What is the significance of the names in Billy Collins’ poem “The Names”?

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ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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“The Names” by Billy Collins seems to be an homage to those who sacrificed their lives, peace of mind, health or a myriad of other things in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Written on the anniversary of the attacks, the names in the poem emphasize the very nature of America--this melting pot society. The names are used to draw the reader in order to personalize the sentiment (not sentimentality) expressed in the poem. A year after the attack, Billy Collins uses the names to bring once again to the forefront things that might be dimming in the American psyche. Perhaps it is his effort to recognize and to prevent  “names [being] wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.”

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samcestmoi | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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In “The Names,” our speaker is reflecting on all the people who were victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.  Collins speaks to the everlasting impact of this event by suggesting that these names are inscribed into every facet of life and nature – all that endures:  “Names printed on the ceiling of the night…Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.”  And indeed he gives a name for every letter of the alphabet, A through Z, with “X stand[ing], if it can, for the ones unfound.”  This is a further symbol of the ubiquity of the effects and the thoroughness of the tragedy; they stretch from the very beginning to the very end, they touch every element across the entire spectrum of humanity.  Nothing and no one was left untouched, unaffected, by the unwitting sacrifice of the victims.

And as “A boy on a lake lifts his oars./A woman by a window puts a match to a candle” – as life goes on – these names will be remembered in memoriam,

One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.

Thanks to these names, to their lives, to their lives lost, those living on will be reminded – will learn from the tragedy, will feel sorrow and strive for peace – the peace of “a green field.”  The names are symbols, unforgettable, sobering, and inspiring.

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