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Billy Collins   Sailing Alone Around the Room  
 
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Sailing Alone Around the Room

There are certain things that hold universally in publishing. One of the more axiomatic is that poetry doesn't sell. It doesn't, and perhaps there is little reason that it should. There are only rare cases in the modern age when any poet gained significant sales. Even collections of essays and cryptic engineering monographs easily outsell most poetry. Then there is the case of Billy Collins, an American poet of visible talent who is so sought after that a contract dispute between his publishers made the front page of the New York Times. His new and selected poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room, has sold over 55,000 copies in hardcover to date (this figure will likely swell nicely as he attends his appointed rounds as Poet Laureate). This is astounding. It is equivalent to a mid-list novelist suddenly selling a million copies of a book (and indeed there are cases). Such success might be expected immediately to draw derision from other poets, but Collins has already beaten them there: He's written a poem from the perspective of an envious poet observing a colleague cum antagonist ascending the pantheon of luncheons and Guggenheim checks ('The Rival Poet'). This is precisely his defense mechanism, a self-effacement, and, yes, he's even written about such defense mechanisms, in particular those used by animals in order to avoid being slopped down by larger predators ('The Butterfly Effect'). Such mechanisms are now vestigial. He is king of the poetry jungle where popularity and influence are concerned. At the New Yorker's "In a Time of Crisis" reading at Cooper Union on October 22nd, 2001, the mention of his name accumulated the most invigorating round of applause heard for an older poet in downtown New York in some time.

Collins is sixty years old (one tries not to think of the "sixty-year-old smiling public man" of Yeats's 'Among School Children'). He has spent (one thinks endured) thirty of those years teaching English composition at Lehman College, in the Bronx, where he is nearly invisible and unknown even as a minor celebrity to students or faculty. He is a tea drinker, a trait readily glimpsed in his poems, which are invariably about himself and the essential aspects of his life. The best way to get at Collins the man is through his poems. This seems passé and shabby as far as critical approaches go, but it will serve in his case. His name bespeaks an avuncular, unassuming man, in much the way that "William" Collins would bring to mind a Restoration English poet, calfskin bound King James Bible on his candlelit desk. His poems are tidy, both philosophically and anatomically. This combination is quite pleasing, in its way, and one enjoys reading through his collections much as one enjoys very well written detective fiction, Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Collins is also currently the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States. As a choice for Poet Laureate, he is very nearly ideal. He isn't overeager and pushy like Robert Pinsky, venerable like Stanley Kunitz, or MIA, as were some earlier Poets Laureate.

Whatever else may be said of Collins's poems, they are never theatrical, ominous, or corny. He is an intelligent man and a good poet, one understood in his own age. This can be viewed as a dilemma (strictly in terms of posterity, vita brevis, ars longa) or a virtue (in terms of contemporary influence, hodie mihi, cras tibi). It has been suggested that if American poetry can be said to have a period style it is Ashberian, after John Ashbery: superficially casual, multivalent, disjunctive, closely allied with theories that drive the visual arts of the age (Henry Darger as much as Helen Frankenthaler or Willem De Kooning). The term "Collinsean" may well become a common term, at least for a time. If one were to pitch Collins to a reader as a Hollywood script is pitched to a producer, it might be a matter of "Ogden Nash meets John Updike, who turns out to be his long-lost son, then runs into a mellowed W.H. Auden, who has just moved in next door to W.D. Snodgrass, who will go on to marry Kenneth Koch, but we can always change that if you don't like it; we'll get Garrison Keillor to do the voice over for the ad campaign; you'll love it, trust me." This is more than a little flippant, but it is not intended to be at the expense of Collins. These are all worthy predecessors, and Mr. Keillor certainly helped him up the heap of American poetry by featuring him frequently on his Prairie Home Companion. Collins has a style, a quite set one that fails to stand out much from those of other poets. There is invariably a narrator speaking directly to the reader. This narrator seems a lot like Collins himself, and the circumstances certainly tally with those of Collins's life. There are no excursions into dense metaphysical distress or shattering emotional episodes, and these would seem little more than hollow play-acting if he were merely to mimic the tones of a Rainer Maria Rilke or Paul Celan. Irony exists, to be sure, but as a gloss over a completed painting. In other words, it doesn't saturate the poem. He pokes some fun at himself and others, but he never risks tripping himself up. The poems are enjoyable, skirting the scarcely perceptible line between art (anguish, emotional growth, intellectual challenge) and entertainment (passive enjoyment, though not to be mistaken for fun, which involves one in its workings). He is a poet of the quotidian, more interested in household and garden than the transcendent arrangements of religious ecstasy. His poems are humorous, but he has never been in any clear danger of being termed an author of light verse (a challenge John Updike has repeatedly faced in his career as a poet; it might just be that Updike is better at light verse than other kinds). They contain a firm center of gravity. They come across as written by a man who grew up in New York's outer boroughs (in Queens). As such, he feels no compulsion to don the tough guy raiments worn by suburban poet-kids weaned on the much-misread Charles Bukowski. Likewise, he is unwilling to ascend the heights of frescoed ostentation scaled by veterans of private schools and summer trips to the Amalfi coast. He burnishes. He takes an otherwise dull event or object and permits its surfaces to shine. Rather than engaging in identity-building routines, he simply faces his own reality in his own way.

Many of Collins's poems concern the act of writing or discuss the poems themselves, well-wrought coffee mugs if not urns. This might bring one closer to understanding his popularity. He is at once more transparent and competent than most poets. He pulls back the veil to expose the creaky scarecrow of a man working the controls of the thunderous Oz, before whom students are meant to bow. To view the parturition of a Yeats poem will induce bewilderment and some throbbing in the frontal lobes, but Collins makes it a part of the playfulness that is common to his style, as in 'Sonnet':

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the end of lines,
one for every station of the cross.

This gambit makes him appear considerably less threatening and possible quite agile to the insouciant reader. He is also humble at just the right times. There is no bombast, no Greek goddesses, no cocaine, no wild sex, none of it. This is encouraging because it likely doesn't belong there. Critics of contemporary poetry have been aptly described as poets snarling at one another over a dried well. If Collins's popularity and sales continue, and if others rise with him, there might be talk of a rainy season not experienced for quite a long time on the flood plains of American poetry.

-- Ernest Hilbert

Poems by Billy Collins

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