I Figured Out the Perfect Evening Activity

I Love Lucy

Usually, at night, you can find me lying in my bed watching a show on my phone. I’ve plowed through Schitt’s Creek (adored Alexis), I May Destroy You (phenomenal), The Undoing (eeps), you name it, I’ve seen it. But last night, my eyes were tired of staring at a screen, so I cuddled up and read this

Whale Day by Billy Collins. Have you read his poems? They are funny, surprising, conversational, profound. And you get drawn right in. “I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem,” Collins once said. “Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.”

I don’t usually lie around reading poetry, but I was amazed by the feeling it gave me. Relaxed, content, inspired. My breath slowed down. It felt physically good.

And it’s funny because I was originally planning to start a novel last night, but happened to pick Collins’s book of poems from the shelf instead. In an interview with The Paris Review, Collins said, “One of the differences between being a novelist and a poet is that the novelist kind of moves into your house. I mean, it takes three days or three weeks to read a novel. I think of the novelist as a houseguest. The poet is more someone who just appears. You know, a door opens, and there’s the poet! He says something about life or death, closes the door and is gone. Who was that masked man? I like that kind of sudden appearance. Not overstaying your welcome, you might say.”

At times, I laughed; at times, I clutched my heart. When asked if he had a concept of the reader, he said, “She’s this girl in high school who broke my heart, and I’m hoping that she’ll read my poems one day and feel bad about what she did. No, the reader for me is someone who doesn’t care about me or has no vested interest. I start the poem assuming that I have to engage his or her interest. There is no pre-existing reason for you to be interested in me and certainly not in my family, so there must be a lure at the beginning of a poem. I want the reader to be in the sidecar, ready. Then off we go.”

Off we go, indeed!

Do you remember ages ago we talked about memorizing poems? I would love to memorize one — or maybe a few — Billy Collins poems. A reader named Lauren once said, “My professor at Columbia called this kind of memorization investing in your own ‘mental furniture.’ He had memorized most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and he loved the idea that he’d always have those words as furniture in his head for his thoughts to sit on, even in old age.”

Here’s the one I’d memorize, I think, although it’s impossible to choose between his poems, like naming a favorite child.


No man is lonely while eating spaghetti. — Christopher Morley

This time, I was at a corner table at Pasta Vivace!
on that side street next to the old music store.
The place was not at all crowded.
Just enough young men and women
were coming and going to keep me
occupied as I sipped my Campari and soda
and waited for the waiter to arrive with my pasta.

I imagined what the parents of all these people
were doing this evening,
then I thought of all of the diners as babies
with looks of amazement on their tiny faces.
Then as they kept arriving and departing,
holding the door for one another,
they turned into skeletons in their caskets,

each being carried by six husky pallbearers,
who would also be dead by now,
as I would be before too long,
for death is the magnetic north of poetry.

But first, I must insist on having the pleasure
of eating my linguini con vongole,
dipping chunks of crusty bread into the briny sauce.

for this is also a poem about happiness,
a celebration of the senses
and of all the men and women coming and going.
And if you turn your head a little this way,
you can see me at a corner table,
twirling the pasta with a fork and spoon
like an infant with a bib tucked under his chin.

Thoughts? Do you ever read poems? Do you have a favorite? Please share below, I would love to hear…

P.S. On being human, and Kate Baer’s motherhood poems make me laugh and cry. And my other dorky hobby.

(Photo of I Love Lucy.)

  1. Hi Joanna Goddard!
    Thanks for the beautiful article.
    Poems are something that deals with our emotion. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne is my one of the favorites.
    As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go,
    Whilst some of their sad friends do say
    The breath goes now, and some say, No:

    So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
    ’Twere profanation of our joys
    To tell the laity our love …

  2. I got into “poetry before bedtime” too in the last couple of months and discovered: Naomi Shihab Nye, Wendell Berry, John O’Donahue, William Stafford, David Whyte (this one is so good: )

    Will get Billy Collin’s book too – thank you for the recommendation!
    Currently reading David Whyte and am in love with this one:

    Suppose we did our work
    like the snow, quietly, quietly,
    leaving nothing out.

