Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Lanyard - Billy Collins

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-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air 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-toned 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.

In a touching and funny way, Collins identifies one thing I'm sure all children thought at some point, that we can "repay" our mothers in some sense for all that they do for us.  Of course, that's impossible, but that is, as Collins correctly notes, a "worn truth."  It seems blindingly obvious that we can never repay our mothers.  The comic relief in which Collins throws this is wonderful.  All the selfless, loving acts of motherhood answered with, "yes, I know, here's a lanyard."  It's often said that parenting is a thankless job, and the naivete of children when it comes to gratitude probably does not help.

While I am not a parent, I still think that most mothers (or fathers) would accept that lanyard with thankfulness and joy.  I hope you think about selfless love, reader, and enjoy the humor of the poem.  We can never repay our mothers, but that's not important.  Love is boundless, and knows no time frame.  It makes the world go round, and even when our loved ones are gone, is still as present as that lanyard buried somewhere in a drawer in the house.


  1. I like this poem its funny

    1. i think it dogshit

    2. I think you failed fourth grade English.

    3. Dylan fax dogshit

  2. Wonderful, funny, poignant - all at the same time. Thank you Mother for all you did for me/us. Five girls - almost two families - since the birth years,1933 and 1937 years, separated the two older girls from Diane, 1940-1947 and the two younger girls, myself 1946 and my youngest sister, 1952. Miss you much, love you forever !

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  4. Of course one needs to take care of their parents.
    But as a mother I am sure that parents are more than happy every time they see their children smile, every time they
    succeed in life.

  5. My Mother passed away this afternoon. She was 90 and I, myself, am no "spring chicken." I introduced her to this poem several years ago. We both loved it . . . perhaps for slightly different reasons, yet we could both smile simultaneously in recognition of simple truth. Thank You, Billy Collins for this masterpiece of understanding.

  6. So, I'm on a line with my daughter who's waiting to get Billy Collins' latest book inscribed. My sister just told me about this poem. I am weeping.

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  8. cute poem talking about how moms sacrifice for their kids.

  9. Lanyards are cool

  10. NO lanyards are awesome not cool. also cute poem talking the love and sacrifice of a mother. Go mom's!

  11. My 14 year old daughter just texted me to tell me they read this in class, and it reminder her of us! She proudly gave me lanyards in every color imaginable and YES I still have them. Thank you Billy Collins...

  12. man do i feel like a lousy son

  13. Always loved this one. Thanks so much for posting it. It will probably pop up at our Literary Town Hall tonight, in NJ -- check us out. Connecticut is not so far away!

    1. Reminds me of a booger I lost the other day...

  14. This poem shows the true potential of a lanyard. It is a powerful object that has wisdom and is powerful. Lanyards are everything.

  15. When we first heard this poem, my son and I both laughed. It was years back, before he graduated from high school. He spent a month that summer traveling through Europe with his girlfriend. When they walked out from customs at the airport, almost unrecognizable after their adventure, he hugged me and gave me a lanyard, which, like your poem, moved me to tears. Thank you

  16. As a substitute teacher, I start almost every class period with a poem. At one school. The students wear IDs on a lanyard, and the morning announcement often says, "Remember to wear your lanyard!" That reminded me to use this poem, and many students now have enjoyed it in five different high schools. I always make it a point now to read it the werk before Mothers' Day, and I see something new in it each time.

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  18. As long as we're reading with all requisite deliberation...

    Believe it should be "facecloths", not the mistyped "face-clothes" (sic).

  19. Absolutely breathtaking poem! So cool!