Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems
by Billy Collins
A review by Adam Kirsch
The Associated Press report of Billy Collins's appointment as poet laureate
in June was a document of startling philistinism. Under the headline "Popular
Poet Named U.S. Laureate," it began: "Billy Collins, a popular poet who
makes money at the job, is becoming the 11th U.S. poet laureate....Collins
can collect $2,000 for a single reading of his poetry and Random House
has reportedly offered him a publishing contract of at least $100,000
for three books....His one-year post as laureate will net him a $35,000
salary, a Washington office at the Library of Congress and few duties
except to give more readings." Nor does Collins's new publisher hesitate
to beat the drum. The dust jacket of Sailing Alone Around the Room
announces that Collins's "last three collections of poems have broken
sales records for poetry." All of this man-bites-dog astonishment condescends
to poetry, where such small sums count as fortunes. Yet the very existence
of a "popular poet" is reassuring for an art seemingly doomed to ivory-tower
Collins's verse makes clear, however, that his ideal reader is by no
means the man on the street. He (or she) is well-educated and well-read,
probably an English major, maybe even an M.F.A., who can recognize the
surprisingly wide range of reference in Collins's poems: Wordsworth, Stevens,
and Frost, Izaak Walton and Duns Scotus, Nick Adams and Emma Bovary. Though
Collins often borrows the tones and the strategies of stand-up comedy,
his poetry is not all jokes. In fact, he writes out, in a large and babyish
hand, one of the major poetic scripts of our time: the one that finds
transcendence in the ordinary, and sings hymns to the banal.
The most obvious thing to say about Collins's poetry is that it is funny,
in an accessible and immediately familiar way. But his true poetic gift
is something more than a sense of humor; it is a genuine, if often debased,
wit. Wit is the yoking together of heterogeneous things, and when it is
properly used it has an unsettling power. It forces hostile ideas and
associations into a disturbing intimacy: Donne's "bracelet of bright hair
around the bone," Eliot's "fear in a handful of dust." And while Collins's
angle of vision is never genuinely strange, it is skewed just enough to
In "Walking Across the Atlantic," he imagines "what/this must look like
to the fish below,/the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing" — and
this precise image does jolt us into seeing from below. Conversely, "The
Dead" tries to look down from above: "They watch the tops of our heads
moving below on earth,/And when we lie down in a field or on a couch.../
they think we are looking back at them." In "The Norton Anthology of English
Literature," Collins seizes on the "parentheses that are used to embrace
our lives,/as if we were afterthoughts dropped into a long sentence."
These are moments of modest but genuine vitality, in which our normal
mode of thought and vision is disrupted, and they are gratifyingly frequent
in Collins's poetry.
The basis of such wit is taking words literally, seizing on dead phrases
and familiar idioms and attending to what they really say. "Walking on
water" is a cliche that comes to life when Collins adopts the fish's-eye
view and notices the feet, appearing and disappearing on the surface.
At its most powerful, this kind of wit is truly creative: if, as Emerson
said, every word began life as a metaphor, wit resurrects the metaphor
hiding in ordinary words. When Hamlet speaks of the sepulcher's "ponderous
and marble jaws," the word "ponderous" is not abstract but weighty, tangible.
True wit startles by attending to the relations of words to things; but
it is closely related to mere punning, which is interested only in the
relations of words to other words. Donne and Shakespeare were both adept
at this lower form:
I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand or move; if he say true, he lies.
The sort of thing that we find in Donne's epigram is pleasant in small
doses, and it can seem the fine excess of an alert linguistic intelligence.
But it is finally of limited interest because it calls attention not to
the world, but to the way we speak about the world; it points to the foolish
defects of language, which uses the one word "lies" for two different
things. To deal only in punning wit even indicates an essential falsehood
in the poet's view of his art, as though language were only interesting
when it is defective, never when it is a tool of discovery. It is a way
of discouraging linguistic curiosity and verbal ambition, without which
there is no greatness in poetry.
This may be too grave a charge to bring against Billy Collins, who is
mainly interested in entertainment. But there is no doubt that Collins's
fondness for a certain kind of joke is of a piece with his work's deliberate
praise of triviality and laziness. While he seldom makes actual puns,
his wit is of the punning kind: he makes idioms ridiculous through inflation,
hyperbole, and repetition. A good example is "Schoolsville," from his
book The Apple That Astonished Paris, which appeared in 1988. The
poem begins with a cliche: "I realize the number of students I have taught/is
enough to populate a small town." But then, taking the phrase literally,
he goes on to imagine that town:
The population ages but never graduates....
