'I Ask You' by Billy Collins

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What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside--
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.No, it's all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles--
each a different height--
are singing in perfect harmony.So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt--
frog at the edge of a pond--
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Poetry, I Ask You: A Close Reading of Billy Collins' Classic Poem

When it comes to contemporary poetry, few poets are as beloved and widely read as Billy Collins. Over the course of a prolific career spanning more than four decades, Collins has captivated audiences with his accessible yet thought-provoking verse, earning accolades ranging from the Poet Laureateship of the United States to a Grammy-nominated spoken word album. One of his most enduring and celebrated poems is "Poetry, I Ask You," a meditation on the role and meaning of poetry in our lives. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will provide a close reading of this classic poem, exploring its themes, structure, language, and symbolism.

The Poem

Before delving into the analysis, let's first read the poem in its entirety:

Poetry, I ask you

What is the opposite of two?

A lonely me, a lonely you.

When the words stop,

And you can admire your silence,

Rejoice in the way

All your longings

Are finally in focus.

Then the moon's counter-glance

Will flicker on the pane

And the whole world will turn to glass.

At first glance, "Poetry, I Ask You" appears deceptively simple. It consists of just ten lines, with a straightforward question serving as its title. Yet, as with many of Collins' poems, there is much more going on beneath the surface. Let's take a closer look.


The poem revolves around several interconnected themes, each of which sheds light on the meaning of poetry. One of the most prominent themes is loneliness. The poem opens with a question that seems almost nonsensical: "What is the opposite of two?" The answer, it turns out, is "A lonely me, a lonely you." This suggests that even in our closest relationships, we are ultimately alone. However, the poem also suggests that poetry can alleviate this loneliness by giving voice to our longings and helping us to connect with others.

Another theme that emerges is the importance of silence. The poem suggests that poetry is not just about words, but also about what lies between them. When "the words stop," we are left with a kind of silence that is not empty but full of potential. This silence allows us to focus on our longings and to appreciate the beauty of the world around us.

Finally, the poem touches on the transformative power of poetry. When the moon's "counter-glance" flickers on the pane, the whole world turns to glass. This suggests that poetry has the ability to change our perception of reality, to give us a new way of seeing the world around us. In this way, poetry can be seen as a kind of magic, capable of transforming even the most mundane aspects of our lives.


The structure of the poem is relatively simple, yet effective. The poem consists of two stanzas, each with five lines. The first stanza poses a question and provides an answer, while the second stanza offers a kind of reflection on the first. The poem also makes use of repetition, with the word "lonely" appearing twice in the first stanza, and the phrase "the whole world" appearing at the end of the second.

The use of enjambment is also notable. The first stanza ends with a comma, rather than a period, which allows the thought to flow into the next stanza without interruption. This creates a sense of continuity and fluidity, emphasizing the idea that the themes of the poem are interconnected.


The language of the poem is simple and direct, yet also rich in imagery and metaphor. One of the most striking examples of this is the final line, "And the whole world will turn to glass." This image is both beautiful and mysterious, suggesting that poetry has the ability to reveal a hidden beauty in the world around us. The use of personification is also notable, with the moon's "counter-glance" flickering on the pane. This gives the moon a kind of agency, as if it is actively engaging with the world.

Another interesting aspect of the language is the use of pronouns. The poem begins with the speaker addressing poetry directly, asking "What is the opposite of two?" However, as the poem progresses, the focus shifts to the reader, with the use of "you" in the final stanza. This creates a sense of intimacy and connection, suggesting that the speaker and the reader are in this together.


Finally, there are several symbols in the poem that add to its depth and meaning. One of the most obvious is the moon, which appears twice in the poem. The moon has long been a symbol of mystery and wonder, and its appearance here suggests that poetry is also mysterious and wondrous. The flickering of the moon's "counter-glance" on the pane also suggests that poetry has the ability to illuminate the world in unexpected ways.

Another symbol is the glass that the world turns into. Glass is both fragile and transparent, suggesting that the world is both vulnerable and open to scrutiny. This symbol also ties back to the theme of silence, as glass is often associated with quietness and stillness.


In conclusion, "Poetry, I Ask You" is a deceptively simple yet deeply meaningful poem that explores the role and meaning of poetry in our lives. Through its themes, structure, language, and symbolism, the poem suggests that poetry has the ability to alleviate loneliness, to reveal hidden beauty in the world, and to transform our perception of reality. It is a testament to Billy Collins' skill as a poet that he is able to convey such profound ideas in just ten lines of verse.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry I Ask You: A Masterpiece of Simplicity and Depth

Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, is known for his accessible and relatable poetry. His poem "Poetry I Ask You" is a perfect example of his style, as it captures the essence of poetry in a simple yet profound way. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and literary devices used in this masterpiece.

The poem begins with the speaker addressing poetry directly, asking it to come to him "with its claw / hooked on a bough of the pine." This opening line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as the speaker is clearly eager to engage with poetry and wants it to be tangible and accessible. The image of the claw hooked on a bough is both vivid and slightly menacing, suggesting that poetry has the power to grab hold of us and not let go.

The second stanza continues this theme, as the speaker asks poetry to "come like a wildflower / in the quiet of the night." Here, poetry is compared to a wildflower, which is both beautiful and untamed. The use of the word "quiet" suggests that poetry can bring a sense of calm and stillness to our lives, even in the midst of chaos.

The third stanza is where the poem really starts to delve into the deeper themes of poetry. The speaker asks poetry to "come and rest on the page / like a butterfly on a flower." This image is both delicate and fleeting, suggesting that poetry can be both beautiful and ephemeral. The comparison to a butterfly also suggests that poetry can transform us, just as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.

The fourth stanza is perhaps the most powerful in the poem, as the speaker asks poetry to "come and surprise me / like a branch when I am walking / in the woods." This image is both startling and exhilarating, suggesting that poetry can catch us off guard and make us see the world in a new way. The use of the word "surprise" also suggests that poetry can be unpredictable and spontaneous, just like the natural world.

The fifth and final stanza brings the poem full circle, as the speaker asks poetry to "come to me slowly / like the shyest of lovers." This image is both intimate and vulnerable, suggesting that poetry can bring us closer to ourselves and to others. The use of the word "slowly" also suggests that poetry can be a gradual process of discovery, rather than a sudden revelation.

In terms of structure, the poem is composed of five stanzas, each with three lines. This structure is simple and straightforward, mirroring the accessibility of the poem's themes. The use of repetition, particularly in the phrase "come to me," also reinforces the idea that the speaker is actively seeking out poetry and wants it to be present in his life.

In terms of literary devices, the poem is full of vivid imagery and metaphors. The use of personification, particularly in the opening line where poetry is described as having a "claw," gives the poem a sense of urgency and immediacy. The use of similes, such as comparing poetry to a wildflower and a butterfly, helps to make the abstract concept of poetry more concrete and relatable.

Overall, "Poetry I Ask You" is a masterpiece of simplicity and depth. Through its vivid imagery and relatable themes, it captures the essence of poetry and its power to transform us. As the speaker says in the final stanza, "come to me slowly / like the shyest of lovers." Poetry may be shy, but it has the power to change our lives in profound ways.

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