Poetry Sunday: Poem to the First Generation of People to Exist After the Death of the English Language by Billy Collins

English a dead language? Well, perhaps in a world where people increasingly seem to communicate by emoji or by a series of letters which one has to consult Google's Urban Dictionary in order to understand what they mean, it may not be too far a stretch of the imagination. Certainly, Billy Collins' imagination stretches that far.

Poem to the First Generation of People to Exist After the Death of the English Language

by Billy Collins

I’m not going to put a lot of work into this
because you won’t be able to read it anyway,
and I’ve got more important things to do
this morning, not the least of which
is to try to write a fairly decent poem
for the people who can still read English.

Who could have foreseen English finding
a place in the cemetery of dead languages?

I once imagined English placing flowers
at the tombstones of its parents, Latin and Anglo-Saxon,
but you people can actually visit its grave
on a Sunday afternoon if you still have days of the week.

I remember the story of the last speaker,
of Dalmatian being tape-recorded in his hut
as he was dying under a horse-hair blanket.
But English? English seemed for so many of us
the only true way to describe the world
as if reality itself were English
and Adam and Eve spoke it in the garden
using words like snakeapple, and perdition.

Of course, there are other words for things
but what could be better than boat,
poolswallow (both the noun and the verb),
statuette, tractor, squiggly, surf, and underbelly?

I’m sorry.
I’ve wasted too much time on this already.
You carry on however you do
without the help of English, communicating
with dots in the air or hologram hats or whatever.
You’re just like all the ones who say
they can’t understand poetry
but at least you poor creatures have an excuse.

So I’m going to turn the page
and not think about you and your impoverishment.
Instead, I’m going to write a poem about red poppies
waving by the side of the railroad tracks,
and you people will never even know what you’re missing.


  1. There is a richness about English that I hope will never disappear.

    1. It is a versatile language that easily adopts words from other languages as its own. That certainly contributes to its richness.

  2. Thinking about "dead" languages, they seem to be carried on due to religion (ie. sacred texts written in Latin, Hebrew (which was a dead language at one time) and so on. So yes, Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, is a dead language. As someone interested in history I can see English becoming a dead language one day although it is currently a "lingua franca". Of course, so was Latin, many years ago. History teaches us little is permanent. (I did enjoy the poem, though.)

    1. The lesson of history is that all things pass, but some things "pass" by evolving as Latin and Anglo-Saxon did. Perhaps that is what will happen to English. It may be someday be something that we would hardly recognize.

  3. Somebody had to say it. Billy Collins says it well.

  4. I remember dragging my husband to see Billy Collins when he came to Houston. He was surprised to discover how much he enjoyed his poems.

    1. His poems are very accessible and often humorous. There's a reason why he is one of the favorite poets currently writing.

  5. When I talk to my younger sister I often feel like English is dead! While I think Billy pushes it a bit far, I can relate!

    1. I guess one of the strengths of English is that it is able to evolve and even partially absorb other languages and each new generation sort of makes it their own.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poetry Sunday: Don't Hesitate by Mary Oliver

Overboard by Sara Paretsky: A review

The Investigator by John Sandford: A review