The Bread, the Knife, and the Source of Billy Collins’s Poem “Litany”

As the poetry specialist in the Library’s Researcher and Reference Services Division, I receive my fair share of questions about U.S. poets laureate. Most often, people ask about the history of the laureateship, or about the activities of a particular laureate during his or her term. Very rarely, though, do I receive questions about specific poems written by laureates. One major exception is Billy Collins‘s poem “Litany.”

“Litany” was originally published in the February 2002 issue of Poetry magazine, and included later that year in Collins’s book Nine Horses: Poems. The poem, one of Collins’s best-known, begins with a series of ingenious metaphors in which the speaker’s lover is compared to a number of surprising and unexpected objects. It opens:

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine.

About halfway through the poem, but not before the speaker tells us what his lover is not“…you are not the wind in the orchard, / the plums on the counter, / or the house of cards”the speaker decides to shift the focus of comparison from his beloved to himself:

It might interest you to know

that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

After a number of witty and original self-comparisons, the poem comes full circle. The speaker concedes that he is “not the bread and the knife.” Rather, the speaker’s lover “will always be the bread and the knife, / not to mention the crystal goblet, andsomehowthe wine.”

As Collins is quick to note when he talks about “Litany,” the idea for the poem, along with its opening lines, are not his own. But there’s a problem. Although Collins happily regales audiences with tales of borrowing the opening two lines of the poem from another writer, he appears reluctant to name the author from whom he borrowed the poem, or the source of the original poem. This reluctance has generated the most common question about a poet laureate’s poem that I receive: What is the original source, and who is the author, of the opening two lines of “Litany?”

Collins’s reticence in naming the author of the borrowed lines may have something to do with his motivation for rewriting the source poem. As he notes facetiously when introducing “Litany” during a 2008 reading:

I take the first two lines of someone else’s poem and rewrite it for them. This is done out of courtesy. When you see a poem that seems to fail you can just rewrite it and improve upon it that way.

Similarly, when Collins reads “Litany” at the 2002 National Book Festival, he doesn’t name the author of the original poem. Instead, in his introduction to the poem (beginning at 24:46) he says:

It starts by using two lines from someone else’s poem, and I just kind of clipped them off this person’s poem and made the beginning of my poem…. So I came across this poem, it’s a love poem, and it starts out, he says, “You are the bread and the knife, / The crystal goblet and the wine.” So I just took those lines and rewrote his poem for him.

My guess is that most people trying to identify the original poem’s author have heard Billy Collins read the poem, but haven’t themselves read the poem online or in print. The reason? Most reputable websites include Billy Collins’s epigraph to the poem that appears in Poetry, Nine Horses, and the other print publications that feature his poem. Although Collins doesn’t seem to mention the name of the author during his readings of “Litany,” the epigraph clearly indicates that the first two lines of the poem are borrowed from Belgian poet Jacques Crickillon.

Epigraph to Billy Collins's "Litany." Poetry, February 2002: 249.

Epigraph to Billy Collins’s “Litany.” Poetry (February 2002: 249).

The publication in which Crickillon’s poem appears is not mentioned in Poetry or other sources that republish “Litany,” however, so some additional sleuthing was in order. This led me to discover that Crickillon’s poem, written in French, appears on page 80 of his collection Neuf Royaumes (1991). Here are the first two lines of the poem:

Tu es le pain et le couteau.
Le cristal et le vin.

While Collins plausibly could have translated these lines into English himself, further research revealed this to be unlikely. Rather, Collins appears to have drawn upon a translation of Crickillon’s poem by Greg Bailey, a Texas native and graduate of the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, that appears in Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing & Art. (Number 15, 1996: 138). The first two lines of Bailey’s poem appear below, and as you can see, the words match the opening to “Litany,” though Collins combined the lines into a single sentence:

First two lines of Greg Bailey's translation of an untitled poem by Jacques Crickillon (Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing & Art. (Number 15, 1996: 138).

First two lines of Greg Bailey’s translation of an untitled poem by Jacques Crickillon. From Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing & Art (Number 15, 1996: 138).

To summarize my findings, the first two lines of Billy Collins’s poem “Litany” are borrowed from the first two lines of Greg Bailey’s translation of Jacques Crickillon’s untitled French poem. Got it?

If you have any questions about “Litany,” or Billy Collins’s other poetry, don’t hesitate to ask us!

4 Comments

  1. linda
    November 13, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    Why isn’t stealing lines for “Litany” considered plagiarism or violation of copyright by Billy Collins?

  2. Patricia Gray
    November 13, 2018 at 5:16 pm

    Good sleuthing, Peter!

  3. Cheryl
    November 14, 2018 at 7:25 am

    Thanks for the exploration, Peter, but I’m even more grateful for the peek into your research processes!

  4. Peter Armenti
    November 14, 2018 at 10:39 am

    Dear Linda,

    As noted on the U.S. Copyright Office website, “fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances.” You can contact the Copyright Office directly if you have questions about fair use, and also review Copyright Office’s blog post “Knowing When You Can Use A Copyrighted Work.”

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