Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

Billy Collins
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems
New York:  Random House (2001)
USA $21.95. Canada $32.95.  Free on Mars.

reviewed by
Robert Darling

The publication of Billy Collins's new and selected poems nicely dovetails with his being named the new Poet Laureate, an orchestration sure to be fodder for the conspiracy-minded.  In many ways, Collins is a natural for spreading the word about poetry: his work is accessible (even Terry Gross admits she understands it); he is probably the most popular poet in this country short of the Susan Polis Schultz crowd; his readings are well-attended by many who are not otherwise likely to be seen at such events.  Yet I am troubled that Collins's reign as the USA's chief spokesman for poetry may attract some for the wrong reasons, reasons that are too frequently evident in some of the work of Sailing Alone Around the Room.

Billy Collins does have his charms.  Many of his subjects can make other poets envious.  He has the ability to find poetic fodder in experiences others overlook.  Many have been bothered by a neighbor's barking dog, and this becomes a concern of "Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House."  His neighbors leave, the dog starts to bark: "They must switch him on on their way out." The speaker puts on Beethoven to drown out the sound but still hears barking, "and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra, /  his head raised confidently as if Beethoven / had included a part for a barking dog."  In "To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now," Collins invokes in grand terms: "O stranger of the future! / O inconceivable being!" and offers a prophecy: "I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either. / I bet everybody in your pub, / even the children, pushes her away."

Collins punctures a number of pretensions. In "Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey," Collins notes the recurrent theme of wistful nostalgia that permeates the canon:  "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 reader, waking from his nap over his book, "will be schooled enough to know / that when we wake up / a little before dinner / things will not be nearly as good as they once were."  When were they better?: "back in that Golden Age / that drew to a close sometime shortly after lunch."

Much as Collins satirizes some poetic clichés, he sings the pleasures of the common life.  After a good meal of "Osso Buco," the poet leans back in self-contentment, "a creature with a full stomach / something you don't hear much about in poetry, / that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation."  He even goes so far as to begin a poem "How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer" and goes on to celebrate going down to the local diner.

Certainly, joys and domestic pleasures can be ripe material for poetry, and Collins is not the first to find them.  In their very different ways, Richard Wilbur and William Carlos Williams are poets of praise for the ordinary.  The domestic has been mined as never before during the past century, partly through the emergence of women being able to become equal partners in the creation of poetry.  Collins can write some memorable lines, and his choice of subject matter can be refreshingly mundane: why didn't I think to write about that? occurred to me several while reading and rereading the book.

But all too often, Collins does little with his inspired moments.  Take, for example, "Walking Across the Atlantic," which I quote in its entirety:

 I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
 before stepping onto the first wave.

 Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
 thinking about Spain,
 checking for whales, waterspouts.

 I feel the water holding up my shifting     weight.
 Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

 But for now I try to imagine what
 this must look like to the fish below,
 the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

Walking across the Atlantic is an interesting idea, but it seems one could make more of it than wondering how it looks to the fish.  Time after time, one puts down the volume and senses good ideas not developed into all they could be. Readers might compare Collins' "Victoria's Secret" with that of Charles Martin to see the difference between a good idea for a poem and an achieved poem.

I am not speaking here of accessibility.  Collins is criticized in some circles for being understandable; it is hard to imagine the readers of Billy Collins and of John Ashbery existing in the same universe -- perhaps they do not.  A poem should be as clear as it can be without compromising its subject matter.  To make sense is not necessarily a sign of shallowness, although much of the academy seems to think so.  But to oversimplify is not to do justice to one's subject matter; it is like Thomas Mann's dancing master who was elegant and popular largely because his vision did not extend deeply enough to where things become difficult.  One senses in too many of Collins' poems that he is more concerned with attitudes than with explorations, with image rather than images.  As a writer, he reminds me of the football player who always heads for the sidelines to avoid a hard hit rather than trying to pick up the extra yard.

