Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1978
America’s interest in poetry seemed to soar in the 1980’s and 1990’s as poetry readings and festivals multiplied like coffee houses. In the great welter of poetic voices and styles that emerged during the period, Billy Collins especially seemed to capture public attention. Sailing Alone Around the Room arrives after a very public conflict between two of Collins’s publishers delayed the volume’s publication for over a year. The book selects poems from Collins’s last four books—The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), Questions About Angels (1991), The Art of Drowning (1995), and Picnic, Lightning (1998); the collection also contains twenty new poems. Named Poet Laureate of the United States for 2001-2002, Collins offers in Sailing Alone many poems which readers will recognize from his previous volumes, as well as from his appearances on National Public Radio shows such as Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion. The collection documents Collins’s thoroughly American voice in his choice of subjects as well as in his approach to them, surely a major reason for his popularity.
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Collins’s fondness for homely subjects and settings accounts in part for his accessibility. Those settings are well represented in this volume, beginning with the first poem, “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.” Here the hapless speaker is victim of a neighbor’s dog; its relentless barking has driven him nearly mad. At last he closes the windows and puts a Beethoven symphony on, “full blast,” but the dog continues to bark and in fact acts as if Beethoven had written “a part for barking dog” including a solo, “that endless coda that first established/ Beethoven as an innovative genius.” This poem illustrates a technique which Collins uses often— the poem which starts in the mundane and spins out into fantasy.
Barking dogs aside, Collins’s poems frequently celebrate the joys of the mundane—the pleasures of the garden, a cup of tea, sun falling across a familiar desk. That is the theme of “Tuesday, June 4, 1991” in which Collins imagines himself to be “the secretary to the morning whose only/ responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation . . . .” He compares himself to a court stenographer or to Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth century English diarist who faithfully recorded all the events of his life, from quarrels with his wife to the great fire which leveled central London. Here Collins notes the arrival of the painter, the antics of the kitten, the state of the garden’s flowers; he concludes that this record will be even better if it begins at dawn tomorrow, when the dawn goddess Aurora will greet him with “a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.” This is the basic material of our lives, Collins implies, and it is worth recording. Like the good dinner which makes the subject of “Osso Buco,” the pleasures of ordinary life are “something you don’t hear about much in poetry,” which more usually deals with suffering. The final image of “Osso Buco” pictures the speaker slipping in sleep down into the very marrow of the earth, the only world we know. In the fantasy “Shoveling Snow With Buddha,” the speaker shovels the driveway and chatters about the delights of the experience while Buddha, his helper, maintains a contemplative silence until near the end, when he requests a game of cards when the job is done, and the speaker imagines them drinking hot chocolate and playing cards while their snowy boots drip on the mat.
An important part of Collins’s celebration focuses on music and especially on jazz and its performers. “Questions About Angels” opens with a series of whimsical questions which Collins suggests never get asked about angels—their diet, what they think about, the fabric of their clothes. Instead, he says, people insist on asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; the answer, he says, is one—a single female angel whom he pictures as a “dancing alone in her stocking feet ” to the music of a jazz combo.
As heavenly music, jazz naturally has the power to move its human listeners. In “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of Three Blind Mice,’” the speaker begins with some questions about the likelihood of three mice burdened with the same disability; “was it a common accident?” he wonders, and how did they happen to find each other, let alone the farmer’s wife? The picture of the three hapless mice, sightless and tailless, may bring tears to the speaker’s eyes, although the onion he is now chopping may have caused the tears or—and now the reader recognizes the poem’s serious theme—the tears may rise from Blakey’s music, or perhaps from Frankie Hubbard’s mournful trumpet on the next cut.
The reason for the power of jazz to move the listener is examined in “Nightclub,” in which Collins speculates, first humorously and then seriously, about the possible variants for the lyrics of the standard café singer’s song; “I have never heard anyone sing/ I am so beautiful/ and you are a fool to be in love with me.” He similarly rejects other possible but unlikely variations. The inspiration for this speculation is a recording by Johnny Hartman. Collins’s meditation suggests that the music (like poetry) has the power to transform ordinary human foolishness into beauty.
Much about Collins’s poetry seems to cultivate a tone that is intentionally nonpoetic, at least in the popular sense. A reader whose idea of poetry stems from a high school exposure to the nineteenth century English poet William Wordsworth will find Collins a great contrast. Collins’s diction is simple; his syntax is direct; many of his subjects are familiar territory to most readers. These qualities go far to account for his popularity, but another of Collins’s favorite subjects is poetry itself along with other literary subjects such as books and reading.
