This video segment from Poetry Everywhere features the poet Billy Collins reading his poem "The Lanyard" at the Dodge Poetry Festival. The poem describes a memory of making a childhood gift at camp for his mother. Using humor and irony, the poem illustrates how ordinary objects can connect to powerful memories.
"The Lanyard" is a reminder that ordinary objects can connect to powerful memories, and like many of Collins's poems, it shows that a poem can be funny and moving at the same time. The poem begins with a casual time marker announcing a deliberately imprecise occasion– "the other day." The speaker's mind "ricochets" slowly about the room, suggesting the abrupt turning of his thoughts, rebounding upon themselves. Moving "from typewriter to piano,/ from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor," the speaker is searching for something—looking mainly to words and texts—when the word "lanyard" sends him back to his childhood. With a playful allusion to Marcel Proust and the madeleine cookie that sparked his seven-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past, the speaker returns to summer camp and the workbench where he made a plastic lanyard for his mother. Ironically, he "had never seen anyone use a lanyard/ or wear one," but still the speaker labors on, weaving strands of plastic together just as he weaves the memories of his distant past with his present perspective, "until I had made a boxy/ red and white lanyard for my mother."
Having finished the present "for my mother"—a phrase repeated to emphasize his sense of purpose, but also for comic effect—the speaker mocks his gift saying, "She gave me life and milk from her breasts,/ and I gave her a lanyard," comparing the enormous gifts of life and nurturing with a simple summer camp trinket. His mother cared for him when he was ill, taught and nurtured him through his youth; in contrast, his gesture seems paltry and insignificant. The appearance of dialogue in the fifth stanza underscores the speaker's feeling and he braids his voice with that of his mother: "Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,/ strong legs, bones and teeth,/ and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,/ and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp." Her words are poetic and graceful. Her gifts have helped her child become strong, compassionate, and insightful. The contrast with his lanyard—a word that seems odder, and more awkward with each repetition—grows more and more striking, as the adult speaker pokes fun, none too gently, at his clueless younger self.
But the poem turns again in the middle of the last stanza when the speaker says, "And here, I wish to say to her now,/ is a smaller gift." Older and wiser, the speaker recognizes another truth: that in giving his present, he "was as sure as a boy could be/ that this useless worthless, thing I wove/ out of boredom would be enough to make us even." The lanyard is now just a "thing," but the gesture of giving it has been redeemed by the speaker's innocence. With this line another realization emerges: that the poem in front of us is also a thing created in part out of boredom, but out of thoughtful reflection as well. Two gestures—one in the past, one in the present—have become a single message of love.
Read a biography of the poet Billy Collins at the Poetry Foundation.
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