Billy Collins: poet, bard, rhymer, versifier, sonnetist, parodist, lyricist, rhapsodist

“I am bravery. I am courage. I am valor. I am daring. I am holding a thesaurus.” ~ Demetri Martin

“Amazing” by Mel Bochner (2011)
THESAURUS
by Billy Collins

It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs,
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group
photograph.

Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word
tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own 
kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place. 

~ from The Art of Drowning (University of Pittsburgh 
Press, 1995)
“Crazy” by Mel Bochner (2004)

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Friend, pal, chum, cutie pie, darling, dearest, beauty, babe, honey, sweetie, cookie, muffin: yes, I’m talking to YOU! ๐Ÿ™‚

Collins is at his playful best in this poem. A charming idea to personify words, thinking of them gathering for family reunions, sharing a picnic basket and running sack races. To me, words have always been alive.

He makes an interesting point about there being “no such thing as a synonym,” and wanting to somehow liberate words, to allow them to wander freely in order to “fall in love with a completely different word,” where they might forever stand “next to each other on the same line inside a poem.” What a lovely, winsome way of describing the art of poetics.

Love this award-winning Roget PB biography by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet!

My Roget is “up on a high shelf” along with my Webster’s dictionary, rhyming dictionary, and Flip Dictionary. Haven’t opened any of them in years because now I do all my wordy research online. ๐Ÿ™‚

There seems to be a longstanding rivalry between pro-thesaurus and anti-thesaurus writers. Stephen King agrees with Collins:

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesauยญrus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. (1986)

Likewise Mark Doty:

If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things. (2011)

Still, poets Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas felt differently. Plath cited her Roget as “a book she would rather live with on a desert isle than a Bible.” Whereas Plath relied more heavily on her thesaurus in her earlier writing, it became a crutch for Thomas in the latter part of his career when alcoholism had a detrimental effect on his work.

Title page from the first edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (it has such a long title!).

I think I fall somewhere in-between when it comes to the thesaurus. It can be a valuable research tool if you’re careful not to misuse it. Yes, it can hamper natural expression, suppressing spontaneity and personal style. And things can get pretty pompous if you use a fancy word for the wrong reasons. But. If you’re an avid word lover and enjoy exploring shades of meaning, connotation, and general semantics, there’s nothing like browsing a good thesaurus to help you find just the right word, or to confirm that the word you already had in mind is indeed “the one.”

From what I understand, compulsive list-maker Peter Mark Roget did not intend for his book to be used as a quick fly-by synonym finder. After all, when his thesaurus was first published in 1852, his entries were not organized alphabetically — but by concept. So if you had an idea, you then searched for the word(s) that best expressed it. His thesaurus was essentially a reverse topical dictionary, a place for writers to dwell in the world of each concept with all its nuances, and to better understand the language representing it.

First entry in the first draft of Roget’s Thesaurus (1805). An expanded version was eventually published when he was 73 (Karpeles Manuscript Library).

Like people who read the dictionary for fun, or cookbooks for the backstories, I like reading the thesaurus to mine the richness and beauty of the English language. It’s a great place to discover new words with interesting linguistic relationships, to compare all the possibilities.

I like that thesaurus dwellers congregate by families, because it’s easier to get to know them that way. And I don’t think the words themselves mind hanging out with their relatives, because when they’re right next to each other they’re best able to show off their sometimes very subtle differences and implications, clarifying what they and they alone can do if you decide to choose them.

This makes our job as word matchmakers all the sweeter.

Just for fun, Mr Cornelius and Blue Bear made a word cloud of synonyms for the word “blue.”

How do you feel about using a thesaurus?

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The lovely and talented Heidi Mordhorst is hosting the Roundup at My Juicy Little Universe. Scamper over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Have a nice weekend!

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*Copyright ยฉ 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

39 thoughts on “Billy Collins: poet, bard, rhymer, versifier, sonnetist, parodist, lyricist, rhapsodist

  1. Oh, I love playing with a thesaurus. It’s fun and stimulating for the brain. I use an online thesaurus these days more than the print version. I’m intrigued also with the idea of synonyms not existing. The Right Word is one of my favorite PBs. Such a beautiful book.

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    1. Since so many people are using online thesauruses, I wonder if all the print versions are secretly congregating somewhere discussing issues of abandonment . . . ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I usually just go with my feelings for the right word. I have a very old thesaurus from my high school days that I do glance at once in awhile! By the way m, I was a student at Lehman College CUNY when Billy Collins was a professor in the English department. However, even though I majored in English I never took attended a class of his. Thanks, Jama

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  3. As always, a tasty and delightful post, even with nary a mention of baked goods! I do like a little thesaurusing while writing, like you, mainly because rather than layering someone else’s clothes on my poem, I often find a synonym that clangs in an interesting way and leads my poem in an unfamiliar direction. I like Rhymezone for online research. I don’t know how I’ve missed this BC poem–I own THE ART OF DROWNING. And I think, completely coincidentally, I wrote this for a Poetry Friday Anthology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tatpqsO7qo ๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ˜Š

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  4. I use a thesaurus often. (Usually an online one, these days.) Sometimes I start there and use it to make a big list of words that I can then go back to while I’m writing my poem. I sure don’t like being in opposition to those guys you quoted, though.
    Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

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  5. I use a thesaurus when I’m trying for a newer word with a similar meaning, but then I look up that word in the dictionary to read all the definitions. Sometimes I like what I find; sometimes not. I’m reading Billy Collin’s new book now & am always in awe of his poem ‘comments’ about an otherwise regular thing, like this one, Jama! I love “I would rather see words out on their own”, to me a statement for the world! And, I love Jen Bryant’s book, still have it from when it appeared, fascinating & lovely, like your post today! Happy Weekend!

