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Over Easy

Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins (Random House, 172 pp., $21.95)

The associated press report of Billy Collins's appointment as poet laureate in June was a document of startling philistinism. Under the headline "Popular Poet Named U.S. Laureate," it began: "Billy Collins, a popular poet who makes money at the job, is becoming the 11th U.S. poet laureate....Collins can collect $2,000 for a single reading of his poetry and Random House has reportedly offered him a publishing contract of at least $100,000 for three books....His one-year post as laureate will net him a $35,000 salary, a Washington office at the Library of Congress and few duties except to give more readings." Nor does Collins's new publisher hesitate to beat the drum. The dust jacket of Sailing Alone Around the Room announces that Collins's "last three collections of poems have broken sales records for poetry." All of this man-bites-dog astonishment condescends to poetry, where such small sums count as fortunes. Yet the very existence of a "popular poet" is reassuring for an art seemingly doomed to ivory-tower irrelevance.

Collins's verse makes clear, however, that his ideal reader is by no means the man on the street. He (or she) is welleducated and well-read, probably an English major, maybe even an M.F.A., who can recognize the surprisingly wide range of reference in Collins's poems: Wordsworth, Stevens, and Frost, Izaak Walton and Duns Scotus, Nick Adams and Emma Bovary. Though Collins often borrows the tones and the strategies of stand-up comedy, his poetry is not all jokes. In fact, he writes out, in a large and babyish hand, one of the major poetic scripts of our time: the one that finds transcendence in the ordinary, and sings hymns to the banal.

The most obvious thing to say about Collins's poetry is that it is funny, in an accessible and immediately familiar way. But his true poetic gift is something more than a sense of humor; it is a genuine, if often debased, wit. Wit is the yoking together of heterogeneous things, and when it is properly used it has an unsettling power. It forces hostile ideas and associations into a disturbing intimacy: Donne's "bracelet of bright hair around the bone," Eliot's "fear in a handful of dust." And while Collins's angle of vision is never genuinely strange, it is skewed just enough to be surprising.

In "Walking Across the Atlantic," he imagines "what/this must look like to the fish below,/the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing"—and this precise image does jolt us into seeing from below. Conversely, "The Dead" tries to look down from above: "They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,/And when we lie down in a field or on a couch.../ they think we are looking back at them." In "The Norton Anthology of English Literature," Collins seizes on the "parentheses that are used to embrace our lives,/as if we were afterthoughts dropped into a long sentence." These are moments of modest but genuine vitality, in which our normal mode of thought and vision is disrupted, and they are gratifyingly frequent in Collins's poetry.

The basis of such wit is taking words literally, seizing on dead phrases and familiar idioms and attending to what they really say. "Walking on water" is a cliche that comes to life when Collins adopts the fish's-eye view and notices the feet, appearing and disappearing on the surface. At its most powerful, this kind of wit is truly creative: if, as Emerson said, every word began life as a metaphor, wit resurrects the metaphor hiding in ordinary words. When Hamlet speaks of the sepulcher's "ponderous and marble jaws," the word "ponderous" is not abstract but weighty, tangible.

True wit startles by attending to the relations of words to things; but it is closely related to mere punning, which is interested only in the relations of words to other words. Donne and Shakespeare were both adept at this lower form:

I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand or move; if he say true, he lies.

The sort of thing that we find in Donne's epigram is pleasant in small doses, and it can seem the fine excess of an alert linguistic intelligence. But it is finally of limited interest because it calls attention not to the world, but to the way we speak about the world; it points to the foolish defects of language, which uses the one word "lies" for two different things. To deal only in punning wit even indicates an essential falsehood in the poet's view of his art, as though language were only interesting when it is defective, never when it is a tool of discovery. It is a way of discouraging linguistic curiosity and verbal ambition, without which there is no greatness in poetry.

THIS MAY BE too grave a charge to bring against Billy Collins, who is mainly interested in entertainment. But there is no doubt that Collins's fondness for a certain kind of joke is of a piece with his work's deliberate praise of triviality and laziness. While he seldom makes actual puns, his wit is of the punning kind: he makes idioms ridiculous through inflation, hyperbole, and repetition. A good example is "Schoolsville," from his book The Apple That Astonished Paris, which appeared in 1988. The poem begins with a cliche: "I realize the number of students I have taught/is enough to populate a small town." But then, taking the phrase literally, he goes on to imagine that town:

The population ages but never graduates....
Their grades are sewn into their clothes like references to Hawthorne.
The A's stroll along with other A's.
The D's honk whenever they pass another D.