  3. Laura Quine says...

    For Billy Collins fans, during quarantine he has been doing daily poetry readings on his facebook page. I don’t always have time to watch but when I do it is such a treat. He truly is one of a kind.

  4. Francesca says...

    I always share this poem of Seamus Heaney, who was an extraordinary poet.

    You were the one for skylights. I opposed
    Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
    Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
    Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
    Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
    The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
    Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
    The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

    But when the slates came off, extravagant
    Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
    For days I felt like an inhabitant
    Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
    Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
    Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

    This is simple but beautiful. He has so many others.

  5. Diana says...

    This made me smile because Billy Collins was our visiting poet one year when I was in high school. The impact of his reading on the whole audience of teenagers was palpable. His balance of poignant humor and fantastic delivery completely won everyone over, and I was so proud when a dear friend got to interview him for the school paper. I love coming across his poems over the years — this is a good reminder to revisit his work, thank you

  6. Ela says...

    Many years ago I got a gift of Billy Collins’ book Picnic Lightening and have been a fan ever since.

    I have been using reading poetry as pre-bedtime ritual for the past few months. Sometimes before bed I would be too tired to read a novel but not tired enough to sleep, so I would scroll through my phone, stay up too late, and not be able to fall asleep. It was a bad bedtime habit. So now every time I feel the urge to pick up my phone and scroll in bed, I pick up a poetry book and read a poem. This week it’s Margaret Atwood’s poetry book Dearly. (Oh and my phone is now on the nightstand on the opposite side of the bed from me so it’s out of reach.)

  7. Veronica says...

    These comments are so beautiful.

  8. Katie says...

    I am not a “poetry person,” despite by love for literature. I wish I were! BUT. I recently discovered the work of Ross Gay, and oh my goodness. The conversational style, the bits of brilliance that hit you like a sucker-punch that are interwoven with lines about funny looking toes…. I’ve been reading one before bed each night, to try to help me wind down (pandemic insomnia) from this collection:

    One of my former college professors shared this specific poem, too:

    • Caitlin Marshall says...

      Oh, I love his poetry so, so much! A Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude caught my eye at the library many years ago, with that lovely colorful cover, and I am ever so glad that it did!

    • Katie says...

      A friend gifted me World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who is also a poet! I haven’t read her poetry but each essay?/story?/wonder! is so lovely and also perfect for that in-between space between the day and sleep. Ross Gay is blurbed on her book, and she’s blurbed on his! A lovely companion to A Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (and also, for me, especially during these times).

  9. Mina Neumüller says...

    My good friend far away sent a book as a gift a while back. I don’t even know if it was meant for me or for my kids, but I love it. It is also one of those books you can just pop into for a few minutes: The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse. It’s drawings and sort of poetry, and very lovely.

    I also love Kate Baer’s poetry book What kind of woman.

  10. Fantastic post! The only thing I inadvertently memorised (through sheer repetition) is Dorothy Parker:
    I like to have a martini
    Two at the very most
    After three I’m under the table
    After four I’m under the host
    (still makes me laugh!)
    Now I know the things I know
    And do the things I do
    And if you do not like me so
    To hell, my love, with you!
    (part of a longer piece, but this is the part memorised)

  11. Martha Patterson says...

    On Hospital Food…
    One eats no meats
    Just Jello and beets
    and soups, and schloops
    of Cream of Wheats

    Ogden Nash….remember it from my teen years.!

  12. Silvia says...

    Lovely post…Thanks for initiating it. Will check out Billy Collins and I leave you all with one of my favorite:

    IF By Rudyard Kipling

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

  13. Sara says...

    Thank you for sharing!

