Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems

ISBN: 0375755195
ISBN 13: 9780375755194
By: Billy Collins

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Reader's Thoughts


I don’t think Billy gives a rat’s ass that I’m a philistine; that I’m unschooled in the appreciation of fine arts; that I can’t even fake knowing jack about poetry. He writes for guys like me, too. In fact, it might be kind of his thing. (My friend Scott, who does know poetry, commented just today that Collins has a reputation for being less serious. Evidently, the hegemons of verse took exception when he was named Poet Laureate and called for their own choice.) But he won me over on the very first page: Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the HouseThe neighbors' dog will not stop barking.He is barking the same high, rhythmic barkthat he barks every time they leave the house.They must switch him on on their way out.The neighbors' dog sill not stop barking.I close all the windows in the houseand put on a Beethoven symphony full blastbut I can still hear him muffled under the music,barking, barking, barking,and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,his head raised confidently as if Beethovenhad included a part for barking dog.When the record finally ends he is still barking,sitting there in the oboe section barking,his eyes fixed on the conductor who isentreating him with his batonwhile the other musicians listen in respectfulsilence to the famous barking dog solo,that endless coda that first establishedBeethoven as an innovative genius.Like I said before, I’m a poetry nitwit. It was only recently that I learned they don’t have to rhyme. The rule is, as long as it has blocks of broken up lines it qualifies, right? So yeah, I may be a dummy, but at least I’m open to Billy’s way of approaching them:Introduction to PoetryI ask them to take a poemand hold it up to the lightlike a color slideor press an ear against its hive.I say drop a mouse into a poemand watch him probe his way out,or walk inside the poem's roomand feel the walls for a light switch.I want them to water-skiacross the surface of a poemwaving at the author's name on the shore.But all they want to dois tie the poem to a chair with ropeand torture a confession out of it.They begin beating it with a hoseto find out what it really means.Muchas gracias to Penky and Stephen M for their great reviews of this one. They, along with Scott, fracked the rocky ground from which poetry flows like gas into a wellbore. That’s almost poetic, isn’t it? Especially when I break it up, right?A bit of humor, a slightly skewed eye, an attitude of approachability, and an artistry with words that’s hard to describe (but easy to like) – it all adds up to a lot of stars.

Chase Von

I have to be honest in writing this review because that's my nature. I bought this book years ago while on active duty in the military and it was a busy time, a time made even busier because I was burning the mid night oil working on my own book. I heard about "America's Poet Laureate" Billy Collins and since that's in my vein so to speak, figured I had to check him out. For those of you who gave this book less than a five, I encourage you to read it again when you have actual time to really read it. I didn't, though I read the words front to back but I didn't really absorb what was there. I even contacted a friend and fellow poet and someone I look at as a brother and Mentor and said some of it's good, but if this is all it takes to be a "Poet Laureate" you and I are both going to be famous! In his wisdom because he's a bit older and I believe wiser he told me, "I think you're going to have to read it again brother." I didn't... I put it on the shelf and quite frankly didn't think about Billy Collins until I heard about another book he had written called, "The Trouble With Poetry." I checked that one out at the library. And loved it! Then a bell went off and I was like I of course have his other book. Friends, it was like reading a new book! Things that quite frankly went by my busy mind the first time made me feel like WOW... I get it now! An example of that is on every page to be blunt regarding my experience but here's one just to prove my point. The Lesson In the morning when I found History snoring heavily on the couch, I took down his overcoat from the rack and placed it's weight over my shoulder blades It would protect me on the cold walk into the village for milk and the paper and I figured he would not mind, not after our long conversation the night before. How unexpected his blustering anger when I returned covered with icicles, the way he rummaged through the huge pockets making sure no major battle or English queen had fallen out and become lost in the deep snow By Billy Collins From "Sailing Alone Around the Room" A busy mind or unfocused mind would say what is this about? Next page.. Maybe the next poem will be better. A mind that isn't cluttered see's exactly what this is about... History is not only always written by the victors but it is also jealously guarding of any of it being lost that supports what HIS STORY is!!! It's fine to sit there and discuss it while it's present to assure you of its lies, but let that same History be taken else where and perhaps changed, challenged or lost and you've got to reinforce the HIS STORY all over again. There's more there as well but moving on... Another brief example of that is from Walking Across The Atlantic I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach before stepping onto the first wave (Later it ends) But for now I try to imagine what this must look like to the fish below the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing Not quite as rushed, and an avid reader as well as a sponge for knowledge I get this as well. However only someone who feels as if they know things others don't know on a large scale would understand the metaphors here. And that's not to insult anyone's intelligence but often those who know what the masses do not, don't want to be in the presence of those who couldn't "Get Them" anyway. God knows how many fish are in the ocean but the semblance there tells me something as well with the last line of feet appearing, and disappearing. To sum this up, great chess players think so many moves ahead that the person who is simply responding to the last move is in many ways, like a fish inquisitively looking at something it can't fully understand but is still seeing it, all the same. (I was that proverbial fish, the first time around and I am not ashamed to admit it)... When it comes to poetry, Billy Collins truly is a worthy Poet Laureate and if your rushed or not prepared to think truly deeply, your not going to enjoy his writings. If your not rushed and like your mind challenged and stimulated your going to love it! I highly recommend this book as well as "The Trouble With Poetry" and I look forward to more works from this master of the written word! With respects Sincerely, Chase Von


