My Personal Anthology of Favorite Poems (Year-End Addition)

At the height of the COVID19 pandemic, as 2020 neared December, several news broadcasts began providing candid memorials, snapshot obituaries, for victims of the deadly virus.

This is good. Most of these I’ve seen pay tribute to first-responders and health-care workers. I think networks should do this regularly even when the pandemic is conquered sometime in the future.

News obituaries tend to honor the famous or infamous. I learned long ago that obituaries published in major newspapers, especially those in the New York Times, provide a helpful resource for biographical research.

Incidentally, one of the finest documentary films I’ve seen is called “Obit,” which tells the story of the Times’ writers of obituaries, and—though this may have changed since the film’s release—claims the Times is the only paper with an Obituary Reporting Department. (You’ll find this documentary easily on YouTube.)

Obituaries (“obits” in journalist jargon) are important to our memory. Almost every story reported in the daily news is dependent on information from someone’s memory, frequently categorized in the phrase “eye-witness.” More formally, we call this history, and all history is comprised of memories. Such is the nature of time.

I started reading newspaper obituaries as a teenager, about the same time I began keeping a journal and writing my own poems. Perhaps I was motivated by the death of a high school classmate; I did write a poem about his friendship.

[I’ve taken the liberty of attaching to this anthology my poem about the friend who died.]

Billy Collins’ poem “Downpour” (From his collection Whale Day, 2020) has been praised as a love poem, and certainly the element of love comes across subtly in Collins’ low-key and clever manner. However, the root of the poem, in my interpretation, is that “Downpour” underscores the experience of death and one’s memories of those who have died.

Interpret it as you wish, but I offer it as a favorite because I want readers to share my experience of dealing with the death of someone close to me, and perhaps in the process underscoring the importance of memory that can be found when names of close ones who died are listed.

Here is Collins’ poem “Downpour,”
originally published in The New Yorker in 2019 and gathered in his 2020 collection Whale Day.



By Billy Collins

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the bananas and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spillin, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.


Here’s my poem: “A Shorthand Note for Alex,” published by the Maryland Writers Association (MWA) in its 2011 anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire, edited by Laura Shovan. April 2011.


     A Shorthand Note for Alex 

Dear Sir: this steno’s shibboleth

retrieves his brief, slender form;

Alex, my friend ripped from studies


in the banter years of boys confused

but captive to coy female eyes.

We entered class in perfumed air


as naive males, two isolated boys

growing in stature, growing familiar

with 15 girls decoding Gregg


and framing flirtatious gambits.

Alex died, and left me shorthand notes,

graceful curves he’d chased in class.


Could I revise, I’d frame a “Dear Sir” plea

to have him live my trials of afternoons

in shorthand stalled, in ecstasies begun.



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