very satisfying.

    Also, yay! for Karen winning Elaine’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jama, I never leave a visit with you without having been fed and feeling like the visit was long overdue. Such a lovely and fun post. Collins is such a poet and such a humorist that he makes it all look effortless while sharing with us the true marrow of life that we all share and know. I am a better person for seeing BC through this blog post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for suggesting a Billy Friday, Linda! It was nice visiting all the different blogs and reading all the BC poems, some new to me.


  16. Jama, this post alone makes me feel okay about plunging ahead at short notice to celebrate him, and how pleasing to learn that he was on The Writers’ Almanac today too! Your read of him, of his particular gift, is summed up in that word “hospitable,” which would be a very good guide word for these times. Let us strive to be hospitable in this world. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. His example of hospitality should be adopted by all. I like that he’s such a generous poet, writing with the reader in mind. And he does make it all look so effortless, which keeps the reader attuned and comfortable. Thank you for hosting this celebration, Heidi!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I’ve folded my napkin and am pushing back my chair, absolutely full from your wonderful post. And BC’s poems definitely helped made it one to remember.


  18. I’m late to the plate this weekend, but my daughter is now a happy 8. Birthdays are a big deal around here. πŸ™‚ Lovely imagery, scents of fish and circles of O’s. That sleeping child with his nose of O’s is too funny. Billy’s poetry is always funny, but barbed, like fishhooks. It sticks in your flesh and pulls something out of you.


  19. As per usual, my dearest Jama, you have made me immensely hungry just going through this post. Billy Collins is definitely one of a kind. Yay to March babies!


    1. Billy’s poems make life so much more bearable. Thanks for stopping by to read this post and comment, Myra. Happy Almost Spring!


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