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Here is a breakdown of the poem “On Turning Ten” by American poet Billy Collins. In this poem, a youngster who is turning ten realizes that he is no longer a little child and that life is full of sadness and misery, from which he has up until now been relatively protected. This poetry is about coming of age. Billy Collins held the position of Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He currently holds a number of remarkable professorships at different universities in the country. Collins’s poetry, like “On Turning Ten,” tackles serious subjects even though a lot of it is noted for its humor. Although his poetry is read all around the world, his own nation and the state of New York, where he held the position of poet laureate from 2004 to 2006, are where he is most well-liked.
About the poet
Billy Collins, whose full name is William James Collins, was born in New York City on March 22, 1941. His extraordinarily approachable writing, which is marked by straightforward language, mild humor, and an acute awareness of the banal, made him one of the most well-known poets in the country.
Collins spent much of his childhood in Queens, New York. At the age of 12, he composed his first poem. He later joined the literary magazine of his high school. Collins graduated with a B.A. in 1963. from Worcester, Massachusetts’ College of the Holy Cross, and then received a doctorate in Romantic poetry from the University of California, Riverside, in 1971. In the same year, he started his long career as an English professor at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York. He produced several brief counterculture-inspired poems for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s, and a small press released his debut collection of poetry, Pokerface (1977).
Billy Collins’ poem “On Turning Ten” tackles the subject of adolescence in a distinctive way. It also functions as a “coming of age” poetry, discussing the emotional and physical changes that occur during the transition from childhood to adolescence. The poet’s surroundings began to alter when he turned ten. In a split second, his childhood world appeared to come crashing down. The ten-year-old Billy Collins’ zest and spontaneity of imagination began to wane. He recalls how lovely and radiant with heavenly brightness everything was. Except for light, the poet believed he had nothing inside his earthly shell. It alludes metaphorically to the spiritual aura that resides in a child’s soul. The poet uses this example to highlight the concepts of puberty and “coming of age” in his poem. The poem also explores some significant concepts like body vs. mind and true self vs. imagined self. When a child enters his teenage years, these things start to show inside of him. When the youngster begins to notice those minute changes occurring within his body, the conflict begins.
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.
A child who is almost ten years old tells the reader in the first stanza that he gets nauseous just thinking about becoming ten. The illness is worse than any other childhood illness, including chicken pox, headaches, and stomachaches. In fact, he refers to the condition as “a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul” and “a disfiguring mumps of the psyche” in lines six and seven. The speaker does not have a single-sided ailment, and it is not a condition that will ultimately go away. He has been transformed forever; it has affected him so profoundly that he entire feeling sick. Collins’ diction should be noted throughout the poem, but especially in this opening verse. Words like “disfiguring” emphasize how much turning ten has changed the speaker. This achievement has damaged him irreparably.
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.
The speaker addresses another character in the poem directly in the second stanza, and it appears that this person is an adult or an authoritative figure who has already crossed this boundary. You tell me it’s too early to be looking back, the speaker says. According to the speaker, this is because the adult has forgotten what it’s like to be a young child. Collins creates a contrast between the ages of one and two to emphasize his thesis that an adult is simply too old to comprehend what the poem’s speaker is going through. According to the speaker, being one is simple at first, but when the child is old enough to understand more, that simplicity transforms into “beautiful intricacy.” The speaker then takes a look back at his own youth, claiming that since it happened recently, he still recalls everything about it. Collins tenderly demonstrates the depth of a child’s thinking and imagination. When he was four, seven, and nine years old, the speaker recalls not how he pretended to be a magician, soldier, or prince, but how he truly was each of those things. Collins’ inclusion of the child’s fantasies from when he was nine, only one year earlier, is equally intriguing. These dreams must—and will—come to an end as a result of something about becoming ten.
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.
Collins highlights the striking contrast between these stanzas and the previous one by beginning the first line of each with the word “but.” “But now I am mostly at the window,” he adds. The speaker returns to the present and describes how he frequently feels on the verge of something. He appears to only notice the bad things, like how serious the light looks on his treehouse and how his bicycle is leaning against the garage without any of its speedy pizazz. In addition, the speaker is observing everything from the inside, rather than outside, where the light and his bicycle are.
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.
The speaker understands that his days as a helpless youngster are ended and that only grief lay ahead. He will have to bid all his youthful dreams farewell and “walk around the universe” in his sneakers. It’s time to pass the threshold of ten, which is the first significant number that everyone turns.
The fifth and last stanza is likewise depressing and sad.
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 speaker contrasts his new self with his old self in the final stanza. He no longer thinks of himself as being unique and remarkable on the inside. He is aware that if he were to stumble, he would bleed instead of shining. Collins compares life to a sidewalk in this passage using a metaphor. Sidewalks are dull and hard, and they will cut you if you fall on them. The speaker is bleeding from his skinned knees after falling.