The ingenuity of the poem lies in extrapolating each feature of school life into the life of the town. And there is no theoretical limit to the number of features that could be seized upon: one can imagine a poem like this going on for pages, one joke after another. Of course, the joke would wear thin eventually, and a part of Collins's talent is knowing when to stop. His poems are generally a page long, seldom more than two. But the very easiness of the joke suggests its limitation: it is funny only because of that initial phrase, "enough to populate a small town." Once we remind ourselves that the target of the joke is merely an expression, the piling up of new details begins to seem a poor use of Collins's wit.

Most of Collins's poems have this same additive logic: they are riffs on an initial category-mistake. What if you described the human heart in the language of a museum catalog? Then you would get "My Heart":

It has a bronze covering inlaid with silver, originally gilt;
the sides are decorated with openwork zoomorphic
panels depicting events in the history of an unknown religion.
The convoluted top-piece shows a high level of relief articulation....

And what if you applied the pop-culture nostalgia for recent decades—the 1970s, the 1950s—to the distant past? That is the joke, repeated at least four times, of "Nostalgia":

Remember 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....

There is a similar technique at work in a different kind of Collins poem, of which "Victoria's Secret" is a good example. Here the humor lies in a more subtle kind of mistake, taking the non-language of advertising as though it were real communication:

The one on the facing page, however,
who looks at me over her bare shoulder,
cannot hide the shadow of annoyance in her brow.
You have interrupted me,
she seems to be saying,
with your coughing and your loud music.
Now please leave me alone;
let me finish whatever it was I was doing
in my organza-trimmed whisperweight camisole with
keyhole closure and point d'esprit mesh back.

Most obviously, the joke is on the foolish, artificial language of the catalog, which Collins quotes or parodies plentifully in the poem. This kind of deadpan repetition of an absurdity is the key ingredient of contemporary comedy—it is what is now known as irony, to both its enemies and its friends. But more than the language is treated ironically here; the very idea that the model "seems to be saying" anything is a similar irony, because it pretends to take the model seriously as an actual human being, when we know that she is merely a commodity, a simulacrum. And perhaps writing a poem about the Victoria's Secret catalog is itself ironic in just the same way: it means paying attention, a traditionally serious and complex form of attention, to something mindless and evanescent.

This kind of irony serves a necessary function when it comes to warding off the stupidity of mass culture. It is a way for a sophisticated person to acknowledge that he lives among texts and images—such as the Victoria's Secret catalog—with a palpable design upon him, and to signal that he has not succumbed to that design. The snobbish implication of such irony is that there are other people, less sophisticated people, who have succumbed. All of this is an accustomed, though ambiguous, part of contemporary culture.

WHAT MAKES IT objectionable in Billy Collins's poetry is that the target of his belittling, deadpan, superior humor is not only popular culture, but high culture, especially poetry. He has come to lift the burden of seriousness from the shoulders of those who still bear it. His work is aimed at that sizable (though proportionally quite small) population that is familiar enough with literature to have grown jaded about it. But it is impossible, really, to grow jaded about literature, or culture, or history, or spiritual aspiration, all of which are slated for drowning in the cold bath of Collins's irony. One can only fail to be equal to them, and disguise one's failure as condescension.

To see how Collins's small, inoffensive jokes imperceptibly grow into large and offensive ones, consider "Earthling":

You have probably come across
those scales in planetariums
that tell you how much you
would weigh on other planets.
You have noticed the fat ones
lingering on the Mars scale
and the emaciated slowing up
the line for Neptune.
As a creature of average weight,
I fail to see the attraction....
How much better to step onto
the simple bathroom scale,
a happy earthling feeling
the familiar ropes of gravity,
157 pounds standing soaking wet
a respectful distance from the sun.