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  6. Thanks for sharing the Collins poem. It made me think about my use of the thesaurus and I find it useful because I don’t always have the word I want in my head. I sometime find it in the thesaurus. Like anything, you have to understand how the book can serve you.

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  7. Love the poem and your thoughts on using a thesaurus! I use them occasionally, mostly just the one that comes with Word. I think I would use a thesaurus more often if I weren’t writing for children, and I already know enough big words and synonyms to add spice to my poems for them. But I love words and all the wonderful options in a thesaurus, and I definitely ponder connotation and subtleties of meaning when choosing words.

    I attended the UCLA Writing Project years ago and heard something great that relates to this conversation. The presenter said that words must audition to earn a role in a sentence! I’ve never forgotten that.

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  8. Hahahah! All my junior high poetry was made using a thesaurus – and it showed, I’m sure. While it gave me good word ideas, it eventually made it harder to write, so I set it down and went on my own word journeys. Poetry mostly means I use a rhyming dictionary, but not so much a thesaurus anymore – maybe more’s the pity. Maybe I should drag it out…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Would love to see some of your junior high poetry — I’m curious as to your choice of subject matter at that age. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. LOVE this playful poem!! I use an online thesaurus & dictionary all the time! It really helps me during the revision process and to find just the right word that I’m looking for.

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    1. You made your friends the thesaurus and dictionary very happy. They so enjoy being useful and they’re proud to have had a hand in the creation of so many good picture books.

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  10. Hadn’t seen this Collins poem… his usual wit! Yes, I use the online thesaurus when I’m trying to find a word that fits my idea as well as my poem. So the answer for one person is not the answer for another, that’s okay. We must follow our own path. I do like to think about there being no such thing as a synonym. Hmmmm. Thanks for this, Jama!

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  11. First, I love Billy Collins.Thanks for his wonderful poem. Secondly, I love my thesaurus. In fact, I have several synonym dictionaries as well as Roget’s. At my age, sometimes I can’t find just the word I’m looking for, and a thesaurus is a great help. That said, I try very hard not to overuse it. Thanks for a fun post.

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  12. “Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.” wonderful line, though I have to say the online thesaurus and I are on friendly terms, and I do find so many other intriguing words thereโ€“I’ve always loved looking up definitions too. And there’s a beautiful meeting of words and art in “The Right Word. Lovely blue word-heart and post, thanks Jama!

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    1. Good to hear you and the thesaurus are good friends, Michelle. I also enjoy discovering new-to-me words. It’s always an adventure.

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  13. Happy Weekend, Jama – You had me at the opening quote. Ha! And I do love the Billy Collins poem. Not surprisingly, I am RIGHT where you are (aligned, in agreement, with you – all my words!) on this issue. Would you believe, four tabs over from THIS post on my desktop, I have Thesaurus.com open because I JUST used it to quickly snag a particular word I couldn’t seem to nab from thin air while working? Of course you would believe it. And count me among the fans of Jen Bryant’s and Melissa Sweet’s Roget book- ANY of their books, in fact. :0)

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    1. We’re definitely simpatico — the online thesaurus is so convenient. And what fun to be invited to a “four tabs over” picnic on any given day . . . ๐Ÿ™‚

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  14. I can get lost wandering among the words of a dictionary or thesaurus. For me It’s a bit like wandering the stacks in a used bookstore–I never know what I might come across. My favorite dictionary to wander in is my old copy of my Dictionary of Indo-European roots where I can travel back in time with words.

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    1. I remember being so impressed the first time I encountered the Oxford English Dictionary. Fascinating to see word roots/history. One of my English professors read one with a magnifying glass.

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  15. Well, you know how much I love Billy Collins. As a matter of fact, since I haven’t had enough coffee yet, I felt compelled to consult with a thesaurus regarding exactly how much I love him. Here’s what it told me:

    admire
    care for
    cherish
    choose
    go for
    prefer
    prize
    treasure
    worship
    adulate
    canonize
    deify
    esteem
    exalt
    fancy
    glorify
    idolize
    venerate
    be attached to
    be captivated by
    be crazy about
    be enamored of
    be enchanted by
    be fascinated with
    be fond of
    be in love with
    delight in
    dote on
    fall for
    gone on
    have affection for
    have it bad
    hold dear
    hold high
    long for
    lose one’s heart to
    put on pedestal
    think the world of
    thrive with
    wild for

    Why, dear Billy, without the thesaurus, would it have occurred to me this morning to say that I “have it bad” for you? I think not. I’m in your camp, Jama โ€” an occasional perusing of a thesaurus can be a marvelous thing. Thanks for the delightful post. Or, as Roget might say, a post that is:

    alluring
    amusing
    beautiful
    captivating
    delectable
    delicious
    enchanting
    engaging
    enjoyable
    entertaining
    fascinating
    lovely
    luscious
    pleasing
    refreshing
    satisfying
    thrilling
    adorable
    agreeable
    ambrosial
    attractive
    cheery
    clever
    congenial
    darling
    fair
    gratifying
    heavenly
    ineffable
    lush
    pleasurable
    rapturous
    ravishing
    scrumptious
    yummy

    ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

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  16. I’m late to read this, but so glad that I managed to wander over. Your initial quote made me laugh and I thoroughly enjoyed the delightful Collins’ poem you shared. I’ve been thinking about using a thesaurus and I guess I come down on the “yes” side. I enjoy exploring the nuances of related words and there are times the thesaurus helps me “remember” just the perfect one. It’s fun to consider the different perspectives on this issue.

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