But there is another, more fundamental, concern that I have about Collins and his popularity.  Certainly, there are always poets who fall short of their potential; perhaps, in some ways, all poets do.  But Collins is not only interested in deflating certain poetic themes that are overused; he is in many ways disdainful of the very craft of poetry.

I do not mean here simply that Collins writes in free verse.  His line breaks usually make sense, though the lines themselves can degenerate into prose, particularly at some inopportune moments. Collins ends "The Butterfly Effect" in the following manner:

 first brought to light,
 it might interest you to know
 and possibly distract you from
 your vexatious dread
 with regards to the hopelessness of the future,
 by two British naturalists, namely,
 H.W. Bates in 1862 and A.R. Wallace in 1865.
This isn't even particularly good prose.

But many of our admired writers of free verse will occasionally write as if they had no ear.  What most fuels my "vexatious dread" is Collins' disregard for traditional craft, which he appears to feel as outdated as certain poetic themes.  Collins writes a great deal about writing; poets have always done this to some extent, though it became much more common in the 20th century, as if poets sought to will their material of words with all their limiting denotations to an abstraction found in music.  But what Collins says in many of his poems about writing is quite wrongheaded and harmful to the craft.

"American Sonnet" is not a sonnet at allthat's part of Collins' meaning: "We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser / and it is not fourteen lines / like furrows in a small, carefully plowed field."  This hearkens back to Williams' nonsense about received forms not being appropriate to the American experience.  Yet writing a sonnet does not mean one has to "speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser"; our idioms are different, but the rhythmic structures of our language are in common.  To confuse the two is to revive the earliest mistakes of the Modernists.  Collins returns to the "form" in "Sonnet."  Remarking at the first that "All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now, / and after this one just a dozen / to launch a little ship on love's stormtossed seas, / then only ten more left like rows of beans."  But of course he's not writing a sonnet, merely a poem of fourteen lines, and writing a sonnet does not necessarily imply launching that "little ship."  He goes on: "How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan / and insist the iambic bongos must be played / and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines, / one for every station of the cross."  Of course it goes easily -- so does anything if one does it in a half-assed way.  To speak of "iambic bongos" is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of English language prosody.  Collins is a sloppy craftsman, and he doesn't care.

This is nowhere more evident than in "Paradelle for Susan."  A paradelle is a particularly restricting French form.  As Collins explains in his note: "It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words.  Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words." (Italics Collins)  Not a form for a lazy poet. It is obvious that the greatest difficulty is in the last lines of each stanza; it is there that all the previous words must come together.  Here are Collins' last lines:

 Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the....
 And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to....
 Into handwriting your weather flies you letter the from the....
 Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.
He can't be serious.  Why attempt this and so colossally fail? If he is mocking form, why choose such an obscure one?  And what does he have against Susan?

This cavalier disregard for his own art is dangerous in someone who has so wide a following, and now the laureateship.  Poetry needs someone who is not suffering from angst, who is glad he's not vacationing in Italy, who wants to identify with the safe, minor characters in movies and imagines himself shovelling snow with Buddha.  What it does not need is someone who propagates common misconceptions about form and about the nature of the art itself. In "Introduction to Poetry" he claims he wants "them," presumably his students, to "drop a mouse into a poem / and watch him probe his way out" or to "walk inside the poem's room / and feel the walls for a light switch."  I can sense something of what he means here, though that would be hard to convey to most of the Intro to Poetry students I have had over the years.  But the nasty students will not cooperate: "But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it" so "They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means." Certainly it is difficult to get beginning students, or many scholars for that matter, to develop a sense of aesthetics.  But a poem can be examined without having to undergo surgery.  A poem can be questioned without being interrogated and tortured.  But Billy Collins doesn't have to worry about his poems undergoing such a fate.  They spill all their secrets quickly.  And artlessly.

                                                Robert Darling

 Return to main page