how do you see it?

“Glasses” by Roman K
by Billy Collins

I had to send away for them
because they are not available in any store.

They look the same as any sunglasses
with a light tint and silvery frames,
but instead of filtering out the harmful
rays of the sun,

they filter out the harmful sight of you --
you on the approach,
you waiting at my bus stop,
you, face in the evening window.

Every morning I put them on
and step out the side door
whistling a melody of thanks to my nose
and my ears for holding them in place, just so,

singing a song of gratitude
to the lens grinder at his heavy bench
and to the very lenses themselves
because they allow it all to come in, all but you.

How they know the difference
between the green hedges, the stone walls,
and you is beyond me,

yet the schoolbuses flashing in the rain
do come in, as well as the postman waving
and the mother and daughter dogs next door,

and then there is the tea kettle
about to play its chord --
everything sailing right in but you, girl.

Yes, just as the night air passes through the screen,
but not the mosquito,
and as water swirls down the drain,
but not the eggshell,
so the flowering trellis and the moon
pass through my special glasses, but not you.

Let us keep it that way, I say to myself,
as I lay my special glasses on the night table,
pull the chain on the lamp,
and say a prayer -- unlike the song --
that I will not see you in my dreams.

~ from The Trouble With Poetry: And Other Poems (Random House, 2005).


The way I see it, there are two ways of reading this poem.

1. With standard glasses, for a general impression.

Perhaps the speaker is trying his darndest to get over a break-up, or to avoid falling in love with someone. His lighthearted, carefree tone, as he whistles “a melody of thanks” to his nose and ears, and sings “a song of gratitude” to the lens grinder and even the lenses themselves, is novel and amusing. Yet we sense his vulnerability, his determination to protect himself. He seems to be in denial.

It makes us smile and nod in recognition. Have you ever tried really hard not to think of someone or something, only to find it’s all you can think about? 

I will not fall in love with you. No, absolutely not. But all I can see is you, you, you. Oh boy, I’m a goner.


Ha-ha– even though I’m still obsessed with you, look how I’ve moved on, how well I’m doing without you! These glasses are wonderful, so amazing, I can’t explain how or why they work, but they do! They’re pure magic!

As long as I don’t dream about you, I’ll be okay . . .  right?

2. With special glasses, to look deeper, beneath the surface.

Perhaps the speaker wasn’t addressing a specific individual, but the personification of something abstract that he wanted to filter out from his consciousness.

Something like, say, death? It’s certainly pervasive – “on the approach,” “at my bus stop,” “face in the evening window.”

Billy Collins has said that “the central theme of poetry is death.”

Metaphorically speaking, couldn’t the special glasses symbolize a means of turning a blind eye/denying our mortality, the ever-present knowing (conscious or subconscious) that death is inevitable and that each day it comes closer and closer?

Then we have an entirely different poem, a much more poignant one. Did Collins use an amusing scenario to convey a more serious message? 

Either way, we can certainly relate to the universal practice of trying to reconcile loss, to find a means of coping with whatever it is we don’t wish to confront. 

Eyeglasses are about vision, focus, clarity, and perception. Sunglasses, in particular, are about protection and filtration. We choose to put them on or take them off. By using this brilliant literary device, Collins allowed for different interpretations of the poem. I love the fanciful notion of being able to wear special glasses that could filter out anything we don’t want to see (hate? racism? violence? men in speedos?). 😀 I also love the ray of hope Collins offers: no matter what, beauty and good things can always pass through.

How do you see it?

Gratuitous photo of a man and his shades.


The all-seeing Jone MacCulloch is hosting the Roundup this week. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere. Enjoy the weekend and have a spooky Halloween on Monday!!

* Copyright © 2022 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

48 thoughts on “how do you see it?

  1. Ooh. I’ve read this one before and just used my boring, regular glasses. Thanks for the new way to think about it, Jama. And some of these glasses photos are freaking me out! Also, have you read his forthcoming one yet? I got a copy through Netgalley, and it’s so different. I’m about 1/3 in, and the poems so far are mostly puns, wordplay, in jokes–in 5-10 lines. A whole new kind of Collins poetry. Not sure how I feel about it yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It feels as if he’s telling us that imagination (pretending?) can do anything one wishes it to do, Jama. Want to ignore something or someone that’s a problem? Keep those special glasses on! I love Billy’s voice in this, low and very firm! And those photos, more imagination! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll never be able to ‘look’ at a pair of glasses the same way again – sun or otherwise! Thank you, Jama, for Billy’s poem and your differing interpretations. I’ll need to ponder this further, but I will NOT ponder men in speedos. LOL.
    I recently wrote a quick senryu about always losing my reading glasses:
    misplaced glasses
    long time
    no see

    Happy Halloween! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jama, your post is filled with items to ponder but the hilarious one is men in speedos. Now that I no longer need eye glasses, I still look at them in stores for their uniqueness. Collin’s poem is unique. As I read it, I kept thinking about his words. Who does he not pine for? Thanks for your interpretations. BTW: I did enjoy your whimsical, accompanying images starting with the breakfast scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This poem has inspired me to get some new glasses, if for nothing else, a fashion statement. There are definitely lots of unique glasses out there; I do like the whimsical ones. Collins’s poem definitely offers lots of food for thought. Maybe his primary message was to convince us that a good poem has many possible interpretations.


