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: The New York Times Book Review. 106.38 (Sept. 23, 2001): Arts and Entertainment: p10. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type: Book review Full Text: SAILING ALONE AROUND THE ROOM New and Selected Poems. By Billy Collins. 172 pp. New York: Random House. $21.95. IT'S hard to trust a poet who isn't, at least on occasion, a little bit funny. There's as much humor in life as is chaos and pain, and you expect some of it to seep to the surface, as it does even in many of the most sophisticated and (why not use the word?) "serious" 20th-century poets -- not just Larkin but Roethke, Merrill, Wilbur and Auden. Billy Collins, America's new poet laureate, presents a different kind of problem. What are we to make of a poet who's funny almost all the time? Collins is, for sure, a professional charmer. His popular readings and a droll appearance on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" have helped his most recent volumes -"Questions About Angels" (1991). "The Art of Drowning" (1995) and "Picnic, Lightning" (1998) -- sell tens of thousands of copies. (In the poetry world, those are Harry Potter numbers.) Collins is funny even in interviews, which sounds easy until you've tried it. When he gets tarred with the label "accessible" -- only in today's mandarin poetry world, by the way, could that be an-insult -- he demurs and says the term calls to mind on-ramps for the "poetically handicapped." He suggests "hospitable." Collins's new greatest hits collection, "Sailing Alone Around the Room," is certainly hospitable. There are brainy, observant, spit-shined moments on almost every page. Collins writes like a man with a pile of those poetry refrigerator magnet sets who happened to get pretty handy with them. "The History Teacher" opens with atypical slice of Collinsian-whimsy:
Trying to protect his students' innocence he told them the Ice Age was really just the-Chilly Age, a period of a million years when everyone had to wear sweaters. And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age, named after the long driveways of the time. The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more than an outbreak of questions such as "How far is it from here to Madrid?" "What do you call the matador's hat?" The poem darkens before it ends, as many of Collins's poems do. The teacher cannot, of course, protect anyone. His kids flee the class and, like brats out of a Larkin poem, rush to the playground "to torment, the weak / and the smart, / mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses." These darker hints aside, however, the poem gets by on comic agility as much as anything else -- we're ushered out with a joke about the soldiers in the Boer War telling "long, rambling stories / designed to make the enemy nod off." Collins's poems are clean, suburban, antiseptic -- qualities that work both for him and against hint (Along with Garrison Keillor, Collins is surely one of the whitest men alive.) He strolls through these poems like the flaneur of Elm Street, a combination of Walter Mitty and Jerry Seinfeld, posing questions like a stand-up comic (what is it with angels and the heads of pins?) and then riding the answers out into the ozone. Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is how many can dance on the head of a pin. No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge. Do they fly through God's body and come out singing? Do they swing like children from the hinges of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards? Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors? This poem, "Questions About Angels," is, like much of Collins's work, not just deft and cheerful but possessing of a slyly complicated intellectual tone. Just as often, however, his poems abandon complications of any sort and settle for merely being amiable -- the kind of work that puts you in mind of Richard Brautigan without the hippie mustache. Here, in its entirety, is "Walking Across the Atlantic": 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, waters pouts. 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. Partly, the sense of weightlessness one often senses while reading "Sailing Alone Around the Room" derives from the fact that Collins shies away from writing about sex and messy romantic entanglements and heavy emotional resoponsibilities -- the stuff that makes up the DNA of many of our best poems. The speakers in Collins's poems -- or speaker, since we always seem to be hearing from Collins himself -- refer
once or twice to a partner who is presumably his wife, but these are single-guy poems at heart. Death and longing and regret figure into his work, but usually only at the margins of the text. Collins is a master at getting us in the palm of his hand, but he rarely pushes us as far as we're willing to go. Collins's saving grace -- and the reason, one suspects, the poetry world's lions haven't eaten him for lunch -- is his casual self-deprecation; he's the first to blow goodnatured raspberries at his own performances. In this collection's final poem, he likens his work to "paper airplanes" that he is sailing across the room at instead of piling on that earnest abstractions "pester you / with the invisible gnats of meaning." He's the anti-Jorie Graham. When Collins attempts a more formal poem, he tries to pass himself off as a poet manque, cheering himself on from the sidelines. Here's the opening of "Sonnet": "All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now, / and after this one just dozen / to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas, / then only ten more left like rows of beans." AS it happens, a surprising number of Collin's poems comment on the act of writing -they are poems that, for the most part, work to demystify the poet's art. There are poems here about cleaning the house before writing, about making coffee and listening to jazz during breaks -- Collins writes about his CD collection more than some music critics do -- and about losing a poem by talking about it. The best of these metapoems read, to my mind anyway, like tart and welcome critiques of contemporary poetry. "Consolation" begins with the line "How agreeable it is not" (my italics) "to be touring Italy this summer," before going on to note: "How much better to command the simple precinct of home / than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, andbasilica." This reads like a delicious satire of the poets who spend their summers abroad, checking accounts groaning with Guggenheim money, only to return with notebooks full of fey, obnoxious poems about frecoes. And in "Osso Buco" Collins overdoes it at dinner and announces that he' s "a creature with a full stomach -- / something you don't hear much about in poetry, / that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation." You finish "Sailing Alone Around the Room" feeling pleased that such a sensible and gifted man is America's poet laureate young -- writers have plenty to learn from his clarity and apparent ease -- while harboring nagging doubts about whether his work belongs on the high shelf of work by the best living American poets. Which is probably O.K. with Coffins. I'd guess he wants his collections on that lower shelf, perhaps even a bedside table, anywhere that's close at hand. Dwight Garner is-an editor at the Book Review.
Garner, Dwight Source Citation Garner, Dwight. "Stand-up poet: A collection of the hospitable, and humorous, verse of Billy Collins." The New York Times Book Review 23 Sept. 2001: 10. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. Document URL http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA80499819&v=2.1&u=phoe84216&it =r&p=LitRC&sw=w Gale Document Number: GALE|A80499819