The Great American Poem
If this were a novel,
it would begin with a character,
a man alone on a southbound train
or a young girl on a swing by a farmhouse.
And as the pages turned, you would be told
that it was morning or the dead of night,
and I, the narrator, would describe
for you the miscellaneous clouds over the farmhouse
and what the man was wearing on the train
right down to his red tartan scarf,
and the hat he tossed onto the rack above his head,
as well as the cows sliding past his window.
Eventually —one can only read so fast—
you would learn either that the train was bearing
the man back to the place of his birth
or that he was headed into the vast unknown,
and you might just tolerate all of this
as you waited patiently for shots to ring out
in a ravine where the man was hiding
or for a tall, raven-haired woman to appear in a doorway.
But this is a poem, not a novel,
and the only characters here are you and I,
alone in an imaginary room
which will disappear after a few more lines,
leaving us no time to point guns at one another
or toss all our clothes into a roaring fireplace.
I ask you: who needs the man on the train
and who cares what his black valise contains?
We have something better than all this turbulence
lurching toward some ruinous conclusion.
I mean the sound that we will hear
as soon as I stop writing and put down this pen.
I once heard someone compare it
to the sound of crickets in a field of wheat
or, more faintly, just the wind
over that field stirring things that we will never see.
Billy Collins, Ballistics (2008)