On Turning Ten Analysis by Billy Collins

This article is an analysis of the poem On Turning Ten by Billy Collins.

On Turning Ten Analysis:

When I first read this poem I didn't like it. I didn't like it because the speaker who is turning ten speaks with the insight and vocabulary of an older person. A poetic kind of older person the voice doesn't fit the kid and it didn't work for me. Over time, however, I changed my mind about this poem and came to like it.

First, there is a little hint of parody in this poem. Over the centuries writers have addressed the topic of aging with titles like on turning thirty, on turning fifty, etc.

It's a common theme among writers and they go on and on philosophically about this process. As the parodic element of this poem gradually dawned on me. I came to like it better. Second, this poem is not just about turning ten.

The subject is growing older.

The theme can perhaps best be stated like this. As we grow older we leave more and more of our innocence behind in the world becomes increasingly and disturbingly complicated. And that's true at just about any age. When you're 9 turnings 10 when you're 19 turnings 20 when you're 59 turnings 60. It's a pretty universal truth.

Another thing that made me change my mind about this poem was reading Billy Collins poem the Revenant. Billy Collins is a dog lover and his poem the Revenant is told from the point of view of the dog. The dog addresses his owner. It works it's a good poem.

So I thought if as a reader I can buy into a poem in which a dog is able to speak in a thoughtful way. Why not be open to a poem in which a nine-year-old. On Turning Ten does the same thing. Gradually I came to like the poem the one does need to buy into this sophisticated almost ten-year-old speaker.
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.
Note how poetically the stanza ends. Measles, Mumps, and Chickenpox are childhood diseases. They are of course physical diseases but this speaker senses a disease of the soul. The you which begins the second stanza refers to the adults in this speakers life.
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.
It is true that as we grow older and as our childhood recedes into the past. It is harder and harder to remember it. Our memories become memories of memories we lose a lot of detail. But this speaker is still young enough that he can recall vividly all these childhood stages.

One is perfect simplicity because we are the center of the universe. Everyone around us attends to our needs and desires. Two is a beautiful complexity because by the time we're two. We're toddling around exploring all kinds of new things. But we don't have to worry about anything because the adults in our lives still protect us and monitor our every move. Then the poet remembers various make-believe phases. In the next stanza, the sauce begins to thicken.
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.
Note that he isn't playing outside. He's at the window watching. Remember that other Billy Collins poem Monday in which he repeats over and over again that the poets are at their windows observing.

Well, this 10-year-old speaker has a very poetic spirit. It's not just that he sees the late afternoon light fall against the tree house. But it falls solemnly.


Now, of course, the light doesn't fall any differently than it ever has. But he sees it differently that's the beginning of adulthood and that's the beginning of poetry. When your soul or your spirit colors and interprets your experience.

He doesn't just see his bicycle leaning against the garage. He sees that the dark blue speed is 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.
There again a little bit of parody. Adults often talk about the big three-o or the big five O. Well this kid turning ten is the first big number. No longer is he toddling around the house or tumbling around in the yard or riding his bike in the neighborhood.

Now he is walking through the universe in his sneakers. One of the troubling things about growing up is that we come to realize how small and insignificant we are in the larger scheme of things. When we're little children we often seem to be the center of the universe everything revolves around us. When we grow older that changes.
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.
Another thing we learn as we grow older is how fragile we are. The phrase falling upon the sidewalks of Life refers to difficulties and vulnerabilities of all kinds. Being physically injured having our feelings hurt being rejected by someone we love failing a test or a class not making the basketball team having one of our parents get sick and die and a thousand other things.

As we get older our falls on the sidewalks of life become more numerous. And when those happen metaphorically we bleed. So after not connecting very well with this poem initially. I have come to like it a lot because I think it applies to all of us.

Ba English Notes
Next Post »