Born in New York City, Billy Collins is arguably the most popular poet in America, where he served as poet laureate from 2001 to 2003. Much loved in the UK, too, he was described by the late Michael Donaghy as “a rare amalgam of accessibility and intelligence”. Possessed of a surreal and darkly comic imagination, Collins is courteous to his readers, keen to take us with him on his imaginary wanderings, but always delivering so much more than entertainment, and prompting us to think below the surface of our lives.
The First Geniuses
by Billy Collins
It is so early almost nothing has happened.
Agriculture is an unplanted seed.
Music and the felt hat are thousands of years away.
The sail and the astrolabe, not even specks on the horizon.
The window and scissors: inconceivable.
But even now, before the orchestra of history
has had time to warm up, the first geniuses
have found one another and gathered into a thoughtful group.
Gaunt, tall and bearded, as you might expect,
they stand outlined against a landscape of smoking volcanoes
or move along the shores of lakes, still leaden and unnamed,
or sit on high bare cliffs looking like early arrivals
at a party the earth is about to throw
now that the dinosaurs have finally cleared the room.
They have yet to discover fire, much less invent the wheel,
so they wander a world mostly dark and motionless
wondering what to do with their wisdom
like young girls wonder what to do with their hair.
Once in a while someone will make a pronouncement
about the movement of the stars, the density of silence,
or the strange behaviour of water in winter,
but there is no alphabet, not a drop of ink on earth,
so the words disappear into the deep green forests
like flocks of small, startled birds.
Eventually one of them will come up with the compass
or draw the first number in sand with a stick,
and he will let out a shout like Archimedes in his tub
and curious animals will look up from their grazing.
Later the water screw and the catapult will appear;
the nail, the speedometer and the bow tie will follow.
But until then they can only pace the world gravely,
knowing nothing but the thrumming of their minds,
not the whereabouts of north or the notion of zero,
not even how to sharpen a stone to a deadly point.
• From Picnic, Lightning (Pittsburgh University Press, 1998).
• Carol Ann Duffy and Manchester Metropolitan University have created Write Where We Are Now, an online collection of work by contemporary poets in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Source: The Guardian