My philosophically minded friends and I have a debate about Billy Collins' poetry. They insist that the attempt to chronicle the everyday in a meaningful way can be done in a deeper, more profound manner. They find Collins lacking in this way. This is probably true, but not Collins' main point, I think.Still, I think, after rereading this book, that Collins becomes more profound with time. I am still unsure if this is my projection into the poem because I *want* these poems to be more profound or not. Nonetheless, I can't help liking so much of what he writes here, even if it can be rightly said, as my aforementioned friends insist, that some of these poems are thin on theme.Anyway, here's a lovely image that closes the poem 'Bar Time':No wonder such thoughtless pleasure derivesfrom tending the small fire of a cigarette, from observing this glass of whiskey and ice,the cold rust I am sipping,or from having an eye on the street outsidewhen Ordinary Time slouches past in a topcoat,rain runing off the brim of his hat,the late edition like a flag in his pocket.

Bryan Neuschwander

Anything to write would seem so trite--I thought:I should have stopped ata five-star rating;but here I am, crawling backwardsthrough the intersectionof brevity and wit, whereI seem to have lost my way sailing around the roomalone, looking up, re-counting the stars,as Cinderella Shockersshatter in the Final Four, grateful for Goodwill bargainsmiles during commercial breaks.


I don't like poetry. I mean, I like this poem, and that poem. The Lady of Shalott, The Raven, you know, sort of the "usual suspects" of poetry. But I never actively seek out poetry. I don't like to curl up with a good book of poems on a rainy day. I don't "get" a lot of it, and I'm irritated by many of the modern poets. But my sister, who is an English teacher, introduced me to Billy Collins' poetry a few years ago, and I was hooked. Funny, deceptively simple, and yet tender and insightful at the same time. The Lanyard isn't in this collection, but you can find it online and should do so at once. Why I Do Not Keep A Gun in the House is in this collection. As is Sonnet. He writes a great many poems about being a poet, which far from being pretentious, are in fact funny and endearing. He plays with words in fun ways that don't say, "Look at me! I'm so clever!" but rather, "Look at this! And this! Isn't the language marvelous?!" This is a slim and wonderful little book of poems, whether you've read Collins before or not, you should own this.


Billy Collins makes everyone feel like they can read poetry and makes most people feel like they can write it, and for that I thank him. That should be said first. As for the poems themselves, even this Greatest Hits collection is hit or miss. He's at times charming and irresistibly funny and at other times frustratingly self-aware. Among my favorites: "Winter Syntax," "Purity," "Marginalia," "Picnic, Lightning," and the clear favorite "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles."

