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Litany -- Billy Collins

(Poem #1095) Litany
            You are the bread and the knife,
            The crystal goblet and the wine...
               -Jacques Crickillon

 You are the bread and the knife,
 the crystal goblet and the wine.
 You are the dew on the morning grass
 and the burning wheel of the sun.
 You are the white apron of the baker,
 and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

 However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
 the plums on the counter,
 or the house of cards.
 And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
 There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

 It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
 maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
 but you are not even close
 to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

 And a quick look in the mirror will show
 that you are neither the boots in the corner
 nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

 It might interest you to know,
 speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
 that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

 I also happen to be the shooting star,
 the evening paper blowing down an alley
 and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

 I am also the moon in the trees
 and the blind woman's tea cup.
 But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
 You are still the bread and the knife.
 You will always be the bread and the knife,
 not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.
-- Billy Collins
It is surprising that I haven't run more poems by Billy Collins - for some
reason, even his being appointed U.S. Poet Laureate didn't really tempt me
into exploring his work. I've been reading a few of his poems recently,
though, and with increasing appreciation, and was planning to run the
haunting "I go back to the house for a book" sometime, when a friend sent me
a link to today's masterpiece.

I was totally blown away by 'Litany' - not just due to its considerable
poetic merits, but because it is so much the kind of poem I'd have loved to
have written myself, a coolly ironic commentary on the nature of Poetry that
at the same time loses none of the sense of wonder and delight that
characterises the medium. Simply beautiful, and a poem I couldn't possibly
add any further commentary to.


Links: is an extensiev site devoted to

And I found today's poem in the wonderful archive:

136 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

nick blackburn said...

Absolutely brilliant. Pulls the comfortable rug from
under the padded feet of at least 83% of poets.
Straight into my top 5.

Cheers, Nick

Nick Blackburn

Bressofsf said...

Dear Martin:

Billy Collins is a happy guy. This poem makes me laugh. But I'm not learned
enough to find the poetic merit here. Is there some method or purpose to the
way Collins divies up his metaphors here. I can't make it out. Please


(For more wonderful Collins fun, please read Another Reason I Don't Keep a
Gun in the House)

Colin said...

I, too, love this poem. Nine and a half years after everybody else, I'll admit, but still. It's no less charming and ingenious here in the Spring of 2010.

It's still a basket of chestnuts.

Anonymous said...

I think of this poem when ever I run into someone ( usually a jerky boss) who thinks he is all that, and I'm nothing. And has it plain backwards.

Not everyone is pine scented air. So there.

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