Reading Billy Collins’s “More Than a Woman” and David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster”

Part I:  Charming Billy

I first came across the contemporary American poet, Billy Collins, in a workshop around the time he was named the United States Poet Laureate in 2001. I wish I had discovered him myself sooner.

As a lover of most things literary, poetry has always been frustratingly elusive. I teach it, but I do not write it. I appreciate it, but I do not identify myself with it. It took Billy Collin’s subtle ruminations on daily life to align myself finally with a poet who could speak for me and that I could experience an emotional connection with his work that I do for novels, short stories, essays, and plays. Collins is known for his “conversational, witty poems that welcome readers with humor but often slip into quirky, tender or profound observation on the every day, reading and writing, and poetry itself” (Poetry Foundation 2010). I would want to hang out with Collins. My students- mostly impoverished students of color who suffer from a cognitive dissonance from the literary canon and established critical culture- find his work an approachable bridge to the intellectual world.

Billy Collins poetry also helped me find meaning in other poets’ work as well. His humor, his intimacy and his sly nod to the ephemeral made me look twice at Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney and even Shakespeare’s sonnets. Poetry is more like a graphic novel in that it is the spaces in between the text- outside of what is on the page- where meaning and connection lie.

I selected the Billy Collins’ poem “More Than a Woman” which first appeared in Poetry Magazine (2002) but was later published in his anthology, Nine Horses (2003)  because I knew I wanted to read essayist David Foster Wallace’s piece called “Consider the Lobster.” Collins is a New Englander so I thought the two would pair together nicely with the same Northeast waspy sensibility. The two pieces actually ended up having much in common after multiple reads — not in their authors’ origins but in the questions that both left their readers contemplating.

Reviewing Nine Horses for the New York Times, Mary Jo Salter commented that Collins’s “originality derives, it seems, from the marriage of a loopy, occasionally surreal imagination…to an ordinary life observed in just a few ordinary words.” Salter continued, “… one appeal of the typical Collins poem is that it’s less able to help you memorize it than to help you to remember, for a little while anyway, your own life.”

At first, I thought the poem was going to be about love; perhaps, the poet is writing about a relationship that either failed or went further than he initially thought it would. The first couple of stanzas relate the collective experience of having a song stuck in one’s head.

I read it through first without a pen because I wanted to read it aloud to comprehend it. I noticed long, loping sentences and interesting syntax — dashes, semi-colons, sentence variety. As many poems written by Collins do, this one starts light and ends up metaphysical. This is why I like Billy Collins so much. He has a sly wit, a clever ability to turn phrases so soon one is thinking about the BIG questions in life.

For the second read, I used a College Board poetry analysis template that has served me well over the years. The SOAPSTone model helps me read a poem and not kill it. Another text analysis template, TPCASTT asks the reader to examine the title first and last. I combine the two; thus, I read the title first and then read through the poem to determine the subject, the occasion, the audience, and then I paraphrased it. Finally, I addressed the tone and looked at the title again.

Title – a prediction

More than a Woman- is it about love?


Getting a trite song stuck in one’s head and what this reveals about life


Contemporary; fall


Collins has described himself as “reader conscious” so his audience is always his reader. “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly” (Riggot 2006).


“I think my work has to do with a sense that we are attempting, all the time, to create a logical, rational path through the day. To the left and right there are an amazing set of distractions that we usually can’t afford to follow…” (Ibid).


“Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong” (Ibid). I really love this simile.

Title again

Now, I realize that not only is it about more than just a woman, but it is also about more than just a song. It is about a uniquely human experience to which we all can relate.

Next, I look for shifts in voice or attitude. This time around, I also annotated with a green pen. I usually annotate in green or purple because they are my favorite colors. I like a fine point so I can underline and write comments in the margins. I noted wordplay, clever diction choices, imagery, some rhyme, metaphor, repetition, and parallel structure. I went back and divided the poem into thirds because there are two shifts that divide the narrative of the poem and drive the tone.

Collins personifies the idea of a song escaping like a prisoner from a radio jail and then tunneling into the ear where it hides in the cortex. He calls the song “cloying and vapid” which aptly describe its melody and “slinky chords” and “puffballs of lyrics.” He recites in active past tense all the things he does while the song is in his head- took a walk, watered the plants, and picked up the mail … The song accompanied him throughout the events of the day.

There is a season to the poem because he mentioned watching from a bridge the brown leaves floating in the channel current. He also mentions viewing lobster in an “illuminated tank which was filled to the brim with copious tears.” All the while, the song has hitched a ride in his head and is experiencing his life as he goes through his routine.

