Poets & Writers

A Poet a Day: Billy Collins

"On the Deaths of Friends"

A Poet a Day: Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins

During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by “the best words in the best order.”
— Bill Moyers

Billy Collins wrote “On the Deaths of Friends” long before the pandemic, but as he says, it has become more intense and relevant during these days. He says that poetry asks everyone to do the same thing, and that is to “slow down.”

On the Deaths of Friends

Either they just die
or they get sick and die of the sickness
or they get sick, recover, then die of something else,
or they get sick, appear to recover,
then die of the same thing,
the sickness coming back
to take another bite out of you
in the forest of your final hours.

And there are other ways,
which will not be considered here.
In the evening, I closed my eyes
by the water’s edge and I pretended
this is what it will look like
or will not look like,
this is where my friends keep going,
a “place” only in quotation marks,

where instead of oxygen, there is silence
unbroken by the bark of a fox in winter
or the whine of an unattended kettle.
With eyes still closed,
I ran in the dark toward that silence,
like a man running along a train platform,
and when I opened my eyes to see
who was running in the other direction

with outspread arms,
there was the lake again with its ripples,
a breeze coming off the water,

and a low train whistle,
and there was I trembling
under the trees, passing clouds,
and everything else that was pouring
over the mighty floodgates of the senses.

Billy Collins is the author of 12 collections of poetry including The Rain in Portugal, Aimless Love, Horoscopes for the Dead, Ballistics, The Trouble with Poetry, Nine Horses, Sailing Alone Around the Room, Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, and Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds. A former distinguished professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and as New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006. In 2016 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Florida with his wife Suzannah.

See all poets in the A Poet a Day Collection.