Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems: “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

I’d previously excluded “The Lanyard” from these columns because of its length–it’s considerably longer than most of the poems I’ve included. But I was recently asked to read at a birthday party from a thankful daughter, and, after searching widely, I found and read one of my already-most-loved poems. It was so well received I’m giving it a column all its own.

Billy Collins, sometimes referred to as “The most popular poet in America,” was twice appointed US Poet Laureate. Here’s more about him: The Poetry Foundation’s remarks on Billy Collins

It’s a poem that’s based on hyperbole. The greatest debt in the world, a child’s debt to a parent, is paid by a simple lanyard the child made at summer camp. The tale is in the telling, where Billy Collins takes that imbalance and makes it into art.  Here’s the poem:

The Lanyard – Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

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.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I 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 poem, for me, elicits the first time–for me it was Father’s Day–when I wanted to show my gratitude with a physical gift, a newly-adult impulse. The chasm between what was owed and my gift was great, but it took Billy Collins to remind me of it. I believe I came up with a Boy Scout tie rack for my father, only after borrowing the last two dollars from my mother to purchase it.
Here’s a YouTube: Billy Collins reads “The Lanyard.”   More recently, Billy Collins Reads  “Forgetfulness “and “The Lanyard” at the Clinton White House.