“Introduction to Poetry” expresses Collins’s desire that readers not treat his poems as puzzles to be solved but as friendly communications from poet to reader. Instead, he says, some readers (who sound a little like college freshmen) want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.” In “Workshop,” the would-be poets of the writers’ workshop make a sort of opposite number to the readers in “Introduction,” and Collins takes a friendly jab at their clichés. “Maybe it’s just me. . .” the workshopper begins, and goes on to critique a poem that gives him “a very powerful sense of something,” although he never manages to name what that something is.
Collins spends part of his days teaching literature and often praises books, as in the poem “Books” in which he begins by describing a university library at night and goes on to trace his own history of reading. At last the poem offers a metaphor from “Hansel and Gretel”; their breadcrumbs become the words which lead the readers into the story to hear the voices of the lost children. In “First Reader,” however, Collins reminds readers that as children learn to interpret the words under the cheery pictures of Dick and Jane in the elementary readers, they are also learning to let books substitute for their own observations in interpreting the world.
Collins’s humor is one of his most appealing features, and this collection offers a full sampling. Often his humor rises from the contrast between the ordinary world and a fantastic vision it can inspire. A typical example is “Insomnia,” where to fall asleep the speaker counts “all the sheep in the world”; then he goes on to count every other type of animal, from snail to wildebeest. The resulting sleep brings on a dream about Noah’s ark and that dream leaves the dreamer afloat on waves where colorful fish are leaping fences.
Irony is often an element in Collins’s humor. In “To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now,” disparity occurs between what the reader might logically expect from the ponderous title and the poem’s actual message to those far-off readers—that wet dogs will be no more welcome in the pubs of the future than they are today. “Nostalgia” pokes gentle fun at the present age’s willingness to romanticize the past, its fashions and dances. “Where has the summer of 1572 gone?” the speaker asks, and the 1790’s and even 1901. Always the past looks better than now, and he concludes that even the unknown future may outshine the present moment .
“Forgetfulness” illustrates Collins’s skill with metaphors which, though simple and often funny, also capture the subject at hand. In this poem Collins is talking about the sort of memory lapses associated with middle age; dozens of ordinary facts (authors, titles, even plots ) escape the boundaries of memory as if they had “decided to retire to . . . a little fishing village where there are no phones.” The sufferer struggles to remember something that has “floated away down a dark mythological river,” leaving the forgetful one detached even from the moon in love poems he once had memorized.
Among the twenty new poems in this collection, Collins’s fans will recognize some of their favorite Collins modes. “Dharma” celebrates the attitudes of the family dog; “Snow Day” and “Pavilion” celebrate household scenes. Jazz is here along with fantasy and folk tales (with an additional meditation on the peasant who receives three wishes). Several poems address the problems of writing poetry. The last two poems offer a new sort of surprise. In “The Iron Bridge” Collins creates a brief memoir of his mother, born the year before the bridge in question was built. Collins thinks of her infancy and then of her death in 1997, using the dive and underwater flight of the cormorant as a metaphor for her departure into “some boundless province.” Despite the poems filled with books and jazz and family pets and tea, Collins typically keeps a measure of distance between himself and his reader. Indeed, he has expressed distrust of highly personal poetry on the grounds that it substitutes events from the poet’s life for the more universal understandings which should be the poet’s goal. “Iron Bridge” closes that distance in a way that is perhaps the more moving because it is so rare. A similar, though more playful, expression is in the last poem of the collection, “The Flight of the Reader,” in which Collins speculates on what keeps his readers with him and what he will do without them on the day they depart, finally suggesting first that he will not mind being alone again and then, ironically, admitting that he will mind indeed.
Billy Collins’s critics have sometimes implied that his accessibility makes him a lightweight, as if to be worthy poems must also be dense. Critics have also accused him of repeating himself by repeating his techniques. Both charges have a degree of justice. Collins’s poems do not usually address extremely complex subjects, and he approaches them from a limited number of directions. (He refers to both of these issues in “The Flight of the Reader.”) Collins, however, can never be accused of securing his popularity by pandering to public fondness for cliché and sentimentality. Instead, he has given American readers a poetry written in their own language, a poetry which lets them, as he requested in “Introduction to Poetry,” “walk inside the poem’s room/ and feel the wall for a light switch.” In Collins’s poetry, as this volume shows, the light switch is always available and the room always welcomes its visitors.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (August, 2001): 2078.
Library Journal 126 (September 1, 2001): 184.
The New York Times, October 8, 2001, p. E7.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (September 23, 2001): 10.
Publishers Weekly 248 (June 18, 2001): 78.