Philosophy and Poetry: “Table Talk,” by Billy Collins

English: Billy Collins at D.G. Wills Books, La...
Billy Collins at D.G. Wills Books, La Jolla, San Diego

There is so much I could say here in commentary. I could talk about how I really am uncomfortable with the lumping together of philosophers and poets. I am uncomfortable with modern philosopher-poets who attempt to either teach or impress me with their deep difficulty of thought. I could say how so much of it seems like showing off, when there really isn’t much to show.

I could talk about how this poem illustrates why I secretly (well maybe not so secretly) despised my college philosophy professors who told their students about the paradoxes of Zeno, how there are an infinite number of points on a line, and since we cannot cross infinity, we could never cross all of the infinite points between point A. and point B., and so motion was impossible, an illusion. I could complain about how those teachers eyes lit up when they told their students these juicy conundrums of thought, how I hated them for their juvenile desire to appear smart and clever.

But really they probably were just hoping that one of their students would get practical and disagree with them, and show them why science has left such silly philosophies behind as easily as it has left flat earth thought in the ancient dust.

I could talk about how I have been re-examining Plato, thanks to my friend Ygor Raduy, giving a bit more credit to the man who wanted to keep poets out of his Republic, and yet wrote like a poet himself, a master of language and figurative speech.

Having said that I confess that just today I read Bill Moyers referring to Wendell Berry as a philosopher, and I love Wendell Berry. And there are poets who seem particularly spiritual, metaphysical. Poets like Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, or William Stafford, whom I love. These poets might be called philosophers because of their subject matter. They get away with saying some things that would seem otherwise pedagogical, except that they say it so elegantly and beautifully that they cannot be dismissed.

No, it’s not them that bother me; it’s the pompous pretenders, the ones who think word-play is the same as profundity. The two can go hand in hand, and many a profound thought has been delivered more successfully by a skilled word-artist. But asking, “If god can do anything, can he create a rock so big he can’t lift it.” or “There is at least one absolute and that is that there are no absolutes,” well, such talk, to my thinking just dissolves into unproductive drivel. It’s toying with words, but not with the thoughts behind the words, much like the paradox of Zeno in Collins poem below.

Zeno (Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara)

When we use the language to just create nonsense and linguistic puzzles, it may be fun, like playing Sudoku with letters, but it doesn’t communicate anything about what it means to be human. And that’s what I think art is about, not just nonsense phrases. Even the nonsense of Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky” is anything but nonsense. There is a story there and we can feel what’s happening, even if we do not know what “slithy toves” are. But much nonsense is written that poses as poetry, and often the one who writes it thinks he or she is oh-so-clever.

Aside from philosophy and the tendency to get “teachy,” or merely obscure for the sake of being difficult, I could take off in another direction all together, and address an entirely different issue that comes up with modern poems like this. So often lately when modern poetry comes to the public’s attention, as in the recent post about HIlborn’s OCD poem, people complain that it doesn’t rhyme, or scan. They will ask what makes it a poem, rather than prose.

Ah, but this is a big subject, one that I have touched on many times on the Dad Poet, but one that I think might deserve an upcoming series to explore. Maybe part of the problem is that even in a poem like this one below by Collins (sorry, I promise, I will shut up and get to the poem shortly), it is often read as if it were prose. Despite the fact that there is a certain ebb and flow to these lines, it’s easy to read it as if it were a little bit of flash fiction.

Even though there are sounds that give it a certain music, the repeated between rhyming with amandine, for instance, or other more subtle sounds like order, waiter, dinner falling at the end of consecutive lines–despite all this music, it can be read as if it were just a short humorous story. Granted, the music is subtle; it’s not traditional. Granted, the poem is written in line form, which is not the form of prose. Still some will claim it is not a poem.

Heck even my reading turned out to be less musical than I wanted it to be. Why is that? Could it be (I remember clearly) we were taught by Mrs. Dickey in eighth grade to not sound too “sing-songy” when we read? That we didn’t need to pause at the end of lines (Even Collins says this one in his book Poetry 180), that we don’t want to sound like Shakespeare, or “a nursery rhyme?”

