Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, May 1, 2015

Billy Collins's Genius

Tundra Swans at Goose Pond
Tundra Swans. (I actually don't know if Billy Collins had been watching Tundra or Mute Swans, but Tundra Swans produce a better sound for the radio.)
Every now and then, I read a poem that is so perfect—so simple and obvious and yet layered, and that speaks so directly to my heart as well as my mind—that I’m blown away. Some writers of poetry and fiction squeeze birds, flapping and thrashing their resistance, into their metaphors, like so many wannabe princesses forcing their unwilling feet into someone else’s glass slipper. Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, lets swans be swans in his poem “Genius,” from his collection Aimless Love. Mr. Collins gave me permission to read it on the air today. (Listen here.)


was what they called you in high school
if you tripped on a shoelace in the hall
and all your books went flying.

Or if you walked into an open locker door,
you would be known as Einstein,
who imagined riding a streetcar into infinity.

Later, genius became someone
who could take a sliver of chalk and square pi
a hundred places out beyond the decimal point,

or a man painting on his back on a scaffold,
or drawing a waterwheel in a margin,
or spinning out a little night music.

But earlier this week on a wooded path,
I thought the swans afloat on the reservoir
were the true geniuses,
the ones who had figured out how to fly,
how to be both beautiful and brutal,
and how to mate for life.

Twenty-four geniuses in all,
for I numbered them as Yeats had done,
deployed upon the calm, crystalline surface—

forty-eight if we count their white reflections,
or an even fifty if you want to throw in me
and the dog running up ahead,

who were at least smart enough to be out
that morning—she sniffing the ground,
me with my head up in the bright morning air.

"Genius" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Used with permission.