"On Turning Ten" was first published in the American poet Billy Collins's 1995 collection The Art of Drowning. One of the most popular contemporary U.S. poets, Collins is known for his humorous and conversational poems. This poem parodies a long tradition of "birthday poems," in which older poets reflect, often quite depressingly and with quite a bit of self-absorption, on their encroaching mortality. Here, the speaker is a child facing the prospect of turning 10 with horror and dread. Wistfully reminiscing about his life up until this point, the speaker contrasts the imagination and sense of invulnerability of early childhood with the painful loss of innocence that he must face in growing up.
The whole idea ...
... in bad light--
a kind of ...
... of the soul.
You tell me ...
... remember every digit.
At four I ...
... nine a prince.
But now I ...
... my tree house,
and my bicycle ...
... out of it.
This is the ...
... first big number.
It seems only ...
... knees. I bleed.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
An Interview with Collins — Read this 2007 interview with Billy Collins, originally published in Guernica Magazine, where he discusses his poetic style and influences.
Billy Collins's Biography — A detailed biography of Collins's life and career as a poet.
A Reading of "On Turning Ten" — Hear Billy Collins read and talk about"On Turning Ten" at the 2009 National Writing Project Annual Meeting.
1The whole idea of it makes me feel
2like I'm coming down with something,
3something worse than any stomach ache
4or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
5a kind of measles of the spirit,
6a mumps of the psyche,
7a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
8You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
9but that is because you have forgotten
10the perfect simplicity of being one
11and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
12But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
13At four I was an Arabian wizard.
14I could make myself invisible
15by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
16At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
17But now I am mostly at the window
18watching the late afternoon light.
19Back then it never fell so solemnly
20against the side of my tree house,
21and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
22as it does today,
23all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
24This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
25as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
26It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
27time to turn the first big number.
28It seems only yesterday I used to believe
29there was nothing under my skin but light.
30If you cut me I could shine.
31But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
32I skin my knees. I bleed.