The Great Poem Series: Billy Collins’s “Grave”

In New York City, 1941, arguably the most popular poet in America to this date was born. That man was the infamous Billy Collins.  After having a successful career in teaching, Collins shifted his focus to the world of poetry.  He went on from then to compose numerous amounts of successful poems; many of which have gone on to win awards.  I came across one of Collins poems as I was reading the The Best American Poetry 2010 volume.  This poem was called “Grave”.  This poem was unlike most poems in this novel which helped me realize that this was a great poem.  Collin’s main message that he is trying to illustrate is that it’s important to revisit the love ones that have past away in order to still try to connect to them.

What made this poem great was the fact that it had so many attributes that factored in to me feeling this way.  One of these attributes was that the poem was so easy to understand and interpret.  If someone was to ask me what I felt makes up a great poem, having one that’s easy to understand and interpret would be near the top of my list.  There are so many kinds of poems that take you hours to figure out what the author is trying to say and that too me doesn’t make for a great poem.  Even though the author is making you work for the meanings of the poem, I’d rather enjoy the simplicity of a poem, like “Grave”, rather than one of those confusing problems.  Because of this poems simplicity I was able to figure out that this poem was about a boy or man that has visited the graves of his parents; trying to talk and connect them even though they are underground.  He lays down on the ground and asks them “What do you think of my new glasses.”  Later after that from what the author describes as “a long silence”, the boys mother responds to him after he pressed his ear down on the grass which his mother laid: “They make you look very scholarly.”  The boy proceeded to roll over to his father’s side of the grave and hears nothing “among the one hundred silences that would fit the one he created.”  This poems simplicity is part of the reason why this poem is so great in my eyes.  The other reason is the personal connection that I can make to this poem.

A poem is truly powerful in my eyes when the reader of the poem is able to make a personal connection to what the author is conveying, and for that reason this poem is powerful to me because I can make a connection to my grandma who passed away a couple years ago.  I had a very strong relationship with my grandma when I was a young kid.  When she passed away from cancer I was heartbroken.  I missed having her around to laugh and talk too.  Every so often my mom, brother and I travel down to Scarsdale, New York where my grandma rested.  What I would do at her grave was similar to what the boy in “Grave” does.  I would lay on the ground with my family and press my “ear into the soft grass.”  We would take turns saying something special about my grandma and then sit there in silence as it “descended on the rows of the dead and on the fields and the woods beyond.” Those moments with my family were truly powerful and cherished by my family.  The fact that this poem symbolized what I would do with my grandma made me really appreciate the poem.

In the contributors notes in the 2010 volume of The Best American Poetry, Collins reflects upon his poem and what inspired him to compose such a great poem.  He states that “The habit of keeping a skull on your desk as a reminder of mortality.”  Though this can be viewed a possible dark side that Collins possesses, I feel like in doing this he is honoring the loved ones in which he’s lost through the skull on his desk.  Later in his notes he poses a powerful question which many who have lost loved one should ask themselves: “Why let death end our end of a conversation?”  Collins is promoting that people should let the death of a loved one end all thoughts and feelings towards them, rather you should continue to love them and try to connect with them in the most comfortable way as possible.  Collins even says that when he visits his parents grave that he talks with them “at length as if on the phone or at the dinner table.”  He goes on to discuss the characteristics that both his mom and dad carried which leads him into mentioning that this poem was made to demonstrate and honor those traits: “So here’s the poem, borne of that, acknowledging her kindness and posthumously pulling the old man’s leg.”  Being able to easily decipher the poem and make a personal connection to it, along with celebrating the author’s parents, is what makes this poem so special.  His powerful message to connect and honor loved ones that have passed away is a message that all people should interpret and express in their own lives.


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