Their grades are sewn into their clothes
like references to Hawthorne.
The A's stroll along with other A's.
The D's honk whenever they pass another D.
The ingenuity of the poem lies in extrapolating each feature of school
life into the life of the town. And there is no theoretical limit to the
number of features that could be seized upon: one can imagine a poem like
this going on for pages, one joke after another. Of course, the joke would
wear thin eventually, and a part of Collins's talent is knowing when to
stop. His poems are generally a page long, seldom more than two. But the
very easiness of the joke suggests its limitation: it is funny only because
of that initial phrase, "enough to populate a small town." Once we remind
ourselves that the target of the joke is merely an expression, the piling
up of new details begins to seem a poor use of Collins's wit.
Most of Collins's poems have this same additive logic: they are riffs
on an initial category-mistake. What if you described the human heart
in the language of a museum catalog? Then you would get "My Heart":
It has a bronze covering inlaid with silver,
the sides are decorated with openwork zoomorphic
panels depicting events in the history
of an unknown religion.
The convoluted top-piece shows a high
level of relief articulation....
And what if you applied the pop-culture nostalgia for recent decades—the
1970s, the 1950s—to the distant past? That is the joke, repeated at least
four times, of "Nostalgia":
Remember the 1340s?
We were doing a dance
called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the
color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of
those capes that were
There is a similar technique at work in a different kind of Collins poem,
of which "Victoria's Secret" is a good example. Here the humor lies in
a more subtle kind of mistake, taking the non-language of advertising
as though it were real communication:
The one on the facing page, however,
who looks at me over her bare shoulder,
cannot hide the shadow of annoyance in her brow.
You have interrupted me,
she seems to be saying,
with your coughing and your loud music.
Now please leave me alone;
let me finish whatever it was I was doing
in my organza-trimmed
whisperweight camisole with
keyhole closure and point d'esprit mesh back.
Most obviously, the joke is on the foolish, artificial language of the
catalog, which Collins quotes or parodies plentifully in the poem. This
kind of deadpan repetition of an absurdity is the key ingredient of contemporary
comedy — it is what is now known as irony, to both its enemies and its
friends. But more than the language is treated ironically here; the very
idea that the model "seems to be saying" anything is a similar irony,
because it pretends to take the model seriously as an actual human being,
when we know that she is merely a commodity, a simulacrum. And perhaps
writing a poem about the Victoria's Secret catalog is itself ironic in
just the same way: it means paying attention, a traditionally serious
and complex form of attention, to something mindless and evanescent.
This kind of irony serves a necessary function when it comes to warding
off the stupidity of mass culture. It is a way for a sophisticated person
to acknowledge that he lives among texts and images — such as the Victoria's
Secret catalog — with a palpable design upon him, and to signal that he
has not succumbed to that design. The snobbish implication of such irony
is that there are other people, less sophisticated people, who have succumbed.
All of this is an accustomed, though ambiguous, part of contemporary culture.
What makes it objectionable in Billy Collins's poetry is that the target
of his belittling, deadpan, superior humor is not only popular culture,
but high culture, especially poetry. He has come to lift the burden of
seriousness from the shoulders of those who still bear it. His work is
aimed at that sizable (though proportionally quite small) population that
is familiar enough with literature to have grown jaded about it. But it
is impossible, really, to grow jaded about literature, or culture, or
history, or spiritual aspiration, all of which are slated for drowning
in the cold bath of Collins's irony. One can only fail to be equal to
them, and disguise one's failure as condescension.
To see how Collins's small, inoffensive jokes imperceptibly grow into
large and offensive ones, consider "Earthling":
You have probably come across
those scales in planetariums
that tell you how much you
would weigh on other planets.
You have noticed the fat ones
lingering on the Mars scale
and the emaciated slowing up
the line for Neptune.
As a creature of average weight,
I fail to see the attraction....
How much better to step onto
the simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity,
157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.
The initial joke — fat and thin people reach a normal weight by going
to other planets — shades into something more like a philosophical statement
in defense of earthliness, of literal mundaneness. Life on earth is "better"
because it is "happy" and "familiar": these are minimal terms, animal
terms, suggesting that the important human needs are simple and easily
sated. More, they sound like a wise resignation, as though Collins has
refused a Luciferian temptation to go too far from home.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, and in other contexts
it has a certain integrity. But in Collins it sounds rather too much like
"there's no place like home," which is the motto not of those who return
but of those who never leave. And very many of his poems are in praise
of effortlessness, in the sense of declining to make an effort. Take "Osso
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach —
something you don't hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest....