I looked him up because Collins often reads for various events. Sure enough, he read this poem aloud and introduced it by way of offering some context. He said he wrote the poem to relate a common experience and was going to name it “Dancing Queen,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” or “Tainted Love.” The crowd roared as did I. This presented a setting to the poem. Collins is almost 25 years older than me but he speaks more to my generation than that of my parents’. I recall these songs from my childhood. The Carpenters music was everywhere in the early 70s as was Abba- the mall, commercials, cover tunes- this music is the soundtrack of my youth. The Bee Gee’s song, “More Than a Woman” was a hit from the film “Saturday Night Fever” and it brought back a memory of a junior high school dance. “Tainted Love” was from the 1980s, early MTV. All the songs share an overkill on top 40 radio, but have melodies that worm their way into one’s ear and for the rest of the day, a person cannot help but sing snippets of them. I bet you are singing one of them in your head right now as you read this… right?

Interestingly enough, Collins recitation continued past the version of the poem that I had downloaded and annotated, and low and behold; there are a final couple of stanzas of his poem omitted on the Poetry Foundation website. I found them, tacked them onto my copy, reprinted and re-annotated. I feel bad for people who only access the truncated poem from the website and do not get to read the final stanzas because they are the gold.

Collin’s poem changed completely, and the final shift took the poem’s light message to a universal one. These earworms became spheres, which “oozed from jukeboxes in the clouds.” This light, common experience became an identifier of the human condition. These light “puff balls” of songs that stick in our head define us and anchor us to a time and a place.

Poet Richard Howard said of Collins: “He has a remarkably American voice…that one recognizes immediately as being of the moment and yet has real validity besides, reaching very far into what verse can do” (Webber 1999). The United States is still a young country, and often, we rely on our short past and the uncertain future to define ourselves. I like that Collins places such value in the sublime features of the ordinary moment. He harkens back to Whitman in his Romantic celebration of the common man and his American Dream. Collins said of his process that he often reads Chinese poetry before he writes, “…I’ll just flip it open and read a few pages for the clarity and the lucidity and the very natural vocabulary” (Riggot 2006). On the surface, Collins poetry is joyous and masterful. Underneath it, all is a deliberation- a reflective awareness of the reader, the message, the context, technique, and artisanship. I like to think that the best teaching is this way, too.

II. Considering David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was assigned a journalistic piece by Gourmet magazine in 2003 to attend and “report” on his experiences at the Maine Lobster Festival which he refers to in the text as the MLF. I had wanted to read this essay since I read a list in March 2013 of the top 25 essay collections of all time (Temple). Aleksandar Hemon, Annie Dillard, Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, Edward Hoagland, Ellen Willis, Geoff Dyer, George Saunders, Gretel Ehrlich, Henry Louis Gates Jr., James Baldwin, Jo Ann Beard, Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Martin Amis, Meghan Daum, Nora Ephron, Phillip Lopate, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf and Zadie Smith make up the list. However, David Foster Wallace’s work is like reading James Joyce. Thus, I had an opportunity to “Consider the Lobster.” So, I did.

The essay, published in August 2004, runs 14 single-spaced pages four of which are the 20 footnotes that Wallace attaches to the end. I would recommend printing out the footnotes and fanning the pages in front of you so you can go back and forth from the text to the footnotes. They are that important.

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s “Bookworm,” (2006) Wallace said that attending the Lobsterfest was actually quite boring and he did not really find much to write about. Off in the peripheral, he saw members of the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) activist organization protesting the MLF. It was there he got his genesis for his idea, that his piece was going to be less about the experience of attending a summer festival and more about the concept and tensions of celebrating the boiling alive and the eating ritual of lobster. Did the gourmand readers of his essay really care about this? Foster mentioned that the subtitle of Gourmet is “the magazine of good living.”

Again, I read without annotation for the first read. Wallace’s prose is dense, languorous and elaborate. Usually, journalistic pieces do not include the writer, but Wallace inserts himself into the piece as narrator, participant, persuader, questioner, teacher and even explainer of what the rhetorical devices he (as author) uses to achieve his purpose. After my second read, I am still trying to figure this part out and need another read to study his craft alone.

He starts with some context situating the reader in the festival describing the sights and sounds as he, his girlfriend and his parents- that he explains have forbidden him to write about them in this piece- accompany him to this midsummer annual ritual. He uses a technique that F. Scott Fitzgerald uses which is connecting concepts together with multiple and, no commas, “with its old money and yachty harbor and five-star restaurants and phenomenal B & Bs.” Fitzgerald uses this technique to establish the dreaminess of Jay Gatsby’s house before a big party. I can see Wallace paying homage to Fitzgerald here and several other places. He gives his reader a view of the festival focusing attention on the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, front, and center.

Next, he turns scientist-teacher and outlines what a lobster actually is. I learned that lobster was originally a food of the lower socio-economic class and that “there were once laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.” Wallace’s extremely well-researched essay takes the stance of an expert using facts, statistics, and history to relay the lobsters’ importance to US culture and as a food source.

