“You, Reader”

Whenever anyone reads his words the writer is there. He lives in his readers.” — William S. Burroughs

Creative writing teachers often preach: “Write for yourself” and “Write what you know.” Good advice, yes. Still, most of us hope to build a readership. We write to make a connection with others.

Working as a weekly newspaper columnist, I was lucky enough to acquire a built-in audience — a strange and wonderful relationship. Most of my readers lived in my community, so I couldn’t hide behind a desk for long. I’d bump into them in the produce aisle at the grocery store or in line at the post office. Or in church on Sunday. Some would pull me aside to discuss what I’d written in the paper; others e-mailed or wrote letters to express their own thoughts on the topic of the week.

Billy Collins has addressed several of his poems to his readers, proving that he’s ever-mindful of our presence, even though we don’t live in the same town. He makes us ponder the complex relationship between writer and reader. In the funny, wistful poem below, Collins also reminds us that it’s the poet’s duty to “notice” the humblest details and to weave even the most ordinary experience into a piece of writing. Are you the poet — or the reader?  — CL

By Billy Collins

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you.

that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen

the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl.

Go ahead and turn aside,
bite your lip and tear out the page,
but, listen — it was just a matter of time

before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.

Plus, nothing happened that morning —
a song on the radio,
a car whistling along the road outside —

and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.

I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another

like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time —

me at this table with a bowl of pears,
you leaning in a doorway somewhere
near some blue hydrangeas, reading this.

— Reprinted from The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems, by Billy Collins (Random House); 2005. —

— Photo detail from “Reading” (a mixed-media collage) by Cindy La Ferle —

APRIL IS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH. If you enjoyed this poem and want to read more, check out the archives in my weekly “Poems to Inspire” series under “Categories” at right.

11 thoughts on ““You, Reader”

  1. I like the idea in the opening quote that the writer is present in her words as they are read. It’s an interesting concept, and yes, I do feel some essence of the author as I read. It’s all about that connection.

    As for your question, I’m so glad that I am both … the writer and the reader, enjoying the words and presence of other authors as often as I may be sitting at the table penning words myself.

  2. Oh yes, I am definitely both–writer and reader, it just depends on which day it is and how I feel.

    I wasn’t familiar with Billy Collins until your post. Thanks for the introduction.

    Hope you had a great visit with your son and a wonder Easter.

  3. I am both writer and reader, and sometimes I am both at the same time as I try to imagine how my words will appear to others. This is a thought-provoking post, Cindy. Lots to chew on.

  4. Thanks for the introduction to Billy Collins, Cindy. I have not heard of him until today.
    I try to be both reader and writer, but I certainly am no poet. However, I do love poetry.

  5. For a good intro to Billy Collins poetry, buy his anthology of poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room. Excellent. Collins’ poetry never fails to cheer me up, or get me thinking. Best of all — he is the prince of clarity. I tend to dislike and avoid writing that is vague, cryptic, and belabored, whether it’s poetry or essays or whatever. Collins finds the beauty and the poetry in his subjects yet stills manages to speak directly and clearly to the reader. What’s the point, otherwise??

  6. You are such a cherished encourager ( if that’s a word).
    I came home a little upset after the rain outing. It ended up mostly pouring, which makes fumbling with a tool small umbrella and 2 lenes impossible. Even the birds were not impressed.
    But once I uploaded them, I was surprised. Seriously, the camera is usually on auto. As with writing, I am overwhelmed by all there is to learn about everything. Someday.
    And yet, i like what you said in reference to Billy Collins. Find the beauty and share it. And I still need to do that , even with my limited background or ability to commit to anything as yet.
    Next year, I will only have 2 kiddos at home, so no excuses 🙂
    I hope your Mom is doing well.
    Have a great weekend, Cindy.

    oh, and we used Shutterfly to make a book for my oldest’s first year of soccer at OU. It was easy and professional looking.

  7. Cindy, I have always enjoyed this poem. I have a copy of him reading it on my iPod, nothing quite as good as hearing poetry read.
    thanks for the blog visit 🙂


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