Hansen Wendlandt

This collection is a great way to introduce someone to the greatest living poet. Metaphysical issues of meaning stand alongside the most mundane topics of sex, trains and blues music. The art of poetry lies on the same page as a simplicity of writing, story and imagery. Tennyson can write deeply and technical; Andrea Gibson's poetry can reach anyone viscerally. How does Collins do both simultaneously? Winter Syntax, an absurdly beautiful poem, tells the truth about language, that "there are easier ways of making sense, the connoisseurship of gesture, for example." (7) The Death of Allegory goes beyond the words to describe the power of concepts, relegating Truth and Chastity and Reason and the like to "a Florida for tropes." (27) Workshop, one of the more clever pieces of writing anyone will ever stumble upon, takes on the very structure of language and meaning. Marginalia is more about the process of reading than the process of creation, bringing a smile of familiarity to any careful reader.

Stacy Bender

the lanyard The other day as I was ricocheting slowly off the blue walls of this room bouncing from typewriter to piano from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor, I found myself in the "L" section of the dictionary where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one more suddenly into the past. A past where I sat at a workbench at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard. A gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone use a lanyard. Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them. But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother. She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard. She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips, set cold facecloths on my forehead then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard. "Here are thousands of meals" she said, "and here is clothing and a good education." "And here is your lanyard," I replied, "which I made with a little help from a counselor." "Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world." she whispered. "And here," I said, "is the lanyard I made at camp." "And here," I wish to say to her now, "is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth, that you can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands, I was as sure as a boy could be that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even." (billy collins)


Age vitam plenissime Take a walk in the parkperhaps of an evening,moonlight dancing lightlythrough the swaying branches of the willow,reflected off the water,where the heron feeds,Illuminating our path.There is a slight breezea welcome silencelater we will have a fireand listen to the music of the night.I am humbled to remember that poetry is after all everywhere. It envelopes us. It is in the words we read and those we speak to each other. It is in the very air I breathe, deep and slow. I love poetry so it seems that I was destined to find S. Penkevich’s review of this work. If you have but a moment, then leave this page at once and read his review.It is after all what brought me here.And so I sail, around the room, while bits and pieces of this cling to me. They move about my head.I am a sinner, not a scholar and rearrange them as it pleases me.They clutter my windshield and call forth my senses.I cannot seem to stop. Perhaps this is disrespectful but I think not.How easy he has made it for me to enter here,to sit down in a corner;cross my legs like his, and listen.I walk through the house reciting itand leave its letters fallingthrough the air of every room.I listen to myself saying it,then I say it without listening,then I hear it without saying it.And later when I say it to you in the dark,you are the bell,and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing youBut today I am staying home,standing at one window, then another,or putting on a jacket and wandering around outsideor sitting in a chairwatching the trees full of light- green budsunder the low hood of the sky.And when I begin to turn slowlyI can feel the whole house turning with me, rotating free of the earth.the sun and the moon in all the windowsmove, too, with the tips of my fingersthis is the wheel I just inventedto roll through the rest of my lifeWhy do we bother with the rest of the day,the swale of the afternoon,the sudden dip into evening,This is the best-throwing off the light covers,feet on the cold floor,and buzzing around the houseUntil the night makes me realizethat this place where they pace and danceunder colored lights,is made of nothing but autumn leaves,red, yellow, gold,waiting for a sudden gust of windto scatter it allinto the dark spacesbeyond these late- night, practically empty streets.Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.Such is life in this pavilionof paper and inkwhere a cup of tea is cooling,where the windows darken then fill with light.A book like this always has a wayof soothing the nerves,quieting the riotous surf of informationthat foams around my waist.But it is hard to speak of these thingshow the voices of light enter the bodyand begin to recite their storieshow the earth holds us painfully againstits breast made of humus and brambleshow we who will soon be gone regardthe entities that continue to returngreener than ever, spring water flowingthrough a meadow and the shadows of cloudspassing over the hills and the groundwhere we stand in the tremble of thoughttaking the vast outside into ourselves.Still, let me know before you set out,come knock on my doorand I will walk with you as far as the garden.My fingertips thirsty, absorb this ink and intoxicated,leave my stain all over these pages. Thank you Billy!All of the words in italics are Billy’s.They have moved themselves around shamelessly to feed my unbridled pleasure.

