Poetry Club, day 7

Some of you who read my earlier post about poem permissions may be wondering what poem cost $1,080? Well, it was Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard.” (Don’t blame Billy.) It’s one of my all-time favorite poems, and I’ve used when speaking about The Joy of Poetry. Moms connect with it.

Since Mother’s Day is one month away, I’m posting it now. I love the turn the poem takes, that you think it’s going sentimental and it veers toward the confessional.


The Lanyard

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-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy 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-tone 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.

~ Billy Collins


Your turn.


  1. oh my word. “two clear eyes to read the world.” I think that $1,000 poem was worth it.
    My turn? I remember making lanyards at the YMCA growing up, although ours became key chains.

  2. One of the things I love about this poem is that he spends a stanza+ telling how he came upon the idea. I asked myself, is this something that I would cut, if I was writing it? I am frequently caught between a desire to be concise and a desire to splurge on backstory or a side thought. Of course, one can splurge but be concise about it. 🙂

    Another thing I especially like is that, in the end, he comes down to this very basic idea from childhood, seeking to make things even, as though they can, all of life, be made even. All my lanyards were made of equal lengths of two colors.

    The other thing is that, in the end, he comes down to this very basic idea from childhood, that things are made even.

    • Ooops. Ended up with a repeat sentence there. Please forgive!

    • Marilyn, I had the same thoughts about cutting and backstory. Would most editors consider the opening lines as throat-clearing? Maybe one reason this backstory belongs in the poem is your favorite line — that the “moving underwater” makes the scene hazy, setting us up for the flashback.

    • Marilyn, at first I wasn’t taken with the backstory. The more I’ve read the poem, the more I think it fits, and the discussion here has born that out. Those are hard choices in poems, but backstory or rabbit trails can be illuminating. This one definitely is.

  3. Favorite line: “…moving as if underwater…”

  4. I like how the poem starts not at the workbench where he’s making the lanyard but at the room and typewriter and piano and dictionary that brought him back to that memory.

    Also, the “ricocheting slowly” part is great. The slow-motion feel of the first stanza sets up the rewind to the camp scenes.

    This part: “when she took
    the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
    I was as sure as a boy could be”
    makes me envision the look on the mother’s face.

    And I wonder, why “rueful admission”?

  5. “She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
    and I gave her a lanyard.”

    It’s years before we can begin to appreciate what I mothers did for us and how we often regret how we didn’t grasp the depth of it at the time. I suspect his mom loved that lanyard. One of my favorite treasures is a pin my son made out of three puzzle pieces in preschool. Children are so excited when they can give a gift, even a squished wilty dandelion. I never got a lanyard. I do still have a clay flower pot with “mom” painted on it in red.

    I like the ricocheting like moving underwater, too. In the next stanza, he’s at a deep lake and a couple stanzas later when he talks of his mother giving life, I think of ricocheting in the water of the womb.Then she she teaches him to swim.

  6. I love the unevenness of his remembering: first just his mother’s milk, and then the lanyard. Then several gifts from his mum, but not the same number in the cluster each time, and this is how our minds work. Amateur that I am, I probably would have felt compelled to have a more regular cadence to the process. The unevenness keeps it jarring and feels as random as a real memory.