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Poet Billy Collins Reflects on 9/11 Victims in ‘The Names’

September 11, 2012 at 6:00 PM EDT
Billy Collins was the U.S. poet laureate at the time of the 9/11 attacks. A year later, he wrote "The Names" in honor of the victims. He read the poem before a special joint session of Congress held in New York City in 2002, and reads it again now.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And thank you, Jeff. And finally we go back to New York where it is now nighttime and cloudy there. The now-famous Tribute in Light marks yet another year of absence and observance at ground zero. I’m Judy Woodruff.

GWEN IFILL: And I’m Gwen Ifill. For all of my NewsHour colleagues, thank you for watching. We give the last word to poet Billy Collins. He was the nation’s poet laureate at the time of the attacks. One year later, he wrote this poem, “The Names.” He read it before a special joint session of Congress held in New York in 2002. He reads it again now, for us.

BILLY COLLINS, poet: “The Names,” for the victims of September 11th and their survivors.

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.

A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,

And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,

I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,

Davis and Eberling, names falling into place

As droplets fell through the dark.

Names printed on the ceiling of the night.

Names slipping around a watery bend.

Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.

In the morning, I walked out barefoot

Among thousands of flowers

Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,

And each had a name –

Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal

Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.

Names written in the air

And stitched into the cloth of the day.

A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.

Monogram on a torn shirt,

I see you spelled out on storefront windows

And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.

I say the syllables as I turn a corner –

Kelly and Lee,

Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.

When I peer into the woods,

I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden

As in a puzzle concocted for children.

Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,

Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,

Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.

Names written in the pale sky.

Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.

Names silent in stone

Or cried out behind a door.

Names blown over the earth and out to sea.

In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.

A boy on a lake lifts his oars.

A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,

And the names are outlined on the rose clouds –

Vanacore and Wallace,

(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)

Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.

Names etched on the head of a pin.

One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.

A blue name needled into the skin.

Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,

The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.

Alphabet of names in a green field.

Names in the small tracks of birds.

Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.