Sailing Alone Around the Room, by America’s Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, contains both new poems and a generous gathering from his earlier collections The Apple That Astonished Paris, Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. These poems show Collins at his best, performing the kinds of distinctive poetic maneuvers that have delighted and fascinated so many readers. They may begin in curiosity and end in grief; they may start with irony and end with lyric transformation; they may, and often do, begin with the everyday and end in the infinite. Possessed of a unique voice that is at once plain and melodic, Billy Collins has managed to enrich American poetry while greatly widening the circle of its audience.
This collection hit the front page of the New York Times its first time out of the blocks in 1999, as the University of Pittsburgh Press, Collins's longtime publisher, denied Random the rights to the poems as the poet tried to jump ship. The two houses and Collins's agent, Chris Calhoun (Dan Menaker is Collins's editor at Random), later worked out a deal that gave Pitt a few more months to ride Picnic, Lightning (1998) and Collins's other books without this culling treading on its sales. As it now appears, the book includes 23 poems from Picnic, more than from any of Collins's previous three books included here. (Work from the early Video Poems and Pokerface is absent.) Collins's poems are generally conveyed by a speaker whose genial, highly literate analogue of earnestness perfectly produces inchoate quotidian restlessness matched by fear-based appreciation of the mundane. A typical Collins poem begins with "How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer," "The way the dog trots out the front door" or the observation that "It is possible to be struck by a meteor/ or a single-engine plane/ while reading in a chair at home" and continues by juxtaposing, say, close descriptions of "the instant hand of Death" and "the rasp of the steel edge/ against a round stone,/ the small plants singing/ with lifted faces." It's a formula that has worked well for Collins, and he does not abandon it in the 20 new poems here. (On-sale date: Sept. 11)