Thursday, April 28, 2022

An Out of Season Christmas Carol from Billy Collins—National Poetry Month 2022


Billy Collins reading in 2008.

Billy Collins is one of the best loved and most widely read contemporary American poets.  He was an exceptionally high profile United States Poet Laureate from 2001-03.  He disdains obscurity and embraces a plain spoken, conversational style.  To read, or better yet listen to him read one of his pieces is to feel that you are engaged in a wonderful conversation with a witty friend. His topics are often seemingly mundane, reflecting on ordinary life and its sometimes surprises.  He stands outside any literary movement.  All of this has made him suspect to many academics, some of whom seem to regard widespread popularity with general readers as proof of shallowness.

A Christmas Eve flight over West Texas inspired these musings which would surprise the mostly conservative Christians below him and many of his progressive and sophisticate readers who suspect that the locals are red neck racists.  Thus does a mostly apolitical poet engage both our communal divisions and challenge our smug assumptions.  This verse appeared in Collins’s 2013 Random House collection Aimless Love.

An East Texas Bethlehem from the air.

Flying Over West Texas at Christmas

Oh, little town far below
with a ruler line of a road running through you,
you anonymous cluster of houses and barns,
miniaturized by this altitude
in a land as parched as Bethlehem
might have been somewhere around the year zero—

a beautiful song should be written about you
which choirs could sing in their lofts
and carolers standing in a semicircle
could carol in front of houses topped with snow.

For surely some admirable person was born
within the waffle-iron grid of your streets,
who then went on to perform some small miracles,
placing a hand on the head of a child
or shaking a cigarette out of the pack for a stranger.

But maybe it is best not to compose a hymn
or chisel into tablets the code of his behavior
or convene a tribunal of men in robes to explain his words.

Let us not press the gold leaf of his name
onto a page of vellum or hang his image from a nail.
Better to fly over this little town with nothing
but the hope that someone visits his grave

once a year, pushing open the low iron gate
then making her way toward him
through the rows of the others

before bending to prop up some flowers before the stone.


—Billy Collins


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