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Poem of the Week- November 1st, 2020 - 'Cemetery Ride' by Billy Collins

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

For the inaugural edition of the ‘Poem of the Week,’ a new weekly feature on the Brown Deer Public Library staff blog, I’ve decided to go with one of Billy Collins’ most famous poems about death. Before you decide to think, “What a morbid way to start a new feature,” give me a moment to explain.

Many people don’t like poetry—they think it’s convoluted, complicated, stingy, stuffy, and overly dramatic. When most people read poetry during their middle and high school years, they are forced to read long epics, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or Homer’s The Odyssey, or are exposed to British poets, considered the ‘greats’ of Western poetry, who wrote in the 18th and 19th centuries. Said British poets, such as William Blake, John Donne, or John Keats, often write ornamental metered poetry, meaning it has to conform to a certain style, either by using certain rhyming patterns or syllabic content, and it is often wrapped up in too many hidden meanings and fanciful language for the average lay person to want to spend anytime deciphering what the author is trying to say. The same goes for the longer epics—Eliot’s The Wasteland is chockful of allegories, metaphors, allusions, and other literary devices, similar to Paradise Lost by John Milton, and the issue becomes that the normal, average reader quickly loses interest in reading any pieces written in such a manner. Why struggle to not only understand some of the words used in such poems, long or short, but also be forced to wade through all the literary devices after a ten-hour shift at work when all you want to do is kick back and relax and read a good story or poem while reclining on the couch?

Enter Billy Collins.

Billy Collins has been declared ‘the most popular poet in America’ by numerous publications, including The New York Times, and was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003, arguably the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Poetry in the United States if one had to make a comparison and such a prize existed, and he has been labeled by most academics and critics as the ‘most accessible poet writing today.' Unlike the kind of poetry that many people were forced to read in either middle school, high school, or college-level English classes, Billy Collins has been celebrated for writing poetry that is not only accessible and easily understood, but poetry that is also interesting, thought-provoking, and is Hemingwayesque in the sense that he uses few words to produce deep thoughts and connections with the subjects of his poems and the deeper themes he is trying to get readers to think about. And, best of all for some people, Collins usually writes in ‘free verse.’ This means that, unlike the poets of old, who had to stick to strict rules about the number of syllables in each line, the stress of said syllables in each line, or the rhyming scheme of the entire poem, Collins writes without any kind of encumbrances, able to write however many words/syllables he wants in each line and deciding when to end one line and begin the next. He has spoken in interviews about ‘feeling’ the poetry when asked how he decides where to put line breaks, and his most popular response when asked how he does it is that he tries to mimic the normal cues and patterns of human speech when writing.

Now, why such a morbid topic for the first ‘Poem of the Week’ feature? While this is the week directly after Halloween, with thoughts of creepy haunts and goblins and all things dark and deathly possibly still fresh in our minds, the Mexican Day of the Dead is also this week, a celebration of all things dead and gone but not forgotten. One of the main tenants of the Day of the Dead is remembering old friends and family members, and this is celebrated by spending time with loved ones to recall the days when the deceased were still alive and around and living to their fullest extent. Even though it’s called Day of the Dead, it’s more a celebration of the life and accomplishments of those who have passed.

With that idea in mind—a celebration of the dead when they’re gone and passed—I feel that Billy Collins’ ‘Cemetery Ride’ is a perfect encapsulation of the mood of the week.

While it is quite simple on the surface—it involves Collins riding his bike through a cemetery while it’s warm and breezy outside in his Floridian setting, stopping to read the names and dates on the tombstones around him—the poem explores the deeper themes of remembrance after death, the loss of memory, the creativity of the human mind, and the juxtaposition of light and dark.

By starting the poem with the sunny setting of the cemetery while he rides his bike, and contrasting that with the ideas of darkness and dreariness that pervade people’s perceptions of cemeteries overall, Collins shows that cemeteries can be places of comfort and deep thought. Instead of thinking of cemeteries as places where the dead lay forever alone, why not take a stroll through one close to you and peer at the names, imagining the lives these people led when they were still around? Even though many of the dead he comes across in the poem were gone before he was even born, Collins’ mind fires with imagination about what these people were like during their time on Earth, speaking of their loved ones and thinking what could happen if he could bring them back from the dead and spend some time with them in the present. He implies that, if possible, he could mine these people’s life experiences for endless other poems and stories, arguably two of the most basic blocks of human communication, and the world would become a richer place because of it. The simplicity Collins’ plays with in regards to the deceased’s names is a clever and funny addition to the poem as well, and it serves to continue the theme of lightness shining through the dark that permeates the entire piece.

With just a few lines of poetry, Collins shows readers the joy in finding light and hope in the most unusual places, and he implores us to explore our world and imagine what came before us, building on the past in order to preserve a better future.

Cemetery Ride

My new copper-colored bicycle

is looking pretty fine under a blue sky as I pedal along a sandy path in the Palm Cemetery here in Florida,

wheeling past the headstones of the Lyons, the Campbells, the Vesers, and the Davenports, Arthur and Ethel, who outlived him by eleven years. I slow down even more to notice,

but not so much as to fall sideways on the ground. And here’s a guy named Happy Grant next to his wife Jean in their endless bed. Annie Sue Simms is right there and sounds

a lot more fun than Theodosia S. Hawley. And good afternoon, Emily Polasek, and to you too, George and Jane Cooper, facing each other in profile, two sides of a coin.

I wish I could take you all for a ride in my wire basket on this glorious April day, not a thing as simple as your name, Bill Smith, even trickier than Clarence Augustus Coddington.

Then how about just you, Bernice Owens? Would you gather up your voluminous skirts then ride sidesaddle on the crossbar and tell me what happened between 1863 and 1931?

I’ll even let you ring the silver bell. But if you’re not ready, I can always ask Amanda Collier to rise from her long sleep beneath the swaying gray beards of Spanish moss

and ride with me along these sandy paths so I can listen to her strange laughter as some crows flap in the blue overhead and the spokes of my wheels catch the dazzling sun.

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