Collins's praise for the pleasures of being lazy, tired, and well-fed
is natural enough. What is strange is to suggest that these pleasures
are virtues, as though there were something especially meritorious about
having eaten a good dinner. But the note of self-congratulation here is
unmistakable — the sly use of "citizen" sounds it — and Collins points to
its source: it is that such simple sensual pleasures are "something you
don't hear much about in poetry." Specifically, it is something you don't
hear much about in modern poetry, which has been strongly anti-bourgeois.
Rhetorically, then, Collins ranges himself on the side of the reader against
"poetry," which doesn't want him to enjoy his dinner. This way, poet and
reader can have both sensual pleasure and self-esteem; they can have their
osso buco and eat it, too.
Not taking poetry too seriously is a point of pride for Collins, as in
"Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey":
I was here before, a long time ago,
and now I am here again
is an observation that occurs in poetry
as frequently as rain occurs in life.
The fellow may be gazing
over an English landscape,
hillsides dotted with sheep,
a row of tall trees topping the downs....
But the feeling is always the same.
It was better the first time.
This time is not nearly as good.
I'm not feeling as chipper as I did back then.
Here we see pop-culture irony returning with a vengeance, except this
time its target is one of the most famous poems in English. Collins's
scorn is now directed at Wordsworth, who wrote at Tintern Abbey of the
loss of his childish feeling for nature:
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. — That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures.
Those are some of the most canonical lines in English poetry because
they express the absolute tragedy of time passing, not sententiously and
abstractly, but in a truly artistic way, combining the local and the universal.
Just the phrase "a remoter charm by thought supplied" contains a whole
psychology of childhood and adulthood. Yet this is the poet Collins addresses
as a mere whiner, a "fellow" who complains of not feeling "chipper."
We recognize the same irony previously used to belittle the Victoria's
Secret catalog: the deadpan repetition of Wordsworth's ideas, with the
clear implication that no one could possibly take such things seriously.
Yet it is clearly not the case that Collins is a garden-variety philistine,
for whom poetry is just a bunch of nonsense, and there's an end to it.
We know that he is, in fact, a poet himself.
So what Collins is really expressing is a discomfort peculiar to the
educated: a guilty impatience with the demands of culture. They have read
Wordsworth, probably in college; they have an ingrained sense that literature
is worthy; but they do not have the time and the patience for a genuine
encounter with a work of art. Poems such as "Tintern Abbey" exert a pressure
and make a demand, which we are often unable to meet; they expose our
distractedness and our triviality. The guilt of such a failure can be
dealt with in two ways: it can be acknowledged as legitimate, and spur
us to more serious reading in the future; or it can be illegitimately
turned back on the work of art that induced it. Collins's irony at Wordsworth's
expense is such an act of self-defense.
That irony finds an even bigger target in "The Death of Allegory":
I am wondering what became of all those
that used to pose, robed and statuesque, in paintings
and parade about on the pages of the Renaissance
displaying their capital letters like license
They are all retired now, consigned to a Florida for
Justice is there standing by an open refrigerator.
Valor lies in bed listening to the rain....
Even if you called them back, there are no places left
for them to go, no Garden of Mirth or Bower of Bliss.
The Valley of Forgiveness is lined with condominiums
and chain saws are howling in the Forest of Despair.
Here on the table near the window is
a vase of peonies
and next to it black binoculars and a money clip,
exactly the kind of thing we now prefer,
objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case,
themselves and nothing more, a wheelbarrow,
an empty mailbox, a razor blade resting in a glass ashtray....
The problem that Collins approaches here is one of the central concerns
of twentieth-century poetry: "what to make of a diminished thing," as
Frost put it, or Stevens's effort to see "nothing that is not there."
Allegory, which was merely antique in the nineteenth century, became a
vital problem for the modernist poets because it is a system that guarantees
meanings, thus a standing challenge in a time when meanings are relative
or absent. Eliot in particular tried to make modern readers understand
that Dante's Christian allegory is not a childish algebra, but a style
of thought now beyond our power.
