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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Having heard some of Billy Collins’ poetry before, I picked this volume off the shelf at the library. It is a collection of his “Greatest Hits.” I’ve always been intimidated by poetry, so I was encouraged near the beginning of the book with his poem titled “Introduction to Poetry.” In it, he asks readers to “take a poem/ and hold it up to the light/ like a color slide,” and laments that many people want to manhandle a poem: “beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”

Many poems are full of whimsy and mischief. “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” slowly exchanges the annoyance of the neighbor’s dog for the notion that Beethoven included a famous barking dog solo in one of his symphonies. In “Victoria’s Secret,” Collins devotes his full poetic powers (tastefully, of course) to the seductive models in a lingerie catalog that arrives at his house. And I laughed out loud at the lines written about the habits of earnest and discerning students, the ones who scribble comments and notes in the margins of books. “Marginalia” ponders the marks other people have made:

trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
My favorite poem was “Picnic, Lightening,” which begins with an expression of academic resignation to the fact of our own death, unrealized perhaps, but coming:
the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth
from the sleeve of his voluminous cloak.
Yet, the narrator is beguiled from dwelling on this stark fact by the myriad tiny marvels of the world, evident in the soil he is working, teeming with activity and detail; the sun on the rocks, the clouds in the sky, and the sounds of the birds. The last two stanzas speak very poignantly of the contrast between the awareness we have of death and the sensual charm of earthly life:
and all I hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone,
the small plants singing
with lifted faces, and the click
of the sundial
as one hour sweeps into the next.
This poem, like so many in the collection, is a tender and matter-of-fact tribute to the tension we experience between vague mortal sadness and the joy of life.

Title:Sailing Alone Around the Room
Author:Billy Collins
Date published:2001
Number of pages:172


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