The initial joke—fat and thin people reach a normal weight by going to other planets—shades into something more like a philosophical statement in defense of earthliness, of literal mundaneness. Life on earth is "better" because it is "happy" and "familiar": these are minimal terms, animal terms, suggesting that the important human needs are simple and easily sated. More, they sound like a wise resignation, as though Collins has refused a Luciferian temptation to go too far from home.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, and in other contexts it has a certain integrity. But in Collins it sounds rather too much like "there's no place like home," which is the motto not of those who return but of those who never leave. And very many of his poems are in praise of effortlessness, in the sense of declining to make an effort. Take "Osso Buco":

I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach—
something you don't hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation. You know: the driving rain, the boots by The door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest....

Collins's praise for the pleasures of being lazy, tired, and well-fed is natural enough. What is strange is to suggest that these pleasures are virtues, as though there were something especially meritorious about having eaten a good dinner. But the note of self-congratulation here is unmistakable—the sly use of "citizen" sounds it—and Collins points to its source: it is that such simple sensual pleasures are "something you don't hear much about in poetry." Specifically, it is something you don't hear much about in modern poetry, which has been strongly anti-bourgeois. Rhetorically, then, Collins ranges himself on the side of the reader against "poetry," which doesn't want him to enjoy his dinner. This way, poet and reader can have both sensual pleasure and self-esteem; they can have their osso buco and eat it, too.

Not taking poetry too seriously is a point of pride for Collins, as in "Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey":

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 fellow may be gazing
over an English landscape,
hillsides dotted with sheep,
a row of tall trees topping the downs....

But the feeling is always the same.
It was better the first time.
This time is not nearly as good.
I'm not feeling as chipper as I did back then.

Here we see pop-culture irony returning with a vengeance, except this time its target is one of the most famous poems in English. Collins's scorn is now directed at Wordsworth, who wrote at Tintern Abbey of the loss of his childish feeling for nature:

The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures.

Those are some of the most canonical lines in English poetry because they express the absolute tragedy of time passing, not sententiously and abstractly, but in a truly artistic way, combining the local and the universal. Just the phrase "a remoter charm by thought supplied" contains a whole psychology of childhood and adulthood. Yet this is the poet Collins addresses as a mere whiner, a "fellow" who complains of not feeling "chipper."

WE RECOGNIZE THE same irony previously used to belittle the Victoria's Secret catalog: the deadpan repetition of Wordsworth's ideas, with the clear implication that no one could possibly take such things seriously. Yet it is clearly not the case that Collins is a garden-variety philistine, for whom poetry is just a bunch of nonsense, and there's an end to it. We know that he is, in fact, a poet himself.

So what Collins is really expressing is a discomfort peculiar to the educated: a guilty impatience with the demands of culture. They have read Wordsworth, probably in college; they have an ingrained sense that literature is worthy; but they do not have the time and the patience for a genuine encounter with a work of art. Poems such as "Tintern Abbey" exert a pressure and make a demand, which we are often unable to meet; they expose our distractedness and our triviality. The guilt of such a failure can be dealt with in two ways: it can be acknowledged as legitimate, and spur us to more serious reading in the future; or it can be illegitimately turned back on the work of art that induced it. Collins's irony at Wordsworth's expense is such an act of self-defense.

That irony finds an even bigger target in "The Death of Allegory":

I am wondering what became of all those tall abstractions
that used to pose, robed and statuesque, in paintings
and parade about on the pages of the Renaissance
displaying their capital letters like license plates.... 

They are all retired now, consigned to a Florida for tropes.
Justice is there standing by an open refrigerator.
Valor lies in bed listening to the rain....

Even if you called them back, there are no places left
for them to go, no Garden of Mirth or Bower of Bliss.
The Valley of Forgiveness is lined with condominiums
and chain saws are howling in the Forest of Despair.

Here on the table near the window is a vase of peonies
and next to it black binoculars and a money clip,
exactly the kind of thing we now prefer,
objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case, 

themselves and nothing more, a wheelbarrow,
an empty mailbox, a razor blade resting in a glass ashtray....

The problem that Collins approaches here is one of the central concerns of twentieth-century poetry: "what to make of a diminished thing," as Frost put it, or Stevens's effort to see "nothing that is not there." Allegory, which was merely antique in the nineteenth century, became a vital problem for the modernist poets because it is a system that guarantees meanings, thus a standing challenge in a time when meanings are relative or absent. Eliot in particular tried to make modern readers understand that Dante's Christian allegory is not a childish algebra, but a style of thought now beyond our power.

