Poetry Sunday: Winter Syntax by Billy Collins

I love the imagery which Billy Collins employs in this poem to express the difficulty of writing literature, of expressing a complete and comprehensible thought. He likens it to a "lone traveler heading into a blizzard at midnight." As he struggles against the elements, he thinks of all the things that it would be easier for him to do. And yet he persists until at dawn a smile will appear in his "beard of icicles" and the lone traveler will, at last, be able to express a complete thought.

Winter Syntax

by Billy Collins

A sentence starts out like a lone traveler
heading into a blizzard at midnight,
tilting into the wind, one arm shielding his face,
the tails of his thin coat flapping behind him.

There are easier ways of making sense,
the connoisseurship of gesture, for example.
You hold a girl's face in your hands like a vase.
You lift a gun from the glove compartment
and toss it out the window into the desert heat.

These cool moments are blazing with silence.

The full moon makes sense. When a cloud crosses it
it becomes as eloquent as a bicycle leaning
outside a drugstore or a dog who sleeps all afternoon
in a corner of the couch.

Bare branches in winter are a form of writing.
The unclothed body is autobiography.
Every lake is a vowel, every island a noun.

But the traveler persists in his misery,
struggling all night through the deepening snow,
leaving a faint alphabet of bootprints
on the white hills and the white floors of valleys,
a message for field mice and passing crows.

At dawn he will spot the vine of smoke
rising from your chimney, and when he stands
before you shivering, draped in sparkling frost,
a smile will appear in the beard of icicles,
and the man will express a complete thought.


  1. I guess this is an example of why Billy Collins is so loved. That is truly how it is, even when it comes to writing reviews.

    1. Exactly. I identified completely with Collins' "lone traveler."

  2. How beautiful! I have felt like that with my last three movie reviews. It took me ages to get myself to write them; not so much the process of writing per se.

    1. I find it's almost always a struggle. Seldom do the "complete thoughts" come easily.


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