Judith Starkston

I was given a copy of these poems by Billy Collins recently, and they are a delightful companion. As such they cannot rightly ever be stowed in the already read file because I will return as often as my soul needs to. I highly recommend a copy by everyone's bedside. How can you not love a book of poems in which one can find these two stanzas in a poem called Forgetfulness?The name of the author is the first to gofollowed obediently by the title, the plot,the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novelwhich suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbordecided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Jacob Kaiser

I am normally not one to review poetry. I read it and I learn from it, both the good and the ugly. After reading this book, I was compelled to not only read, but explain what made it so absolutely great in my eyes. I have read a range of poets and I have grown tired at the "same ol', same ol'" approach. Granted, I am new to the world of poetry only having started writing and reading for only a couple years, but I have already seen modern poetry for what it is. In fact, I can almost categorize poets nowadays.You have the nature poets, the abstract/surrealists, the rest of them and then somewhere in between you find Billy Collins sitting in the bookshelf at your local Barnes and Noble. I have made it my own mission to read every poet from their poetry section and while I have read the classics, I get more enjoyment after reading something by Collins. It might be the little pocketfuls of change and light humor he carries in almost every poem, but the fact of the matter is that after reading this book one can understand why he was the U.S. Poet Laureate. He is a poet in the best manner.Now enough about my feelings on the poet, you can only measure a poet by his poems like you can measure a number by its distance from zero. Reading this book is like putting in a cassette tape and listening to the Eagles greatest hits album. It's light, it has an incredibly smooth appeal and it is easy for even amateur poets to read and enjoy. Most classic/formal poets are focused on structure, I know I was for the greatest time, but it was this book and Nine Horses that have taught me how important flow is to the poem. My own poetry teacher always preached music over structure. Even more important than flow, for Collins, is imagination and this collection of poetry is full of it. He has the wisdom of a prophet and the imagination of someone much younger than the buddha, but it all creates a style only he could recreate time and time again. That is not to say that I believe him to be a perfect poet, for no poet is. At times, I found myself skipping parts and at others wishing his poems had ended sooner. Some of his longer poems such as "Workshop" kept me awake by the clever humor. Most of his poems seemed to unravel like how I would unwrap one of my Christmas presents from under the giving tree. I fear it is most likely my ADD that made me grow impatient with him. Also, I grew very discouraged by this book multiple times when reading because I felt I could never write something as vivid and smooth as what he has. Once I put my negativity aside, I was really able to enjoy almost every poem and I have learned more from him than any teacher in middle school, high school or college.I would give this a 4.5/5, but they do not give me the option to. Collins' has written this book with a silent pen filled with a fluid ink of grace and light humor that would make even a professional ballet dancer weak in their knees. Thank you Billy Collins for already becoming my favorite poet.


This is one the best books I have ever read. Almost every poem in this collection is wonderful. A book I would want to read again and again. This might not be the best poem from this collection but it has that ability to persist in my memory which is not very good with poetry.Introduction to PoetryI ask them to take a poemand hold it up to the lightlike a color slideor press an ear against its hive.I say drop a mouse into a poemand watch him probe his way out,or walk inside the poem's roomand feel the walls for a light switch.I want them to water-skiacross the surface of a poemwaving at the author's name on the shore.But all they want to dois tie the poem to a chair with ropeand torture a confession out of it.They begin beating it with a hoseto find out what it really means.


I gave this book three separate sittings and though I did enjoy reading it, I could not shake the feeling that Collins is a bit too straightforward. I understand his widespread appeal - he makes poetry manageable, accessible, easy - but I think he does so at some expense. Critics quoted in the front of the book described his "irresistable charm" - but I think that a great deal of that charm is not so much the sublimeness of his poems, but the fact that nearly every person on earth - secretly, deep down - wants to be a poet and the ease and simplicity of Collins' poems make them think that maybe their own writings are worth a little more than they ever supposed. It is no doubt a good thing that he has - I'm sure - inspired many tobegin reading poetry or to even begin taking more seriously their own writing.I also felt, though, that his own voice - his ego - was ever-present and much too loud. He strikes me as the type that is quite enamored with himself and I think that that is part of why his storylines felt so overt to me.All in all - it is merely a matter of personal preference. I can appreciate his meter and the unquestionable strength of his creativity. He can take the mundane and banal and send them off into some other realm that is full of imagination and fantasy. And he makes the trip fun. But it felt a little like the science fiction form of poetry - and science fiction is something for which I've never been able to acquire a taste.


