Billy Collins: "On Turning Ten"

by Kim on April 8, 2009 · 16 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. Last week I wrote about “Marginalia.” Read on for this week’s poem and links to other bloggers celebrating poetry!

This week’s Billy Collins poem is another one of my old favorites, “On Turning Ten.” I’m not going to say much about it except that I think the last stanza is brilliant in the way it makes the poem about so much more than just turning ten.

On Turning Ten

by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

After last week’s post, I found a few other bloggers celebrating National Poetry Month:

Know any other celebrations out there? Leave a link and I’ll post more next Wednesday!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Serena (Savvy Verse & Wit) April 8, 2009 at 11:20 am

I’ve read this poem a couple of times and enjoy it every time. Thanks for sharing it.


Dorte H April 8, 2009 at 11:50 am

At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window

Oh, isnĀ“t that wonderful !


Nymeth April 8, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I love love love that poem. Thank you so much for posting it!


Mindy Withrow April 8, 2009 at 3:29 pm

I love the dark blue speed draining out of his bike! And I remember how momentous turning 10 felt — something about the double digits really made it a solemn occasion. As usual, he has captured it perfectly! Thanks for posting another great one.


Rebecca Reid April 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm

I’m going to do a few poetry reviews but I spent the first few days of the month with a monster cold and I didn’t get much reading done. I can’t promise any particular days that I’m going to post what I will post but I’m going to try to get something up!

This is another great poem. I’m going to get a book of Billy Collin’s poetry when I next go to the library! I’ve been missing out.

Question: do you get permission from the publisher to post the entire poem? I thought, for copyright reasons, I could only post public domain poetry, I haven’t even thought outside the box!


benjaminwheeler April 8, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Todd Boss was on campus tonight, and I think if you like Billy Collins you’d really like him. I’m not a poetry buff by any stretch, but he had more than a few lines that knocked the wind out of me.


benjaminwheeler April 8, 2009 at 8:25 pm
olu November 5, 2009 at 4:03 pm

i love this poem :D


Paul February 27, 2012 at 11:27 am

This poem really brings back the memory of turning 10. Billy Collins uses many literary devices that trigger the emotions we first felt when turning 10. It was a big thing! The metaphor of, “all the dark blue speed drained out of the bike,” wow! Who else had a bike that was their most prized possession one day, and the next it was just a childhood memory? You go, Billy Collins.


Kim April 8, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Me too. It makes me smile every time I read it.


Kim April 8, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Yes! Aside from the last stanza, these are my favorite lines: “a kind of measles of the spirit, / a mumps of the psyche, / a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.”

I can think of a lot of things to describe as “a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul” :)


Kim April 9, 2009 at 7:23 am

I have a professor that we always tease for saying “love love love,” so your comment made me laugh!


Kim April 9, 2009 at 7:24 am

Yes, that line is great too.

I love how well he captures turning ten, but also how much the poem is about aging generally. The idea of leaving your childhood behind, of not feeling invincible, speaks to me just as much at 22 as it might have when I was a kid. I think that’s my favorite aspect of the poem.


Kim April 9, 2009 at 7:26 am

I’m glad you’re feeling better!
Billy Collins has quite a few books of poetry. The first one I read was Picnic, Lightening, but I get they are all good.

I’m honestly not sure about the copyright thing. I found this one online in full at another site, so I figured it was ok (but I could be wrong). I tried to look it up last night, but my brain was fried from working on a class assignment and I didn’t get far before I gave up on it. If I find out something, I’ll let you know.


Kim April 9, 2009 at 7:27 am

Thanks Ben! I’m going to look at the site more today when I have some free time at work, but from an initial glance he looks very fun.


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