  14. Jessica Q says...

    I’ve always remembered this line from a Keats poem but I can’t remember the title (terrible, I know): “And they shall be accounted poet-kings / who simply tell heart-easing things.”
    I stitched it on a pillow!
    I will check out Billy Collins! Sounds lovely.

    • Jessica Q says...

      *Correction! “Who simply tell the most heart-easing things.”

  15. In the before times, Thursday was the one day a week my husband picked up the kids from school. So on those days, I’d knock off of work a couple hours early and settle onto a bar stool at my favorite taco place with a couple volumes of poetry. I’d order a margarita and the happy hour nachos and I’d crack open some poems—Jack Gilbert, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Galway Kinnell, Mary Oliver. I’d get another margarita and go deeper into it. There was rarely a day I wasn’t crying on my barstool after reading some shattering line. The bartender, Matt, politely looked away every time, knew when not to ask if I’d like another.
    There’s something about entering a poem after having a drink—when you’re a bit looser, when the shackles of the everyday mind have begun to unhinge themselves, when you’re more porous and open to language and light. This is one thing I desperately miss about regular life.

    I love nearly everything Jack Gilbert has written, but this one kills me every time:

    Failing and Flying

    Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
    It’s the same when love comes to an end,
    or the marriage fails and people say
    they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
    said it would never work. That she was
    old enough to know better. But anything
    worth doing is worth doing badly.
    Like being there by that summer ocean
    on the other side of the island while
    love was fading out of her, the stars
    burning so extravagantly those nights that
    anyone could tell you they would never last.
    Every morning she was asleep in my bed
    like a visitation, the gentleness in her
    like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
    Each afternoon I watched her coming back
    through the hot stony field after swimming,
    the sea light behind her and the huge sky
    on the other side of that. Listened to her
    while we ate lunch. How can they say
    the marriage failed? Like the people who
    came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
    and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
    I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
    but just coming to the end of his triumph.

    • Mina says...

      Your me-time routine sounds amazing! Can’t wait for Corona to end so I can try it on. ;-)

  16. Taryn says...

    I feel like I am just now truly discovering poetry. Thank you so much for this post, I can’t wait to explore Billy Collins.. “the poet is someone who just shows up at your front door”! I love everything about that. And while I have never been very good at memorizing things, I’m into this idea of memorizing a poem for my mental furniture!

    • Sara says...

      I loved the term “mental furniture”!

  17. Sara says...

    I love the idea of memorizing a poem to furnish your mind! I have only ever memorized a handful, but I’d like to be like that character in a tv show or movie who just happens to recite a poem perfectly from memory and in the perfect context.
    I was so frustrated a few weeks ago, trying to recite How Doth the Little Crocodile by Lewis Carrol to my kids, because I’d never actually committed it to memory. After they went to bed, I practiced it about a dozen times to really get it in there. Almost every night since, I’ve recited it to my kiddos at bedtime. Now, my 6 year old daughter recites it perfectly to me and I am in awe of her.

  18. pmia says...

    I cried.

    Thank you for sharing this poem, Joanna.

  19. Karen says...

    If you like poetry, you should check out Danielle Doby’s “ I Am Her Tribe”. Really lovely and she has a very inspiring story. Would love to see her featured on your blog someday!

  20. Ruth says...

    I keep the Mary Oliver poem “Dogfish” on my bulletin board at work, especially for the lines:

    And look! look! look! I think those little fish
    better wake up and dash themselves away
    from the hopeless future that is
    bulging toward them.

    And probably,
    if they don’t waste time
    looking for an easier world,

    they can do it.

  21. Bonnie says...

    Billy Collins is my jam! So much so that I’m taking his Master Class– it’s fun!

    I also highly recommend John Kenney’s Love Poems for Married People and Love Poems for People with Children. So amazing.

  22. Eva says...

    Thank you for this inspiration.
    I usually read novels and I don’t find it so easy to read poetry.
    And I didn’t know Billy Collins (I don’t know if he is very well known but I’m french so that explains it ;) ) but I love this poem and I may try to read more of them !

