Here is an analysis of a poem by American poet Billy Collins called On Turning Ten. This is a coming-of-age poem in which the speaker, a child who is turning ten, is realizing that he is no longer a young child, and he is beginning to comprehend that life is filled with heartache and sorrow, from which up to this point he has been somewhat shielded. Billy Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and he holds several impressive professor positions at various colleges in the United States. While much of his poetry is known for its humor, Collins’ poetry, such as On Turning Ten, also tackles serious themes. His work is read around the world, but he is most beloved in his home country and his home state of New York, where he served as poet laureate from 2004 until 2006. Billy Collins’ poem, On Turning Ten, can be read in full here.
On Turning Ten Poem Summary
This is a very melancholy poem. The speaker, a child who is turning ten in the near future, discusses his feelings on going from being in the single digits to double. He feels as if he has a sickness of his soul when thinking about turning ten, and he realizes the pain and heartache that surely awaits him now that he is mature. An adult to whom the speaker is close, presumably his parent, tells the speaker that he is too young to be so retrospective, that he should enjoy his childhood still. However, the speaker confesses that this is impossible: he now sees the world differently than he once did in his younger years.
Breakdown Analysis of On Turning Ten
The poem’s title is especially important to this poem, as the reader would have no idea about which the speaker was talking. It has a feel of opening in medias res, where the action of the poem has already started to occur before the speaker started to describe the situation. The opening two lines say, “The whole idea of it makes me feel/like I’m coming down with something…” The poem is broken into five stanzas of varying length, and Collins utilizes free verse in his poetry. It is written in the style of stream of consciousness, where the speaker’s thoughts, while united in the theme of turning ten, seem to flow from one to the next.
The beauty of this poem is in the imagery Collins so beautifully writes. For anyone who has reached a particular age in their lives, it is very easy to empathize with the speaker, and the poem forces the reader to take an introspective look at his or her own life and memories of growing up.
In the first stanza, the speaker, an almost-ten-year-old child, informs the reader that he feels sick when thinking of turning ten. The sickness is worse than any other childhood ailment: worse than a stomachache, headaches, or even the chicken pox. In fact, in lines six and seven, he calls the illness “a mumps of the psyche” and “a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.” This is not an illness that only affects one part of the speaker, nor is it something that will eventually go away. It has touched him so deeply that his entire soul feels sick—he has permanently changed. It is important to note Collins’ diction throughout the poem, but particularly in this first stanza. Words such as “disfiguring” highlight the magnitude in which turning ten has affected the speaker. He will forever be wounded from this milestone.
In the second stanza, the speaker talks directly to someone else in the poem, and it seems as though it is an adult or authority figure who has already crossed this threshold. The speaker says, “You tell me it is too early to be looking back.” The speaker reasons that this is due to the fact that the adult has forgotten what it is like to be a small child.
Collins sets up a dichotomy between being one and two to further his point that a grown-up cannot possibly understand what the poem’s speaker is experiencing; the adult is simply far too old. The speaker argues that there is a simplicity of being one, but that simplicity changes to “beautiful complexity” when the child turns to: he or she is able to comprehend more. The speaker then reflects back on his own childhood, saying that because it was not long ago, he remembers everything.
Collins sweetly shows the complexity of a child’s mind and imagination. The speaker remembers not how he pretended to be a wizard or soldier or prince, but how he actually was those things at the ages of four and seven, and nine. It is also interesting that Collins includes the fantasies of the child when he was nine, just one year earlier. There is something about turning ten that means these dreams must—and will—come to an end.
The third stanza is in stark contrast to the second, and the Collins signifies this change by starting the first line with “but.” He writes, “But now I am mostly at the window…” The speaker takes us back to the present and how he is feeling on the cusp of ten. He seems to see only the negative: the way the light on his tree house looks so serious, and the way his bicycle leans against the garage with all of its speed pizazz gone. The speaker is also watching all of this occur from inside, as opposed to outside where the light and his bicycle are.
The speaker realizes that his days as an innocent child are over: all that lies ahead is sadness. He will have to “walk through the universe” in his sneakers and say goodbye to all of his childish fantasies. Ten is the first big number a person turns, and it is time to cross that threshold.
The fifth and final stanza is also bleak and melancholy.
In this stanza, the speaker juxtaposes his old self with the new. No longer does he believe that he is different and extraordinary on the inside. He now knows that if he were to fall, he would bleed, not shine. Collins also uses a metaphor here, comparing life to a sidewalk. Sidewalks are hard and dull, and they will cut someone if they fall. The speaker has fallen, has skinned his knees, and he is bleeding.
Historical Analysis of On Turning Ten
Collins included On Turning Ten in his book of poetry called The Art of Drowning, which was published in 1995. This collection of poems tends to dwell on the gloomy and seriousness of life, which means On Turning Ten fits right in. The book itself got its title from one of the poems included in the book. This poem is about a man reflecting on his life while drowning. For a special treat and to get a better glimpse of Billy Collins, watch his TedTalk, seen here: