The Meaning of “The Names”

Billy Collins was born in 1941 in New York City. He was a Professor at Lehamn College for thirty years. “He is also a writer-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College and served a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library. ( Billy Collins is an American original, a metaphysical poet with a funny bone and a sly questioning intelligence. He is an ironist of the void and his poems–witty, playful, and beautifully turned–bump up against the deepest human mysteries. (

The poem, “The Names,” by Billy Collins brings about truth and honesty for the people who perished in the September 11th attacks on America. Billy Collins composed a poem that reminds us of that horrid day and the people who we lost. The author uses imagery, metaphors, and allegory to describe the thoughts and remembrance of that day. He uses the names of the victims of September 11th, so that we can re-visualize that day. The poem, “The Names” has a deep meaning to anyone who was directly affected by the September 11th attacks on America. He captures the words and creates a memory for those who perished during this time. Using the alphabet he uses one letter to symbolize each name of the victims. He chooses one name to represent each letter. The letters become synonymous with the names themselves.

In June 2001, Billy Collins was appointed United States Poet Laureate for the years 2001-2003. Dr. Billington, Librarian of Congress said, «Billy Collins’ poetry is widely accessible. He writes in an original way about all manner of ordinary things and situations with both humor and a surprising contemplative twist.” The author has come to the realization that the number of people killed during these attacks is impossible for us to remember. He devises a poem where he goes in alphabetical order to capture how many people have passed. The author uses words of imagery to describe how he feels. In the first stanza he says, “Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night. / A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze” (1-2). Using the word night he is letting us know that his feelings of this time are dark, yet the word breeze lets us know we should move on and go with the wind. By using one name per letter, the author is explaining to the reader that he realizes the number of people who have died, but it is impossible to write each name down. The names are slipping through our fingers, and we’re forgetting how many have died. In the fourth stanza the author is explaining how we are seeing names everywhere around us.

“Names written in the air/and stitched onto the cloth of the day/A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox/Monogram on a torn shirt.” (15-20).

During this time, posters were being made, t-shirts, signs, and other forms of communication to show who people were looking for. By saying the names are around us by being in the air, on the cloth, or a photograph he is expressing that we were surrounded by victims. The people that were missing were being announced on TV and in the news. The media was capturing families of victims on the side of the roads begging for assistance.

An allegory is a narrative where similarities between the narratives are used symbolically to suggest something else. The author uses allegory to by using the letters of the alphabet to represent each victim. He even finds a letter for the people unaccounted for. Many people went uncounted for, in which the poet uses the letter X to describe. “let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound” (42).

The author ends the poem with “So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart” (55). He is reminding his readers, which at the first reading of this poem, was Congress that there were so many names of people who died during this time. A metaphor is a word or phrase that describes one thing being used to describe another By saying barely room he is letting us know that the number of victims is just so many. He wants us not to forget them, and to always remember this tragedy in our country. On the anniversary of September 11, this poem shall be read to Congress. The government wants use to believe that because of these attacks and our war back, that we are a stronger America. Billy Collins takes away from the message of war and focus’s on what September 11th was about and whom it affected. It didn’t just affect the victims and the government; it affected every United States citizen. Ask anyone what they were doing that day, and they know.

In closing, this poem is to remind us that we are here and that we survived. It brings upon a sense of the tremendous amount of citizens, firemen, and police officers that were killed during this time. It tells us to remember within our heart that day and those who died. It asks us never to forget. It calms us to say I remember and so can you.

Works Cited

Kennedy, X.J. and Dana Gioia. An Introduction to Poetry. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.
Library Media Specialist Billy Collins, The Names.”


3 thoughts on “The Meaning of “The Names”

  1. hey i really liked the explanation it helped a lot i am using this poem currently in a project for school

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