He returns to the festival detailing how one can eat the lobster providing an exhaustive description of meals, preparations, and accompaniments. He shifts his setting to the home cook and slyly slips in two extremely important sentences, it is “so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it into the kettle” and “you can pick out your supper while it [the lobster] watches you point [at it.]” This paragraph ends with a set of rhetorical questions. Of the three, the one that packs the biggest wallop is, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Silverblatt and Wallace discuss Wallace’s role as an avatar in the post-moral age (2006). Wallace felt that he did not have many gustatory answers, but he tries to answer the moral relativism for his reader.

Wallace both mocks and uses the PETA argument that lobsters feel pain. The festival takes the opposite stance and even has a trivia contest; one of the question’s answers is that “lobsters brains don’t have a part of the brain that humans do that experiences pain.” Wallace disproves this argument through biology, psychology, semantics, and ethics. He leaves the reader with his own discomfort on the issue- he has a “selfish interest in determining whether it is ethically right to kill and eat animals, especially if they experience pain.” Wallace likes to eat certain kinds of animals and wants to keep doing it, and he has not successfully “worked out a personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.” I think most modern carnivores share this belief, a discomfort with food that resembles the kill and eat experience of the lobster preferring to receive meat packaged and plastic wrapped. One of his most memorable lines of the piece is when he describes the home experience of the cook dropping the lobster into the pot while it tries to “cling to the container’ sides or hook its claws over the kettle rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof.” He describes the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. He relates the “cowardice” of the home cook who retreats to a different room with a timer waiting out the boiling to death alive experience in the kitchen. He relates other ways to kill a lobster including driving a knife between its eyes, dismembering it and throwing it into a cold pot and bringing up the temperature slowly.

I get it, and I feel both conflicted and ashamed, even though I do not even eat lobster. I think that is Wallace’s intention. From what I understand, the essay received tremendous blowback of several hundred negative letters. Each of the letter writers completed the reading of the essay, and most comments were aimed at Wallace’s conclusion. The essay has been reprinted numerous times; I can see why eight years after publication and five years after David Foster Wallace’s suicide, it still resonates.

Like Collins’s poetry, the universal idea of Wallace’s essay -what makes a civilized human- will continue to be discussed and questioned. I come away with an appreciation of both writers’ interest in awareness, consciousness, ritual and memory. I relish a demanding reading assignment such as this and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sadly, It is extremely impractical for every piece in a typical modern English class. David Coleman, previously of the College Board and now the architect re-writing the SAT, released a series of videos in 2011 that made the rounds of ELA secondary professional development last year. I remember my colleagues scoffing with derision at Coleman’s recommendation to teach the 242-word “Gettysburg Address” over four days, each lesson a reread for a different focus of the text. For my students, I could assign this type of scrutiny and multiple reads with a paragraph or page of nonfiction or a short poem. Unless it was rap lyrics, they would soon become fatigued and give up. The final reads, two weeks after the initial reads,  were the most interesting because I could research the reviews, reactions, and contexts of the two pieces. It was certainly a rewarding enterprise for me to do multiple reads of my two chosen texts. Each read brought both more clarity and more questions. Perhaps, English teachers are their own best students as they teach and re-teach literary selections over time. I look forward to introducing the Great Gatsby to my students each November and April because it is like revisiting an old friend. Each time I re-read it, I have another year’s experience to compare it with and a deeper appreciation of what Fitzgerald might have intended to capture. I probably will not bring either the Collin’s poem- although I teach several of his other poems- or the Wallace essay into my AP Language class. This was an intimate and personal journey for me, and I want to keep it for myself.

Works Cited

“Billy Collins : The Poetry Foundation.” 2010. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.

“Billy Collins Reads ‘More Than a Woman’.” Dailymotion. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.

Coleman, David. “The Gettysburg Address: An Exemplary Curricular Module in Literacy.”

PBS LearningMedia. 2011.

Collins, Billy. “More than a Woman.” February 2002 : Poetry Magazine.” Web. 29 Sept.


Collins, Billy. Nine Horses: Poems. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.

David Foster Wallace “Consider the Lobster.” Los Angeles, California, 2006. Online.

Bookworm. KCRW.

Mishra, Pankaj. “The Postmodern Moralist.” The New York Times 12 Mar. 2006. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.

Morse, Ogden. “SOAPSTone: A Strategy for Reading and Writing.” AP Central; The

College Board.

Riggot, Julie. “From Victoria’s Secret to Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” Pasadena Weekly 20

Apr. 2006.

Salter, Mary Jo. “You Are Not the Pine-Scented Air, O.K.?” New York Times. Web. 29

Sept. 2013.

Temple, Emily. “The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time.” Flavorwire. Web. 29 Sept.


Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Aug. 2004.

Weber, Bruce. “On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits a Roadblock.” New York Times. Web. 29

Sept. 2013.

Wolfe, Brendan. “OK, so the Guy Can Write … / But Once You Cut through the Words,

What’s Left?” SFGate. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.