Sailing Alone Around the Room: An exiting adventure and exploration of the 'ordinary' poetic genius of Billy Collins
The title of Billy Collins' volume of poetry Sailing Alone Around the Room is perhaps even more important and significant to consider than the titles of the other volumes of the poet's work. The title of Collins' volume Sailing Alone Around the Room is the title the author chose for a compilation of some of his previous works, such as Picnic, Lightening. Because it is a compilation of a variety of his works over time, the title Sailing Alone Around the Room clearly 'means something' more in the poet's eyes than a title that is reflective only of a fixed and limited collection of poetry, confined to a more narrow period of the poet's creative life. The phrase Sailing Alone Around the Room speaks to Collins' vision of his overarching work as a poet of modern life, as well as merely his inclusive vision for a new collection. The title suggests that in modern life, with the right imagination, a poetic mind can sail around the world, although the poet may be physically confined to a room.
The title of the poetic volume further suggests that Collins views the poet's work of writing as a solitary endeavor of thinking and engaging with the written word in the privacy of one's study, perhaps, rather than in larger life. "It is possible," he writes in the poem "Picnic, Lightning": to be struck by "a meteor / or a single-engine plane / while reading in a chair at home." (98) The poet need not ride a spaceship to the moon or crash a plane. He can experience such catastrophic or wonderful events in his study, events of similar inner if not outer emotional intensity.
There is also a suggestion of moment-to-moment 'excitement,' in the poetic life for even though the poet is alone, he is still sailing in his imagination. Thus, the mundane work of life, and of the grind of writing, and simply living can be, with proper mindfulness, the stuff of great art. A single room can provide the scope of a great, even epic journey of the spirit. This reference to a kind of Buddhist mindfulness or appreciation of the vitality and poetic intensity that is there in everyday nature, if only we look for it is seen in the poem "Dharma," where Collins marvels at "The way the dog trots out the front door / every morning / without a hat or an umbrella / without any money / or the keys to her doghouse." (137)
How simple, Collins suggests, in "Dharma" the best things of life are, without keys and money -- if only we could appreciate life as simply as a dog! But Collins is never pretentious in his invocation of Eastern Religions, as his poem about shoveling snow with Buddha underlines. (103) Enlightenment comes in ordinary life, but not always easily and as joyously as we might hope for. Even sailing is a manual task, and a difficult one, under some circumstances, just like the writing of verse. And though nature can be beautiful, sometimes grappling with it can be dull and unpleasant like shoveling.
Still, within his individual and ordinary soul, located in his study, the poet engages with eternity in both a difficult and a delightful, funny way, both with the angels of heaven, and memories of those people who are lost to him forever, all while sailing in his mind around the universe, the world, and the room. In the mundane world and the mundane room of the poet's home in "The Dead," the poet observes that "The dead are always looking down on us," even while we the living are simply "putting on our shoes or making a sandwich." The dead "are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven / as they row themselves slowly through eternity." (33)
Even in our ordinary, sandwich making life, we are still being observed by our loved ones, now far beyond -- even if they may be engaged in exciting sight-seeing in the world of eternity, the everyday rooms of our lives are still meaningful to them, and thus they should be meaningful to us, Collins' readers, and meaningful to other readers and writers of poetry. Who knows, perhaps the dead are even perusing a Victoria's Secret catalog with the poet -- for even this act is worthy of his poetic consideration, so long as it…