A master of the everyday
America's poet laureate captures the ordinary in language all can hear
How does a poet become a pied piper? Why does Billy Collins, America's newest poet laureate, pack auditoriums in the United States and abroad? And why have his last three books broken sales records?
Some critics would say that Collins lures readers with his accessibility: He doesn't use inflated language or obscure references. His work does not intimidate readers. He appeals to people with both simple and discriminating tastes.
But that's not the whole story. Not according to his sixth book, "Sailing Alone Around the Room." Collins's new and selected poems shows how he attracts such a vast audience: by offering a pleasant tune sung in a pleasant way.
His poems have a strong narrative element and are easy to follow. Readers can skim them and pick up most of what is there. No need to ponder over every line to find the subtler nuances.
Perhaps more important, however, is the familiarity of the subject matter. Collins doesn't try to explore faraway realms; he is master of the everyday. He writes about watching his dog, the shock of growing up, shoveling the driveway, and going through the new lingerie catalog. His world is the ordinary - but with a twist.
At his best, Collins reveals the unexpected within the ordinary. He peels back the surface of the humdrum to make the moment new. Take, for example, the first three lines of "Snow Day":
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished....
Or the first two stanzas of "Japan":
Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.
It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.
These stanzas illustrate Collins's skill at using imagery and metaphor to elevate his subject matter without making it too lofty. Collins satisfies the reader's need for poetic "magic" without allowing those flourishes to become precious or distracting.
Collins also knows how to end a poem. Almost unfailingly, he builds toward interesting images and observations, as in this poem titled "The Man in the Moon":
He used to frighten me in the nights of childhood,
the wide adult face, enormous, stern, aloft.
I could not imagine such loneliness, such coldness.
But tonight as I drive home over these hilly roads
I see him sinking behind stands of winter trees
and rising again to show his familiar face.
And when he comes into full view over open fields
he looks like a young man who has fallen in love
with the dark earth,
a pale bachelor, well-groomed and full of melancholy,
his round mouth open
as if he had just broken into song.
The movement from familiar to surprising happens gradually enough so that the poet doesn't lose anyone, but he doesn't sacrifice artistic integrity either. The voice is sure and believable. The poet really understands the moment he is capturing, and because of that, he communicates it in a way that feels unavoidably right.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case in "Sailing Alone Around the Room." The danger of writing about ordinary moments is that one's poetry can become too ordinary. Not every moment can be made memorable, and not every subject is worthy of a poem.
Many poems in the collection never rise above the level of banality. At times, the author seems to mistake a subject that interested him for one that could strike a universal chord. But more often, the fault lies in language that is too proselike, or in poems that do not have enough momentum or discovery. Take for example, the short poem "Vade Mecum"
I want the scissors to be sharp
and the table to be perfectly level
when you cut me out of my life
and paste me in that book you always carry.
The new poems in "Sailing Alone Around the Room" are the most consistent, but there are gems - several of them - throughout the collection.
These poems pull one along with their clear music and their satisfying melodies. But they also make one wish that this pied piper played at his best all the time, because when he does, the effect is moving. He can truly speak to an audience that poetry too often leaves behind.
By Billy Collins
172 pp., $21.95