ForgetfulnessThe name of the author is the first to gofollowed obediently by the title, the plot,the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novelwhich suddenly becomes one you have never read,never even heard of,as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbordecided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,to a little fishing village where there are no phones.Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbyeand watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.It has floated away down a dark mythological riverwhose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,well on your own way to oblivion where you will join thosewho have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.No wonder you rise in the middle of the nightto look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.No wonder the moon in the window seems to have driftedout of a love poem that you used to know by heart. NostalgiaRemember 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 popular,the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnetmarathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flagsof rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Strugglewhile your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.People would take walks to the very tops of hillsand write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let merecapture the serenity of last month when we pickedberries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of beesand the Latin names of flowers, watching the early lightflash off the slanted windows of the greenhouseand silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,letting my memory rush over them like waterrushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.I was even thinking a little about the future, that placewhere people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,a dance whose name we can only guess.WorkshopI might as well begin by saying how much I like the title. It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now so immediately the poem has my attention,like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.And I like the first couple of stanzas,the way they establish this mode of self-pointingthat runs through the whole poemand tells us that words are food thrown down on the ground for other words to eat. I can almost taste the tail of the snake in its own mouth,if you know what I mean.But what I’m not sure about is the voice,which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans, but other times seems standoffish,professorial in the worst sense of the wordlike the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face. But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas, especially the fourth one.I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges which gives me a very clear picture.And I really like how this drawbridge operator just appears out of the bluewith his feet up on the iron railingand his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging—a hook in the slow industrial canal below.I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.Maybe it’s just me,but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem. I mean how can the evening bump into the stars? And what’s an obbligato of snow?Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.At that point I’m lost. I need help.The other thing that throws me off,and maybe this is just me,is the way the scene keeps shifting around. First, we’re in this big aerodromeand the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles, which makes me think this could be a dream. Then he takes us into his garden,the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose, though that’s nice, the coiling hose,but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be. The rain and the mint green light,that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper? Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?There’s something about death going on here.In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here is really two poems, or three, or four, or possibly none.But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.This is where the poem wins me back,especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,but I still love the details he useswhen he’s describing where he lives.The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard, the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can, the spool of thread for a table.I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work night after night collecting all these thingswhile the people in the house were fast asleep, and that gives me a very strong feeling,a very powerful sense of something.But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that. Maybe that was just me.Maybe that’s just the way I read it.IdiomaticIt is a big question to pose so early in the morning or “in the light woven by birds” as the Estonians say, but still I must ask what is my place in life? my “seat on the invisible train”, as they say in Hungary. I mean I am just sitting here in a lawn chair listening to a thrush, “the little entertainer of the woods”, as the Swiss call him, while out there in the world mobs of people are rushing over bridges in and out of cities? Vegetables grow heavy in their fields, clouds fly across the “face of the earth” as we call it in English, and sometimes rockets lift off in the distance – and I mean that quite literally, “from the top of the table” as the Portuguese have it, real rockets rising from the horizon, or “the big line if you’re an Australian, leaving behind rich gowns of exhaust smoke, long, smooth trajectories, and always the ocean below, “the water machine” as the South Sea islanders put it – everything takes place right on schedule, “by the clock of the devil”, as our grandparents were fond of saying. And still here I sit with my shirt off, the dog at my side, daydreaming – “juggling balls of cotton”, as they like to say in France.

Taryn Chase

Quickly becoming one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins has a way of stating ordinary things in an extraordinary way: he has a poem about stepping into a painting at a museum, one about a town filled with all the students he's ever taught, one trying to make sense of the lyrics of three blind mice, one about stuff people write in the margins of books... and he has some wonderful titles, too, including "another reason why I don't keep a gun in the house," taking off emily dickinson's clothes," "man listening to disc," and "shoveling snow with buddha." I can't encourage people enough to pick up a volume of this one-time US poet laureate and dive in.

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