Billy Collins: "Bar Time"

by Kim on April 15, 2009 · 15 comments

Since 1996, the Academy of American Poets has declared that April is National Poetry Month. In honor of that, I’ll be celebrating poetry every Wednesday in April with a poem by my favorite poet, Billy Collins. So far, I’ve posted “Marginalia” and “On Turning Ten.” Read on for this week’s poem!

As part of the Spring Reading Thing 2009 I decided to read Sailing Alone Around the Room, a 2001 anthology of Billy Collins’ poetry that also includes some new poems. I finally started reading it yesterday and came across the poem “Bar Time” from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988).

I enjoyed this poem because it takes another look at time, a theme I think comes up in a lot of his poetry. The poem reminds me a lot of “I Go Back to The House for a Book” — one of my favorite poems from Picnic, Lightning — because of the way both look at time as something moving and interpretive rather than static. That’s not really the best description, so why don’t you just go ahead and read the poem :)

Bar Time

by Billy Collins

In keeping with universal saloon practice,
the clock here is set 15 minutes ahead
of all the clocks in the outside world.

This makes us a rather advanced group,
doing our drinking in the unknown future,
immune from the cares of the present,
safely harbored a quarter of an hour
beyond the woes of the contemporary scene.

No wonder such thoughtless pleasure derives
from tending the small fire of a cigarette,
from observing this class of whiskey and ice,
the cold rust I am sipping,

or from having an eye on the street outside
when Ordinary Time slouches past in a topcoat,
rain running off the brim of his hat,
the late edition like a flag in his pocket.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeanne April 15, 2009 at 9:27 am

This poem reminds me irresistibly (believe me, I tried to resist) of the Sheryl Crow song about drinking beers in a bar with “Billy” and watching the rest of the world scrubbing their cars at the carwash across the street thinking they look “like they’ve never had a day of fun in their whole lives.” It’s fun to be aware of those moments when you’re able to step outside time and observe yourself–and other people–rushing around doing the things that we all think are so vital, and so necessary. A good poem for tax day!

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Dorte H April 15, 2009 at 10:21 am

“when Ordinary Time slouches past in a topcoat”
- wonderful! And one begins wondering if we have some kind of choice (running after time to catch up or taking life easy once in a while)

What the poem reminds me of is the atmosphere of the painting “Night Hawks”.

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Nymeth April 15, 2009 at 1:48 pm

wow. I am so buying a Billy Collins poetry book. And I’m blaming it on you :P

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Rebecca Reid April 16, 2009 at 7:29 am

Thanks to your praise of Billy Collins, I got Sailing Alone Around the Room too! I’m loving it so far. Great collection!

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Dawn - She Is Too Fond Of Books April 16, 2009 at 8:23 am

I don’t read a lot of poetry; frankly, because I often don’t “get it” right away and am too impatient to work with it.

This poem is so clear to me – great imagery (for things tangible and not). I GET it!

Thanks for introducing me to Billy Collins.

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Jeanne April 16, 2009 at 9:19 pm

If you want to get poems that are more complicated–because sometimes it’s worth it; only poetry can express some of our really complicated emotions–try what I recommend to my students. I call it reading in a circle. Read the poem and immediately go back to the beginning and keep reading until you either understand something (an image, the significance of a pause for a line break) or you feel a glimmer of emotion. Then stop. Try to articulate that one thing you understand or feel. Then see if you can relate other pieces of the poem to that understanding, or that feeling. Sometimes you can put the whole poem together that way. Sometimes you can only put a line or two together, but then maybe it’s time to put the poem away. A line or two of poetry in the brain is good for a rainy day.

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Sione May 16, 2013 at 1:58 am

What does it signify through self expression?

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Kim April 15, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Ha ha, that is funny! I remember that song now :)

That’s a good point about awareness — that seems like another quality that Collins puts in a lot of his poems, the idea of being hyper-aware of simple moments.

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Kim April 15, 2009 at 5:11 pm

I love how simply capitalizing Ordinary Time turns it into this person we can see instead of an idea. It’s so compact and clever, and does make you think.

I had to go look up “Nighthawks” because I didn’t know the painting… then I read it’s one of the most recognizable in America. Clearly I need to look at more art :)

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Kim April 15, 2009 at 5:11 pm

I will happily take the blame for that. Do you know which one you’re going to get?

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Nymeth April 16, 2009 at 8:17 am

Not sure yet…suggestions would be very much appreciated :D

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Rebecca Reid April 16, 2009 at 8:26 am

Nymeth, I browsed the library the other day and the one Kim mentioned (Sailing Alone Around the Room) is the one I came home with. It has selected poems from three or four different previously published books and also some new poems. Almost 200 pages.

I’ve never read Billy Collins before but I love it so much I may go buy myself a copy too…

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Kim April 16, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Oh good, I’m glad. I’m glad my repeated praise didn’t turn out to be hollow :)

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Kim April 16, 2009 at 6:35 pm

I have a hard time with poems I don’t “get” either — it frustrates me because they’re so compact it’s hard to spend the time trying to get it.

I love Billy Collins because he’s so accessible; his poetry says a lot without trying to show you how smart he can be.

The collection I’m reading, Sailing Alone Around the Room, is cool because it’s selected poems from many collections arranged chronologically. It’s nice to see how he’s grown as a poet — his early poems had great imagery, but didn’t have that little piece of extra that makes you feel like you’ve had a revelation. I’m just getting into the section where the poems start to make you think and I’m loving it.

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Kim April 16, 2009 at 6:38 pm

I think Sailing Alone Around the Room is good for the reasons Rebecca recommended. “Bar Time” came from The Apple That Astonished Paris, his first collection.

The only other full collection I’ve read is Picnic, Lightning, but I liked that one a lot too. “Marginalia” (my first April poem) came from that collection.

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