Poetry Centre

Billy Collins, Carpe Diem

  • Introduced by Richard Haill, Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes, International Centre, Oxford Brookes University

    Carpe Diem

    Maybe it was the fast-moving clouds
    or the spring flowers quivering among the dead leaves,
    but I knew this was one day I was born to seize -

    not just another card in the deck of a year,
    but March 19th itself,
    looking as clear and fresh as the ten of diamonds.

    Living life to the fullest is the only way,
    I thought as I sat by a tall window
    and tapped my pencil on the dome of a glass paperweight.  

    To drain the cup of life to the dregs
    was a piece of irresistible advice,
    I averred as I checked someone's dates

    in the Dictionary of National Biography
    and later, as I scribbled a few words
    on the back of a picture postcard.  

    Crashing through the iron gates of life
    is what it is all about,
    I decided as I lay down on the carpet,

    locked my hands behind my head,
    and considered how unique this day was
    and how different I was from the men

    of hari-kari for whom it is disgraceful
    to end up lying on your back.
    Better, they think, to be found facedown

    in a blood-soaked shirt
    than to be discovered with lifeless eyes
    fixed on the elegant teak ceiling above you,

    and now I can almost hear the silence
    of the temple bells and the lighter silence
    of the birds hiding in the darkness of a hedge.

    Billy Collins

    With some friends I started a poetry-reading (not writing!) group in 2002, and we have been meeting 7 or 8 times a year since then. As a result of this I’ve built up quite a large poetry collection. We take it in turns to host the meetings and set the theme: each of us chooses 5 or 6 poems to read, and we are provided with copious glasses of wine to help us through. I first came across the work of Billy Collins about 10 years ago; this poem is from his 2008 collection, Ballistics.

    I like it for several reasons. The contrast between the incitement-to-positive-action title (‘Enjoy the Day!’) and the relative inaction of the poet who is content to sit, tap his pencil, check some facts in a book, write a post-card, lie on the carpet, stare at the ceiling and listen to bells & birds.

    The further contrast between the clichéd phrases in the poems which are commonly used to exhort us to follow the ‘carpe diem’ approach to life -  ‘this was one day I was born to seize’. ‘living life to the fullest’, ‘drain the cup of life to the dregs’, ‘crash through the iron gates of life’ – and the quiet, contemplative way in which the poet chooses to enjoy his day;

    The poet seems a nice guy! He wants to pass the day (and note the coming of spring) in his own way: he resists any urge to dash out and do important things, and is content to sit (and lie) at home and while away the time with his own thoughts. Who can't relate to that!

    The poem is reproduced by permission of Random House USA, and comes from his collection Ballistics (New York: Random House, 2008). The Poetry Centre is grateful to Sherri Feldman.