Mary Oliver
Poet, Mary Oliver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh yes, we’ve been told that the modern ear does not respond with approval toward readings that sound too “poemy.” Really. Really? So why is rap music so damn popular? I know, I know, sometimes it’s not even music, just talking to a beat. Sometimes the words are brilliant, other times they are worse than the vapid pop drivel of the latest boy band love song.

But people like it. Maybe we should stop apologizing for writing poetry. Maybe we should quit trying to fit in so that people (read here as modern pop culture) accepts us. Maybe if we wrote so well that they couldn’t help but stop and listen, or if we wrote with such originality and character at least, perhaps Washington Post columnists might stop asking, “Is poetry dead?” But then again, they probably will anyway. And you might enjoy reading articles on that topic on The Rumpus or even the Huffington Post for some thoughtful rebuttals.

So yeah, I could talk a lot here about the art involved in philosophy (though I don’t think Plato was trying to write our idea of literature. I think he would pull his hair out at being called a poet), or I could talk about the state of modern poetry, but all I wanted to do was read a poem.

And I love reading poems out loud. I love hearing other people read poems out loud, especially if it is a new experience for them. I suppose it’s much like a lover of flutes who sees someone put the instrument to their mouth for the first time. You know there are going to be some gawd-awful noises made before the music, but there will be music, and it the art will be passed on.

In the Rumpus article referenced above David Biespiel makes the argument that art itself is a messy thing. What of it? Isn’t that mess part of the glory. Let’s participate in the art now, and let history and future literature classes decide what great things might have come out of it. I am saying this more and more lately, art is too important to be left to the “professionals.”

Oh, and here’s that poem we started talking about before I went on my little ramble.  Feel free to talk about whatever you’d like in the comments, this poem, poetry itself, philosophy, whatever moves you. Let’s have an artsy, poetic mess today instead of a serious scholarly essay. What’s that you say? Ah yes, I already did.


Billy Collins

Not long after we had sat down to dinner
at a long table in a restaurant in Chicago
and were deeply engrossed in the heavy menus,
one of us—a bearded man with a colorful tie—
asked if any one of us had ever considered
applying the paradoxes of Zeno to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.

The differences between these two figures
were much more striking than the differences
between the Cornish hen and the trout amandine
I was wavering between, so I looked up and closed my menu.

If, the man with the tie continued,
an object moving through space
will never reach its destination because it is always
limited to cutting the distance to its goal in half,

then it turns out that St. Sebastian did not die
from the wounds inflicted by the arrows.
No, the cause of death was fright at the spectacle of their endless approach.
St. Sebastian, according to Zeno, would have died of a heart attack.

I think I’ll have the trout, I told the waiter,
for it was now my turn to order,
but all through the elegant dinner
I kept thinking of the arrows forever nearing

the pale, quivering flesh of St. Sebastian
a fleet of them perpetually halving the tiny distances
to his body, tied to a post with rope,
even after the archers had packed it in and gone home.

And I thought of the bullet never reaching
the wife of William Burroughs, an apple trembling on her head,
the tossed acid never getting to the face of that girl,
and the Oldsmobile never knocking my dog into a ditch.

The theories of Zeno floated above the table
like thought balloons from the fifth century before Christ,
yet my fork continued to arrive at my mouth
delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish,

and after we all talked and ate and lifted our glasses,
we left the restaurant and said goodbye on the street
then walked our separate ways in the world where things do arrive,

where people get where they are going—
where the train pulls into the station in a cloud of vapor,
where geese land with a splash on the surface of the lake,
and the one you love crosses the room and arrives in your arms—

and, yes, where sharp arrows will pierce a torso,
splattering the groin and the bare feet of the saint,
that popular subject of European religious painting.
One hagiographer compared him to a hedgehog bristling with quills.

©2011 by Billy Collins
from the book Horoscopes for the Dead
Random House, NY

St. Sebastian, Andrea Mantegna, 1456–59, Musée...
St. Sebastian, Andrea Mantegna, 1456–59, Musée du Louvre, Paris. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Geo Sans says:

    playing bullshit bingo
    calling out
    ideas meandering past


    1. I realize sometimes my opinions seem rather harsh. And not all would agree with me. But thank you for the like and the poem, Geo!