In Collins's poem, this history and this challenge are drained of tension and urgency, and reduced to another chunk of irony. Allegorical figures such as Truth and Valor are just "capital letters" like those found on license plates: mere typographical conventions. Once they "paraded about" in an unforgivable display of conceit, but now they are safely ridiculous, "standing by an open refrigerator" in an old-age home. Our littleness is assuaged by "objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case," which mean nothing larger than themselves; we can even pride ourselves on our realism. Again, Collins is out to assure us that we need not take the past and its ambitions too seriously.

This idea escapes the charge of mere philistinism because poets, for the last fifty years or more, have been saying something similar. For many serious minds, the best response to the death of religion has been to donate its dignity to the secular world. The passionate observation of the ordinary is a way to endow it with the significance it otherwise lacks. Thus Czeslaw Milosz in "One More Day":

The voices of birds outside the window when they greet the morning
And iridescent stripes of light blazing on the floor,
Or the horizon with a wavy line where the peach-colored sky and the dark-blue mountains meet.
Or the architecture of a tree, the slimness of a column crowned with green.
All that, hasn't it been invoked for centuries
As a mystery which, in one instant, will be suddenly revealed?

Those "objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case" are transformed, through intent meditation, into a mystery. The idea is not new, of course—it is what Auden called the "Vision of Dame Kind," and found characteristic of northern European, Protestant mystics; but it has found new uses in our time. These uses are mainly reactive. Against the death of religion, it asserts the holiness of common things; against the failure of allegory, it asserts the intelligibility of nature; against the violence of totalizing ideology, it asserts the dignity of the particular. But this means that all these contexts must be borne in mind for such secular piety to have integrity. Poets such as Milosz, and his compatriot Adam Zagajewski, arrive at their simplicity through complexity.

So there is simplicity and there is simplicity. Collins offers only simplification. He makes bare assertions as if they were hard-won illuminations. Milosz, in his poem "Secretaries," declared that "I am no more than a secretary of the invisible thing/That is dictated to me and a few others." This is a translation of the concept of inspiration into modern secular terms. Collins uses a deceptively similar metaphor in "Tuesday, June 4, 1991":

By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.
It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.
I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation....
If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,
all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.

This, too, is bowing down before the concrete and the ordinary. But there is nothing dialectical about Collins's love of trivia; it is precisely the lack of difficulty, the loss of mentality, that appeals to him in the role of stenographer. It is not the luminosity of the homely, but its homeliness, that he celebrates. The clematis and the bricks are not the occasion of epiphany; they are simply there, "things you would expect to find." All the poet has to do is affirm that, indeed, they are there; to write down what happens to happen, "an unpaid but contented amanuensis." The quality of Collins's attention is not mystically intense, but breezily journalistic. With such a conception of poetry, it is no wonder that any past poet who has striven for a high degree of tension, in mind and language, looks like a fool.

One of the new poems included in Sailing Alone Around the Room gives the best explanation so far of what Collins believes his poetry is about. It is the amusingly titled "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles." In it, Collins contrasts poems like Sun Tung Po's "Viewing Peonies at the Temple of Good Fortune on a Cloudy Afternoon" and "On a Boat, Awake at Night" with other titles, whose time and place we can guess:

There is no iron turnstile to push against here
as with headings like "Vortex on a String,"
"The Horn of Neurosis," or whatever.
No confusingly inscribed welcome mat to puzzle over....
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner,
cross my legs like his, and listen.

Modernist poetry, Collins's mock titles suggest, is pretentious and willfully obscure; it puts the reader off with its self-infatuated snobbery. Naturally, Collins prefers the lucid and limpid poems of the Chinese. But this is a false choice, because nothing in his work suggests that he even acknowledges that there is a place for difficulty in poetry. His amused indifference resembles wisdom only as death resembles life.

And perhaps he knows it. One of the new poems in this volume, "The Flight of the Reader," voices a self-doubt heretofore unknown in Collins's work. Why do his readers "stay perched on my shoulder"?

Is it because I do not pester you
with the invisible gnats of meaning,
never release the whippets of anxiety from their crates,
or hold up my monstrous mirror,
a thing the size of a playing field?

Meaning, anxiety: can those gnats ever climb the bestseller list? Perhaps Billy Collins, with his large audience and his particular gifts, will be the poet to find out.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.