Thursday Short Poem: Collins’ “Death of the Hat”

I’ve posted some Billy Collins before; he has become one of America’s most popular and accessible contemporary poets, and that is surely no insult.

In honor of my new Tilley Hat, and all the men in my old family pictures wearing hats:

The Death of the Hat

Once every man wore a hat.

In the ashen newsreels,
the avenues of cities
are broad rivers flowing with hats.

The ballparks swelled
with thousands of strawhats,
brims and bands,
rows of men smoking
and cheering in shirtsleeves.

Hats were the law.
They went without saying.
You noticed a man without a hat in a crowd.

You bought them from Adams or Dobbs
who branded your initials in gold
on the inside band.

Trolleys crisscrossed the city.
Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor.
Men with hats gathered on the docks.

There was a person to block your hat
and a hatcheck girl to mind it

while you had a drink
or ate a steak with peas and a baked potato.
In your office stood a hat rack.

The day war was declared
everyone in the street was wearing a hat.
And they were wearing hats

when a ship loaded with men sank in the icy sea.

My father wore one to work every day
and returned home
carrying the evening paper,
the winter chill radiating from his overcoat.

But today we go bareheaded
into the winter streets,
stand hatless on frozen platforms.

Today the mailboxes on the roadside
and the spruce trees behind the house
wear cold white hats of snow.

Mice scurry from the stone walls at night
in their thin fur hats
to eat the birdseed that has spilled.

And now my father, after a life of work,
wears a hat of earth,
and on top of that,
a lighter one of cloud and sky–a hat of wind.

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0 thoughts on “Thursday Short Poem: Collins’ “Death of the Hat”

  1. I’ve never been able to shake the memory of a line in The Catcher in the Rye in which the young prostitute is described as being “hatless” — a distinction that seemed as unusual to me as “eyepatch-less.” I had to go back and revisualize every single other character as “hatted,” then, without exception, which seemed absurd. Ah, the past.

  2. Rachel, I love the Kennedy poem — I’d never thought of JFK as leading the transition away from hats…

    Stephanie, you’ve got a keen eye for Salinger… I’m off to look up that passage pronto…