By Billy Collins

The small poem is as old as poetry itself, extending from Martial’s 1st-century epigrams through Japanese haiku to the miniatures of today. Issa gives us: “don’t worry, spider/ I keep house/ casually.”  Charles Simic has one titled “Evening Chess:” “The black Queen raised high/ in my father’s angry hand.” And here’s A. R. Ammons’s “Their Sex Life:” “One failure on/ top of another.” Such tiny verbal bursts radically exemplify poetry’s celebrated ability to fit large matter into small spaces. No time here for reflection or landscape, the small poem is a flash, a gesture, often with a twist conveying a sensation of torque. The four on display are from Musical Tables, a collection of my own attempts at brevity.


Hitchhiking alone,
I notice an ant
walking in the opposite direction.

3:00 AM

Only my hand
is asleep,
but it’s a start.

Morning Walk

The dog stops often
to sniff the poems of others
before reciting her own.


never amounted
to a hurricane,

Just a lot of rain
With a girl’s name.

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

Billy Collins is a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2002–03) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The four poems shared here are from his most recent collection, Musical Tables (Random House, 2022), a collection of short poems, and are published with permission of the author.

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