Sailing Alone Around the Room

“Sailing Alone Around the Room” – New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002)

“Who flosses anyway?”, as the youth in the electronics store ad asks. “And who reads poetry?”

Probably not many of us. The world of poetry has largely been a wasteland since – if not The Waste Land, at east the loosey-goosey 1960s, when “Expressiveness” and “Sincerity” seemed to replace literary merit as the watchwords for attention and publication.  Consequently it has been difficult for the ordinary reader to wade through the fragmented prose, thesaurus-driven gush, and windy opacity of most published poetry to find something distinctive and appealing. There seems to be no shortage of would-be poets looking for an outlet, and it is with mixed feelings that one reads about the recent Lilly bequest of $100 million to the Poetry Book Society. It might only encourage such aspirants to write more.

However, there is a great difference between “writing poetry” and “being a poet”, as T.S. Eliot sagely pointed out to the young Stephen Spender. The attribute of “poet” (like that of “curmudgeon”) can be bestowed on one only by others. Billy Collins  – as in Billy Wordsworth – is definitely a poet: indeed, he is our current Poet Laureate. And lots of people read him. Sailing Alone Around the Room contains a representative sample of his poems from previous collections as well as some newer poems (none of which, incidentally, is taken from his latest volume, Nine Horses). Oddly, in my 2002 paperback edition, pages 115-146 have been printed twice.

You will have no doubt as to what these poems are “about”. Mr. Collins supplies unambiguous titles, and develops his imaginative themes with wit and humor. The language is accessible, the observations are clear and insightful, the images inventive and enduring. He has a knack for taking the everyday (a history lesson, an airline flight), and imbuing it with an existential quality, and a link to the eternal. Certain themes recur: lurking death, insomnia (two poems are so called), the craft of writing itself. You will find here gems (e.g. Introduction to Poetry; Picnic, Lightning; Jealousy) that will surely be anthologized decades hence.

Mr. Collins’s work is not instantly memorable; while you can often sense an underlying rhythm, he uses very little identifiable meter, and no obvious rhyming – no “daffodils” and “hills” to recite. And if the juxtaposition of the mundane and the epic occurs when the tone is inappropriate, we have merely bathos or burlesque – good light verse masquerading as poetry, as in Victoria’s Secret (which Mr. Collins doesn’t really know how to finish).   Moreover, his lines occasionally clunk along in an irritating way. The carved-up prose of Pinup (….. It seems that he has/ run into a problem and the job is going/ to cost more than he had said and take/ much longer than he thought) may be deliberate to contrast the truly prosaic speech of the car mechanic with the lyricism of the pinups, but similar lines elsewhere appear simply shoddy and unfinished. Some of the weaker items are merely self-indulgent or self-mocking (Sonnet; Workshop), as if Mr. Collins were able to churn this stuff out like Heine and his love-poems. After reading this book, go back to read Frost and Larkin to remind yourself of real craftsmanship.

Perhaps the duplicated poems in this volume will make it a collectors’ item one day. And that could be a great theme for Mr. Collins to develop: I am sure he is already composing On Rereading the Same Poem a Few Pages Later. I await his further volumes with fascination – and shall be wary of the predictable imitations. But if you don’t read any other book of poetry this year, read this.

Oh, by the way – I floss too.


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