    2. Geo Sans says:

      a close friend
      keeps me
      in line
      calling bullshit
      far …


    3. Would that we all had
      such faithful friends.

      I have one or two
      that can get away
      with telling me the truth.


  2. Geo Sans says:

    reacting at the table
    to zeno
    my wife had a heart attack
    one doesn’t die


    1. Ah! Yes, I see.
      You directed
      them skillfully.

      Thinking as I often do
      that it was about me,
      I just got in the way.


  3. Ben Naga says:


    Is this cup I hold here half empty
    Or else, as some would have me think, half full?
    A troubling conundrum, eternally insoluble
    Yet quickly resolved by simply letting go

    Full of confidence, the tortoise
    Challenges his friend the hare to a race
    “Just give me a ten yard start,” he says
    “And you’ll never catch me,” he boasts

    And he’s right, for whenever Hare reaches the spot
    The tortoise has already gone
    Still … When the hare has gone twenty yards
    Where is the tortoise then?

    Imagine a goose in a narrow-necked glass bottle
    How can you get the goose out of the bottle
    Without either of them coming to any harm?
    Easily … There; it’s free

    A puzzle you might find more tricky
    History professors can’t answer it
    Scientists still haven’t solved it
    Which came first: the chicken or the egg?


    1. I was probably being unclear. And that’s to be expected I suppose in a post where I say, “I could talk about this, or I could talk about that,” but never pin anything down. It’s meant to kindly stir up participation, so I’m grateful for that. 🙂 Your fun little poem here is not the sort of thing I protest about when I refer to word puzzles that resemble Sudoku games.

      The poem “Metaphor,” by Sylvia Plath is an example of a word puzzle that works beautifully as a poem. And I E. E. Cummings (Loneliness), A Leaf Falls. I am not quoting it because that piece depends on spatially seeing on the page. It’s complicated. And I’m not against difficulty, or even the nonsense poems where communication is not exactly a logical thing. Yet something, a mood, a feeling is still conveyed.

      No, what I am against is the sort of poem written by an arrogant hack, one who says, “ah, this one is so difficult that they will never get it. And scholars will be studying me for years.” In fact one of my favorite authors, James Joyce said something very like this about one of his works. So even good poets can do this. But I question when it gets to becoming a personal proof of how smart a writer is, if it does not leave the realm of art and humanities and become something less, something like masturbation.

      This is not to say that stroking one’s ego is always bad. Masturbation has it’s place and function, but it seems silly to wonder why you cannot have a relationship with someone when you are too busy staring at and playing with your own bits. I may be wrong for thinking that art is more about the relationship, at least letting us in to watch and appreciate? Haha, but yes, this is all subjective I suppose. I probably sound like the old man saying, “This heavy metal crap is NOT music!” This might put me in the same spot as one who complains that modern poetry does not rhyme. . . perhaps.

      I refuse to name names of living poets, but the poem “The Bells” would be a low brow sort of version of a word game that I think fails as a poem. And it’s by my beloved Edgar Allen Poe! Another, more complicated thing would be Gertrude Stein’s Picasso poem, “If I Told Him.” I perhaps am too harsh to say it’s not a poem. So let me merely say, here is an example of poetry that I think fails. You are, as always free to disagree. And if you can prove me wrong, at least a little. I’d be grateful. Here is the link. Look at it and see if you can follow what I mean:


    2. Ben Naga says:

      I think I understood what you were saying here, and in fact concur. The poem I posted as a comment was offered in the same spirit. And I would always prefer Xena over Zeno anyway.:)


  4. slpmartin says:

    Oh you do know how to stir up the pot my friend…loved you comments and reading…and was quite entertained by the responses they engendered…have a great weekend. 🙂


    1. Why thank you, my friend! Have a great weekend yourself, Charles! 🙂 I’m enjoying the conversation.


  5. yraduy says:

    New message in your email.


Talk to me:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.