Billy Collins, “Liu Yung”


This poet of the Sung dynasty is so miserable.
The wind sighs arouund the trees,
a single swan passes overhead,
and he is alone on the water in his skiff.

If only he appreciated life
in eleventh-century China as much as I do—
no loud cartoons on television,
no music from the ice cream truck,

just the calls of elated birds
and the steady flow of the water clock.

From Ballistics, the eleventh collection from the former Poet Laureate for both the United States (2001-2003) and New York State (2004-2006).

You can hear a reading of “Liu Yung” at the Poetry Foundation website, or watch animated videos made to accompany reading of two other poems: “Forgetfulness” and “The Dead.”

Collins has been a spokesperson for “Poetry 180” campaign that brought a poem a day to high schools across the country. In an interview with, he discusses how that program was intended to introduce young people to contemporary poetry given how most anthologies are by necessity stuck several decades in the past. He also points out that almost nobody reads poetry collections straight through from beginning to end, then offers a tip to young poets on how to organize their work for submission:

“First is preparing the manuscript to send to an editor. In that case, you totally front-load it—take your fifteen best poems and put them right up front. Then if the manuscript gets accepted, the poet can say to the editor, ‘By the way, I thought of a different organization,’ and you can mess around and orchestrate and try to make some symphonic looking book.”

And what of Liu Yung? I did find translations of three of his poems online, and it would appear that he turns up in anthologies of classical Chinese literature I don’t own, but now want to track down at the library…

27 August 2008 | poetry |