In Collins's poem, this history and this challenge are drained of tension
and urgency, and reduced to another chunk of irony. Allegorical figures
such as Truth and Valor are just "capital letters" like those found on
license plates: mere typographical conventions. Once they "paraded about"
in an unforgivable display of conceit, but now they are safely ridiculous,
"standing by an open refrigerator" in an old-age home. Our littleness
is assuaged by "objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case," which
mean nothing larger than themselves; we can even pride ourselves on our
realism. Again, Collins is out to assure us that we need not take the
past and its ambitions too seriously.
This idea escapes the charge of mere philistinism because poets, for
the last fifty years or more, have been saying something similar. For
many serious minds, the best response to the death of religion has been
to donate its dignity to the secular world. The passionate observation
of the ordinary is a way to endow it with the significance it otherwise
lacks. Thus Czeslaw Milosz in "One More Day":
The voices of birds outside the window when they greet
And iridescent stripes of light blazing on the floor,
Or the horizon with a wavy line where the peach-colored sky
and the dark-blue mountains meet.
Or the architecture of a tree, the slimness of a column crowned
All that, hasn't it been invoked for centuries
As a mystery which, in one instant, will be suddenly revealed?
Those "objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case" are transformed,
through intent meditation, into a mystery. The idea is not new, of course—it
is what Auden called the "Vision of Dame Kind," and found characteristic
of northern European, Protestant mystics; but it has found new uses in
our time. These uses are mainly reactive. Against the death of religion,
it asserts the holiness of common things; against the failure of allegory,
it asserts the intelligibility of nature; against the violence of totalizing
ideology, it asserts the dignity of the particular. But this means that
all these contexts must be borne in mind for such secular piety to have
integrity. Poets such as Milosz, and his compatriot Adam Zagajewski, arrive
at their simplicity through complexity.
So there is simplicity and there is simplicity. Collins offers only simplification.
He makes bare assertions as if they were hard-won illuminations. Milosz,
in his poem "Secretaries," declared that "I am no more than a secretary
of the invisible thing/That is dictated to me and a few others." This
is a translation of the concept of inspiration into modern secular terms.
Collins uses a deceptively similar metaphor in "Tuesday, June 4, 1991":
By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.
It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.
I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation....
If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,
all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.
This, too, is bowing down before the concrete and the ordinary. But there
is nothing dialectical about Collins's love of trivia; it is precisely
the lack of difficulty, the loss of mentality, that appeals to him in
the role of stenographer. It is not the luminosity of the homely, but
its homeliness, that he celebrates. The clematis and the bricks are not
the occasion of epiphany; they are simply there, "things you would expect
to find." All the poet has to do is affirm that, indeed, they are there;
to write down what happens to happen, "an unpaid but contented amanuensis."
The quality of Collins's attention is not mystically intense, but breezily
journalistic. With such a conception of poetry, it is no wonder that any
past poet who has striven for a high degree of tension, in mind and language,
looks like a fool.
One of the new poems included in Sailing Alone Around the Room
gives the best explanation so far of what Collins believes his poetry
is about. It is the amusingly titled "Reading an Anthology of Chinese
Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of
Their Titles." In it, Collins contrasts poems like Sun Tung Po's "Viewing
Peonies at the Temple of Good Fortune on a Cloudy Afternoon" and "On a
Boat, Awake at Night" with other titles, whose time and place we can guess:
There is no iron turnstile to push against here
as with headings like "Vortex on a String,"
"The Horn of Neurosis," or whatever.
No confusingly inscribed welcome mat to puzzle over....
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner,
cross my legs like his, and listen.
Modernist poetry, Collins's mock titles suggest, is pretentious and willfully
obscure; it puts the reader off with its self-infatuated snobbery. Naturally,
Collins prefers the lucid and limpid poems of the Chinese. But this is
a false choice, because nothing in his work suggests that he even acknowledges
that there is a place for difficulty in poetry. His amused indifference
resembles wisdom only as death resembles life.
And perhaps he knows it. One of the new poems in this volume, "The Flight
of the Reader," voices a self-doubt heretofore unknown in Collins's work.
Why do his readers "stay perched on my shoulder"?
Is it because I do not pester you
with the invisible gnats of meaning,
never release the whippets of anxiety from their crates,
or hold up my monstrous mirror,
a thing the size of a playing field?
Meaning, anxiety: can those gnats ever climb the bestseller list? Perhaps
Billy Collins, with his large audience and his particular gifts, will
be the poet to find out.
Adam Kirsch is a poet
and critic living in New York.
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