  23. There are just too many, but this one helped me through a hard time recently:

    A Color of the Sky

    Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
    driving over the hills from work.
    There are the dark parts on the road
    when you pass through clumps of wood
    and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
    but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

    I should call Marie and apologize
    for being so boring at dinner last night,
    but can I really promise not to be that way again?
    And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
    in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

    Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
    the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
    are full of infant chlorophyll,
    the very tint of inexperience.

    Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
    and on the highway overpass,
    the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
    in big black spraypaint letters,

    which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

    Last night I dreamed of X again.
    She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
    Years ago she penetrated me
    but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
    I never got her out,
    but now I’m glad.

    What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
    What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
    What I thought was an injustice
    turned out to be a color of the sky.

    Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
    and the police station,
    a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

    overflowing with blossomfoam,
    like a sudsy mug of beer;
    like a bride ripping off her clothes,

    dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

    so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
    It’s been doing that all week:
    making beauty,
    and throwing it away,
    and making more.

    • LD says...

      I love this! thanks for sharing

    • Carly says...

      This is exactly what I needed to read right now. Thank you.

  24. Alida says...

    Ah, Billy Collins. When I was a freshman in high school, Mr. Collins was a guest of honor and judge at our school wide poetry contest. I do not know how this came to be, it was a rather crusty Los Angeles school and mysterious things happened there. To my prepubescent shock, I won the competition. I just flipped through an old journal to find my poem:

    It was all fuzzy.
    I squeezed my bad eye shut.
    Las Vegas – City Limit,
    The green sign gleamed.
    I could see the towering casinos in the distance,
    I closed my eyes.
    I’d be at the motel soon.
    There would be a filthy, poly-fill duvet.
    I’d slip the cold glock out of my socks and open a can of tuna fish.

    The irony of a sheltered 13 year old child writing this is not lost on me. I suppose it wasn’t lost on Mr. Collins. Lately, I’ve been battling depression. I have a baby, toddler and first grader with some special needs. We moved to Maine at the onset of the pandemic and I’m feeling the vast loneliness of living in a new. rural place with young children in tow. Perhaps I’ll pick the pen up again ❤️.

    • Olivia says...

      Please write more poems, Alida! You don’t need the imaginary drama of Vegas when you have cold, rural Maine, little children, and a pandemic at your heels. I’m begging you!

    • Lindsay says...

      This is a beautiful poem. Keep going. You are doing a great job!

  25. Jill says...

    Oh, The Breather by Collins. I am overcome, every time.

  26. Anna says...

    Also featured on Poetry Unbound, as many have mentioned. Pádraig Ó Tuama’s voice this year has been a church of sorts for me.

    What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
    by Brad Aaron Modlin

    Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
    to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
    how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
    questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.
    After lunch she distributed worksheets
    that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
    voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
    without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
    something important—and how to believe
    the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
    Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
    how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
    and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
    are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
    The English lesson was that I am
    is a complete sentence.
    And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
    look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
    and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
    for whatever it was you lost, and one person
    add up to something.

    • TJ says...

      This poem is such a gift. Thank you!

  27. I love this and can’t wait to read through the comments, too. Thank you for linking to bookshop rather than that behemoth online marketplace who I’d rather not even mention here.

  28. Mary says...

    One of my very favorite poems from Billy Collins is The Lanyard. So wonderful ☺️

    • Susan B. says...

      Mine too. Love it.

  29. Billy Collins has been a long time favorite of mine. A dose of comfort on the shelf. Memorizing poetry is such a wonderful thing to do— I used to have them on hand to recite if I was stressed. If you haven’t seen this 3 year old reciting Litany by Collins, get thee to YouTube!

    • Michelle says...

      Well that was astounding!

    • Mandy says...

      This YouTube video is the first thing I thought of when reading Joanna’s post. I used to watch it all the time, and it inspired me to memorize “Litany” as well. :)