The Art of Drowning

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007
by Billy Collins. Another book from the teetering pile. Can you believe this is the biggest picture I could find? It's been a while since I read this collection, and since I've written previously about my affection for Billy Collins I'm going to skip trying to come up with a new way to say "oooh, I like it!" (Although scanning the book flap does provide a lovely list of descriptives: wonderful, thoughtful, sly, moving, deft, droll, outrageous assertions whizzing past, brilliant, rueful, playful, warm-voiced, easy to love, unalloyed pleasure, metaphysical poet with a funny bone, sly (he's twice sly!), witty, playful, beautifully turned, etc.)

Thesaurus is the poem that caught my eye this morning as I was flipping through the pages. (on another day or another hour it might have been a different poem, but I thought this one seemed just right for right now.)


It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, wooly, furry, fleecy and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.

Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.

~ Billy Collins
2 comments on "The Art of Drowning"
  1. What a great poem! I love the evocation of a family reunion. It makes me wish I could write poetry (well, that and that my friend just won a prize for some villanelles she wrote...she's actually talking about doing a writing group this should come with me, if she does!)

  2. I'm glad you like the poem -- he's a lot of sly fun.

    as for the group... I'm dubious about my participation because I am such a freak, but let me know when you find out! it sounds like something I'd like to know more about, at any rate. (maybe by then I will have conquered my Freak Gene.)


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