  5. What’s not to love about this? I don’t recall reading this poem before but it’s a new favorite, with Collins’ trademark humor. How in the world do you find these photos? Oh, Colin! Just one quibble, Jama: maybe not ALL men in speedos . . . ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, ALL men in speedos need to be blocked out. I was traumatized in London by our upstairs neighbors one time — Barry and Albert were sunbathing in the back garden (they thought 60 degrees was a heat wave), both wearing skimpy speedos. Oh, my virgin eyes!! One of those things you can’t un-see . . .


  6. Love this. And as a romantic sort, I’m going for the lost love, the one who broke his heart. Although the humor suggests he’s mostly gotten over her, and now feels more a poignant tenderness than sharp pain. That’s my take this Friday morning.

    And, Jama, last night I discovered your lovely post about Phoebe Dupree from way back in February! As always, it was gorgeous — and funny (I love the toppling-table vignette). And, of course, it made me hungry with all those yummy treats. Not sure how I missed it, but thank you!!

    P.S. I laughed at your “gratuitous photo.” Thanks for that too! ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found the Phoebe post. Fun to do, wonderful book! Upon first reading the poem, I definitely thought as you did — the lost love, still vulnerable interpretation. But funny thing about this poem, the more you read it, the more you see . . .


  7. “Special Glasses” seems like a poem that would be great to use with high school or middle school students. Wouldn’t everyone like to be a bit selective about what they let in? Thanks, Jama!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I thought at one point that he is talking to himself. Possibly he does see that he is aging and death is near, but doesn’t want to see his own mortality! It reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode where Mr. Death played by Robert Redford, visits an older woman who is afraid to die! Spooky!!! Mr. Serling was a true genius! Mr Collins is a genius as well. He taught in the English department at Lehman College CUNY while I was there. However, I never had the pleasure of being in one of his classes. Happy Halloween!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This poem and your most was so thought provoking, wise, funny and can be interpreted in so many ways, as you point out. Your pictures, especially the last, were very inspiring. I just love the way Collins writes as if the I of the poem is talking directly and personally to the reader. His writing looks so effortless!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. LOL, to gratuitous photos of CERTAIN HANDSOME MEN in shades.

    I appreciate you breaking this poem down; I kind of tended to see it in a more negative light, as in, “here, let me look at this pretty world and pretend you don’t exist in it,” but I hadn’t thought it was because of a breakup, but more of a “I don’t want to see you, because you kind of mess up my worldview” kind of thing? Thank you for a much kinder, more positive reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This poem is new to me. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about it because I went back and reread it and “saw” things than I did in the first reading! Thank you for another thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jama, you have undertaken extensive reflection in this intriguing post., delivering numerous perspectives. The Billy Collins poem is suitably subtle, requiring us as readers to ponder, and speculate as to the possible identity of an unnamed entity. Well done on your choice of poem, but also your deeper postulations. You have challenged our thinking in a delightful and informative way.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Such a soulful share, from the B.C. poem to your spot-on selected images. Because too many people I luv have left this Earth, my non-rosy eye glasses read this as someone in deep recent pain over the loss of a loved one, needing blinders against the beautiful aching signposts & locales where their love was most blossoming. It could be a parent, having too difficult a time seeing the playground, the ice cream shop stool, that spills vinegar over the scar of losing.
    I luv this post, appreciations, dear Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it could be about the loss of a loved one — too many reminders, and the speaker of the poem is trying to cope. Thanks for your take, Jan.


  14. Oh the comments complement your wonderful post beautifully. So much food for thought. Billy has had these 5pm facebook sessions for close to 2 years now. He has a devoted set of followers including one of my good friends. I have seen some but not a lot. I was pointed to putting on rose-colored glasses and using that lens to ignore the problems in the world, with the reality of a lost love as the hook, maybe to get us to dig deeper. So many great ideas about imagination and the positive view of positivity and hope. And I enjoyed all the photos. This was a very nice little course on looking at a poem in different ways and without pressure to “get it” just right. Remember he is against that ie tying the poem to a chair. Isn’t it wonderful when poems grab us, then we reread and see it a little differently and go hmmm and wonder. Thanks as always, Jama

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Janet. I’ve listened to Billy’s FB livestreams a few times — he always offers something new to contemplate and has featured some great poems. It’s interesting to consider different interpretations of poems. That’s the beauty of any art form. As readers or viewers we bring our own experiences to bear on a finished work. Exciting that any work of art is dynamic rather than static, changing according to who is appreciating it.


    1. I think the “love lost” take is probably the one held by most readers. Strangely enough, Colin has never appeared in any of my dreams, unlike James Taylor, whom I’ve “talked to” several times. 🙂


  15. I read a lot of fiction and history and food memoirs and the like, but not poetry. I just can’t ever figure out all those depths of a poem the way you have done! Awesome post and also awesome comments.

    best… mae at

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are many poems I come across that are too abstract or obtuse for me — ones I have no idea what the poem means, but I think Collins (as well as Mary Oliver) both appeal to the general masses because their work is so accessible and relatable.


  16. Thanks for the close read, Jama. This was a great reminder to me: pay attention to what you’re filtering out, and why. Take off the filters and really LOOK at every line of “the poem” as well as what is between those “lines.”

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is what I like about poetry – that so many possible interpretations can come from one poem. I like to consider the conceit that he is talking about a lesser self – a version of himself he doesn’t like, for whatever reason. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

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