Billy Collins uses several rhetorical devices throughout his poem “On Turning Ten,” but consistently keeps them simple to reiterate the tone of the poem. The poem, which follows, is about turning ten, clearly intended to be written from a childlike perspective. Without using simpler language in this creative style, Collins would undermine the tone, as well as the main themes of the poem. He does, however, include complex comparisons written in simple language; although he writes simply, these rhetorical devices make the poetry itself more complex than it first appears.
“On Turning Ten” –Billy Collins
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light—
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
The first four lines, “The whole idea of it makes me feel / like I'm coming down with something, / something worse than any stomach ache / or the headaches I get from reading in bad light” fit perfectly with a childlike innocence that Collins works hard to portray. The word “something” is repeated at the end of the second and beginning of the third lines, an example of epizeuxis, a type of repetition that restates a word or phrase twice in a row. Using this repetition, especially of a word that most writers attempt to steer clear of, gives his readers the idea that a child could easily be using these exact words to show his feelings. He uses comparisons to “stomach ache[s]” and “headaches” to further this impression, that a child conveys these feelings.
The last three lines of the first stanza, though, move into more complex territory. Collins uses three metaphors to describe the speaker’s feelings on turning ten, “a kind of measles of the spirit, / a mumps of the psyche, / a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.” These metaphors are incredibly complex, using language that would not typically be associated with a ten year old. Most children that age could not describe a “spirit,” a “psyche,” or a “soul,” let alone compare them to different physical ailments. This is precisely what makes it poetic, for lack of a better term. These three physical illnesses mirror the physicality that he uses in the beginning, the “stomach ache” and “headache” and makes the ailments more complex. Not only are these three phrases examples of metaphor, they use several rhetorical devices simultaneously: asyndeton, which is omission of conjunctions in a series; hyperbole, which is exaggeration, loosely; and appositive, which is a restatement of a noun phrase immediately after first stating it. Some might argue the use of appositive here, but I would accept it as rhetorical device because these are three examples of illnesses.
Collins’ second stanza is playful, harkening back to the first four lines in which he sets the tone for the remainder of the poem. The last four lines of this stanza are particularly interesting, “At four I was an Arabian wizard. / I could make myself invisible / by drinking a glass of milk a certain way. / At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.” They are extremely childlike, but also use metaphor to tell of the child’s progression through life. This child, the speaker of the poem, was not literally a wizard, or invisible, or a soldier, or a prince, but the metaphor makes it believable. In addition to this, the metaphor is not too heavy-handed—by this, I mean that a child could easily speak these words without knowing that he or she was using metaphor. It does not come off as pretentious; rather, it illustrates the child’s great imagination. As in the first paragraph, Collins uses asyndeton again when he does not use a conjunction in the line “At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.” This particular line also uses prozeugma because it does not restate the verb in the second part of the sentence. Instead, the verb is implied.
The third stanza is perhaps Collins’ best juxtaposition of childlike and complex. The line “Back then it never fell so solemnly” has a very serious tone, but is followed by “against the side of my tree house,” reminding the reader that this is, in fact, a child’s perspective of the “afternoon light.” On the day of his tenth birthday, this child experiences emotion far beyond his or her years, saying that “my bicycle never leaned against the garage / as it does today, / all the dark blue speed drained out of it.” Again, Collins uses juxtaposition of childlike innocence and complex rhetorical language to convey his speaker’s feelings. Hyperbole and personification lend to the serious tone, but then the reader is reminded that this is just a child who rides his or her bike, but this is followed by the line reading that the bike has had “all the dark blue speed drained out of it.” The choice of blue is intentional here, perhaps a bit cliché, but shows the feeling of sadness that progressively gains throughout the poem.
The fourth stanza explicitly states that the speaker is sad, which goes against typical poetic convention. Most poets prefer to show rather than tell emotion, but Collins does both. The speaker uses grandiose language, such as, “I walk through the universe in my sneakers.” The notion of walking through the universe is grand and borders on hyperbole, yet again, but he follows it with “in my sneakers,” a very childlike phrase. This heightens the progression of the poem, from simple to more complex as the end approaches.
The final stanza is the culmination of these ideas. The child realizes that he is human, above all, and that aging is inevitable, even at the age of ten. The “sidewalks of life” is a very abstract phrase but is chosen intentionally to be abstract. He mirrors this abstraction with two very concrete statements in the final line, “I skin my knees. I bleed.” These are extremely childlike in their tone and content, but against the rest of the stanza, they make perfect sense. The poem, in its entirety, is an extended metaphor, or conceit, for life. Aging never becomes less difficult, particularly as you grow older, but complexity and playfulness must find a balance in order to survive and be effective, in this poem, just as in life.
This poem could be read and understood by a ten year-old, as well as studied by college students, which I believe is part of Collins’ intention. The language is simple enough and straightforward enough for a child to comprehend, but complex enough that a senior Literature major (that’d be me, folks) can study how Collins uses specific rhetorical devices and poetic conventions to convey a certain meaning. Of course, people can read his accessible poetry for fun and not for academic reasons, which puts Collins in several unique activity systems—for example, students, parents, children, teachers might all look at this poem or collection of poems and get completely different meanings. I do question who Collins’ target audience is with this poetry, which is fairly indicative of his writing style, and suppose that maybe he does not have one specific audience in mind. Perhaps that’s exactly what drives his writing style in the first place. This interpretation of the poem would be totally inappropriate for some contexts, and I recognize that, but that’s half the fun in interpretation!
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