Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Flock - Billy Collins

It has been calculated the each copy of the Gutenberg Bible...required the skins of 300 sheep.
-from an article on printing

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

For some reason, I find this poem particularly striking, mostly for the dark humor of the ending sentiment.  To a sheep, the shepherd must seem a lordly figure, guiding them through their entire lives.  It's rather funny, though in a somewhat dark way, when you consider the outcome for the sheep.

That's not to say that I pity the sheep.  They are sheep, their meat was probably well used, and their skins formed the vellum used to print one of the most important books of all time.  I don't think Collins takes away from the extraordinary achievement that is the Gutenberg Bible with this poem.  It would certainly be somewhat inappropriate for him to do so, as his livelihood is made in the printing of his works.  From the poem's very inception, we are reminded of the importance of printing, as Collins cites an article he read (presumably in print, about the history of print).  No, I do not think Collins intends us to feel for the sheep in the poem.  Rather, I think he wants to call our attention to the importance that they played in the printing.  He's emphasizing here, as he does in many of his poems, the unimportant aspects of daily life that are often overlooked.  In printing, we rarely think of the process, just the outcome.  Collins puts a unique twist on something we now regard as mundane, if we regard it at all.  Obviously, the process has changed over the years, but a little history now and then is always a good thing.

Do you agree that Collins did not mean us to pity the sheep?  Do you feel for those sheep whose hides were transformed into the medium for printing?  Let me know.


  1. No, pity is overrated. I don't think Collins meant us to pity the sheep.
    Thank you for sharing. I just read this volume by Collins and wrote a letter with a link to your site; my letter included See No Evil and referenced Flock.

  2. collins was good.
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  3. Thanks for quoting this poem...I needed a quick copy and you provided it. Respectfully, Collins didn't intend anything more than writing for a time one morning (perhaps). He noticed something. He's not making a point or trying to teach us anything: he's exploring an impression that he has had because of a startling fact that he heard or read. One almond requires 50 gallons of fresh water to produce--heard that? We are shocked by disproportion and it usually spells trouble for someone or some thing. There's no question of real pity for the sheep anyway. They are only "allowed" life because they are useful (like all of us who work) and have no idea what is in store. For a sheep all of life is a series of familiar events and occasional black swans leading up to the black swan that goes unnoticed. That's my thought.

    No good poem ever came from an intention unless perhaps it was O.W. Holmes's classic 1830 "Old Ironsides" written to save an honored old warship from the scrapyard.

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  5. From my perspective, as a vegetarian, Mr Collins is on the side of the angels.
    My take on this poem is that it implies that the innocent sheep had an instrinsic understanding of G*d and that it is the arrogance of humans that would take life to proclaim a gospel.
    It is an economic poem that does not preach. The work of a master craftsman.

  6. This is not a funny or even amusing poem; it is a poem about sacrifice and the fact that animals know from the start that God and Jesus are their creators and masters. I think it is an amazingly beautiful poem about love and giving.

  7. Considering Mr. Collins' self-described status as a "recovering Catholic," and that the whole of his education is from Catholic schools, resulting in his realization that, "It’s very difficult in a way to maintain a connection to a church that is so full of flaws and hierarchically-structured church," one could surmise that Collin's is pointing out the contradiction of the sheep's harsh existence and inevitable fate as fodder for bible-making in contrast to the biblical imagery of the noble shepherd in a pastoral environment caring for and guiding his flock. Note that "shepherd" is also a synonym for a clergyman. What idea might underlie Collins' comparison? How about the cruel irony of how these modern "shepherds" at the dawn of factory mass production of bibles treat their flock in the push to spread the "good word." I think Collins is equating this with the church itself. The sheep in the poem symbolize the people who make up the church's flock. So, yes, Collins indeed means to show pity for the those unfortunates. I think the poem is deliberately making inference to the numerous scandals occupying the Catholic church's attention for the last couple of decades. I believe the poem was published in 2005.

  8. In this poem, Billy Collins is telling us that animals, including sheep instinctively know that Jesus is their Shepherd, whereas humans need to be educated in that way.