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Billy Collins: "Dancing Toward Bethlehem"

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”, “On Turning Ten”, and “Bar Time.” Read on for this week’s poem!

I’m not going to give a long introduction to this week’s poem, other than to say I read it in Sailing Alone Around the Room, and that it was originally published in Collin’s 1995 collection, The Art of Drowning (the same collection as “On Turning Ten”).

Dancing Toward Bethlehem

by Billy Collins

If there is only enough time in the final
minutes of the twentieth century for one last dance
I would like to be dancing it slowly with you,

say, in the ballroom of a seaside hotel.
My palm would press into the small of your back
as the past hundred years collapsed into a pile
of mirrors or buttons or frivolous shoes,

just as the floor of the nineteenth century gave way
and disappeared in a red cloud of brick dust.
There will be no time to order another drink
or worry about what was never said,

not with the orchestra sliding into the sea
and all our attention devoted to humming
whatever it was they were playing.

I first got excited about this poem because of the title — it’s a reference to a famous line from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. I read that poem in high school, and again when reading Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In both of those pieces, the idea of moving towards Bethlehem is in reference to something apocalyptic, the center of the world seeming to fall apart before our eyes.

What I liked about this poem is that Collins accepts the apocalyptic visions from his references, but rather than dwell on that, he uses the idea of the end to write a love poem.  I also love how he’s even shifted the phrase — isn’t the idea of dancing towards the end times so much more appealing than slouching?

Other Poetry Stuff:

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeanne April 22, 2009, 10:02 am

    This is a lovely poem–I love the ending: “humming/ whatever it was they were playing” and how it refers to things of time gone by so economically (like Titanic).

    And thanks for the link!

  • Kim April 22, 2009, 2:38 pm

    Yes, that reminded me of Titanic too!

  • Rebecca Reid April 23, 2009, 7:41 am

    I love this, and I’m loving to read the collection of Billy Collins I got from the library.

    Question: According to Wikipedia (under Poet Laureate of the US), “When Billy Collins was appointed to the position, a group of poets and critics associated with the POETICS list protested by voting for an anti-laureate. ”

    Do you have any idea why? He is quickly becoming my favorite, so that confuses me.

  • Ms Alex July 19, 2009, 9:16 am

    I’ve just been googling Billy Collins, I didn’t know the poem above and I love it and the reason you posted it! It’s prompted me to pull my copy of Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes to the top of my TBR pile… 🙂

  • Taylor September 16, 2010, 7:11 pm

    I love the poem also, but what does the line about a red cloud of brick dust alluding to?