Billy Collins
Poet; Former U.S. Poet Laureate
02:23

Questions About Angels

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Billy Collins reads his poem, "Questions About Angels."

Billy Collins

One of the most popular living poets in the United States, Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. Collins is the author of nine books of poetry, including She Was Just Seventeen (2006), The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005), Nine Horses (2002), and Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001). His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Harper's Magazine, and has been featured in various textbooks and anthologies, including those for the Pushcart Prize and the annual Best American Poetry series. Between 2001 and 2004, Collins served two terms at the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States. In his home state, Collins has been recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004. Other honors include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and the first annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where has taught for over thirty years. Ideas recorded at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival on: 7/4/07
Transcript

Billy Collins: This is a poem called “Questions About Angels.”    “Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is, “How many can dance on the head of a pin?”  No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time besides circling the throne chanting in Latin, or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth.  Or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.  Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?  Do they swing like children from the hinges of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?  Do they sit alone in the little gardens changing colors?What about their sleeping habits?  The fabric of their robes?  Their diet of unfiltered divine light?  What goes on inside their luminous heads?  Is there a wall these tall presences can look over and see hell?  If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole in a river?  And would the hole float along endlessly filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?  If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive in a blinding rush of wings, or would he just assume the appearance of the regular mailman and whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?  Know the medieval theologians control this court, the only question you ever hear is about the little dance floor on the head of a pin where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.  It is designed to make us think in millions and billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse into infinity.  But perhaps the answer is simply one.  One female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet, a small jazz combo working in the background.  She sways like a branch in the wind.  Her beautiful eyes close, and the tall, thin bassist leans over to glance at his watch, because she has been dancing forever and now it is very late, even for musicians.”


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