What Can We Steal From Billy Collins’s “Days”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Days,” poem
Author: Billy Collins
Date of Work: 1995
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was originally published in the September 1994 issue of Poetry, one of the biggie-big journals.  (That one happens to be VERY reasonably priced, too!)  The Poetry Foundation is kind enough to have posted the poem here.  You can go and read it for freeRight now!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Imagery

Discussion:
Billy Collins is one of our Great American Contemporary Poets™.  The gentleman served as Poet Laureate and has done an incredible amount of good for the genre he loves.  His work is simultaneously accessible and beautiful and are a wonderful starting point for folks who mistakenly believe that they “don’t get” poetry.

“Days” is a six-stanza poem in which Mr. Collins offers his take on carpe diem.  (Seize the day!)  The poem seemingly begins in the morning, when “you” are waking and ends at night as “you” finish your day with a relaxing cup of tea.  (Doesn’t it make sense to begin in the morning and end at night?)

The imagery that Mr. Collins uses jumps right out at you.  In the morning, the ground is heavy with snow “and the thick masonry of ice,/ the sun glinting off the turrets of clouds.”  Goodness, isn’t it interesting to think of snowfall as masonry?  This unexpected comparison continues in the fourth stanza: “the days of the past stacked high/ like the impossible tower of dishes/ entertainers used to build on stage.”  Instead of thinking of time as a continuum, Mr. Collins compares time to a big brick building in terms that we can understand.  Even if we’ve never laid brick, we understand the concept, right?

How can we come up with phrases as pretty as the ones Collins included in “Days”?  I’m betting Billy Collins would agree with me.  You have to read a lot of poems, stories, screenplays, grocery lists, scraps of paper you find on the stree…  You have to jot down countless ideas.  You need to share your writing with others and get feedback.  The kinds of ideas you find in “Days” must percolate, so get your mental coffee pot started.

Look at the way Mr. Collins uses italics.  Here’s the first line of the poem:

Each one is a gift, no doubt.

Mr. Collins uses the italics to let you add some kind of meter to the line.  The word “is” might be italicized to let the reader know that the word deserves to be a stressed syllable.  Would you otherwise expect “is” to be stressed?  This choice also adds emphasis.  Mr. Collins is saying that each day *IS* a gift.  Who would doubt him?  Well, aren’t there times that we may be a little depressed and may forget how special it is that each of us are here?

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ unexpected comparisons.  Time can be a building instead of a river.  The sun can be an explosion instead of a fire.  Marriage can be a Siberian exile instead of a relationship.  Geesh, these are all bad.  But you get the point.
  • Use italics and other kinds of typographic tricks to get your message across.  Words in bold or in italics or in ALL CAPS or struck through will have a big effect on the reader when they get to them.  Just be careful to use these tricks sparingly.  They’re like garlic.  A little bit is great!  Too much?  You don’t get a kiss at the end of the date.

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