‘The Best Cigarette’ by Billy Collins is a four stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains three lines, the second: nine, the third: twelve, and the fourth: thirteen. Collins chose to write this poem in free verse, this means that it does not have a pattern of rhyme or rhythm. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is without structure. There are still moments of full and half rhyme as well as a number of poetic techniques the poet makes use of.
Half rhyme, also known as slant rhyme, can be seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. One great example is “miss” and “tips” in the first stanza. These two words, along with “ships” that follows in the next line, make use of the same short “i” sound. Another example is in the third stanza with the ending words “mornings” and “going”.
One of the most important, and easy to spot, techniques used in ‘The Best Cigarette’ is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “single ship” in the second stanza and “steam” and “study” in the fourth.
Another important technique that is commonly used within poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. The first line provides a great example as a reader has to skim down to the second, and then third, to find out what “many” is referring to.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Best Cigarette
The poem begins with the speaker describing how there are many cigarettes he misses, but there are some that are more important than others. He goes through a number of examples, explaining that cigarettes after dinner, sex and swimming are some of the most poignant in his mind.
The third and fourth stanzas are dedicated to the experiences with smoking he misses the most. He discusses how he’d always have coffee and a cigarette while writing, if he thought it was going well.
Analysis of The Best Cigarette
In the first stanza of ‘The Best Cigarette’ the speaker begins by stating that there are “many“ that he misses. At this point, a reader has to guess, based on context clues, what “many“ might refer to. With the information provided in the title, one should come to a reasonable conclusion that he is referring to cigarettes. In the next two lines, that finish off the first stanza, this prediction is verified. The speaker states that his last cigarette was “sent“ out of his “car window… One night, years ago“. Its been a long time since he smoked, and as he stated in the first line, there are many moments he misses.
The second stanza of ‘The Best Cigarette’ is a bit longer, stretching to nine lines. In the section he goes through a number of the cigarettes, and the occasions associated with them, that he misses. The first, he refers to as “the Herald one“. He adds onto the first line an additional description about this kind of cigarette, that “of course“ he would miss it. It is obvious, that the “after sex“ cigarette is one that would frequently haunt his mind.
What is interesting about this poem, and makes it relatable to more than those who engage in the habit of smoking, are the occasions and the emotional connections. For example, in this first “heralded” cigarette, the speaker describes that it is not the act of smoking that he misses, but the connection between the” to glowing tips”. After the physical joining of bodies, the ritual smoking is another form of unity. The two disparate cigarettes come together to form “the lights of a single ship”.
He goes on, informing the reader that another kind of cigarette he misses is the one that comes at the “end of a long dinner“. It is an anticipatory cigarette, meaning it fills the space between dinner and the “wine to come“. Again, the cigarette is representative of all the dinners the speaker engaged in, and the simple moments of transition. He presents an interesting image at the end of this example, that of a “smoke ring coasting into the chandelier“.
The final example is a cigarette the speaker would indulge in after swimming “on a white beach“. He recalls how he could hold the cigarette in still wet fingers and enjoy this small pleasure after exerting physical effort.
The third stanza goes up to twelve lines. Now, the speaker is reflecting on what it means to look back on his life and know that in the future these moments will never again be the same. With the absence of the cigarette, something that was his own choice, and certainly a choice for the better, he will be missing what used to be a crucial part of his life.
He thinks on his previous “punctuations / of flame and gesture” and feels bittersweet. But, the memories he has conveyed so far are nothing compared to the cigarette related moments he misses the most.
The rest of this stanza, and the one that follows, describe how the speaker, as a writer, would “have a little something going“. He would be writing productively and feeling as though he was making real progress toward something important. In this emotionally and mentally satisfying state, as well as with the pleasant sun coming in through his windows and music playing in the background, he would fetch a cigarette. It would come alongside coffee from the kitchen. The two sensations, that of drinking coffee and smoking, would mix together satisfactorily.
The fourth stanza of “the best cigarette” is the longest, stretching out to thirteen lines. Somewhat humorously Collin’s speaker describes himself in these moments of history as “his own locomotive”. The cigarette smoke would trail behind him as he walked back to his writing desk. He recalls the puffs of smoke in the air and how they seemed to him then, and still seem now to be “indicators of progress / science and industry and thought”.
Once again, as was the case and the previous examples in the second stanza, it is not the cigarette itself that is important to the speaker, but the state of mind to which it is related. That kind of cigarette, the one that marks artistic progress, was the speaker states, the best. In the final lines of this poem Collins continues the imagery of trains and steam.
He describes moving steadily back into his study and feeling full of “vaporous hope“. The cigarette, and its related parts, which are represented as the functions of a steam engine, are intimately connected to the speaker’s contentment. They allow him to return to his study, and face “all the words in parallel lines“ on the page, ready to forge ahead and make even greater progress in his written endeavours.