Expository 2010 1st Place
Professor: Charles Cuthbertson
When reading from Billy Collins’ Sailing Alone Around the Room, one may easily imagine this poet visiting a good friend and comfortably talking of recent happenings, past memories, and even planning future activities with this friend. Collins has a way of writing as though he is amiably revealing his thoughts and ideas to a well-known reader. Perhaps as readers, we can indulge upon that imaginative idea.
Billy Collins calmly climbs out of his car and walks to the front porch. Lightly he knocks on an oak front door, which opens momentarily to reveal his friend’s surprised face. They are quickly caught up in a warm embrace and speak of recent events that have happened to one another. Collins acknowledges that he had traveled to Italy that summer. He laughs while admitting “How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer, / wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hill towns” (“Consolation”: lines 1-2). Continuing, he sighs, “How much better to command the simple precinct of home / than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica” (11-12). Nodding in agreement with Collins, his friend invites him into the house to talk more comfortably.
The friend offers Collins a seat while he goes into the kitchen to retrieve a cup of tea for the poet and himself. He returns with the steaming cups in his hands as he jokingly reminds Collins of that evening when they were in the pub. Collins reminisces about that night:
No one wants anything to do with a dog
that is wet from being out in the rain
or retrieving a stick from a lake.
Look how she wanders around the crowded pub tonight
going from one person to another
hoping for a pat on the head, a rub behind the ears. . .”
(“To a Stranger Born”: lines 2-7)
Collins picks up the cup of tea and says over the rim, “I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either. / I bet everybody in your pub, / even the children, pushes her away” (24-26). The two friends snort into their cups while they share the fond inside joke that they had over the years.
Shadows grow long while the two men talk of stories of shoveling snow with Buddha and how he has “thrown himself into shoveling snow / as if it were the purpose of existence, / as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway” (“Shoveling Snow”: lines 27-29). The friends chat about the pleasures of splitting wood: “the stroke of the ax like lightning, / the bisection so perfect / the halves fall away from each other” (“Splitting Wood: lines 25-27). They nod in solemn agreement that “Once every man wore a hat. /. . . / But today we go bareheaded” (“Death of a Hat”: lines 1, 32). Quickly the day fades, and the men stand to end the evening with a hearty handshake, and the friend ushers Collins toward the door.
Collins walks out onto the front porch, but before long the friend calls to him and asks him if he knows a place for a late afternoon walk. Collins turns and, smiling, says:
You know the brick path in back of the house,
the one you see from the kitchen window,
the one that bends around the far end of the garden
where all the yellow primroses are? (“Directions”: lines 1-4)
Continuing his instructions, Collins tells his friend where the best place to sit is, where “the sun strobes through / the columns of trees” (23-24). His friend affirms that he understands, and Collins finishes by inviting him to:
. . .let me know before you set out.
Come knock on my door
and I will walk with you as far as the garden
with one hand on your shoulder.
I will even watch after you and not turn back
to the house until you disappear
into the crowd of maple and ash,
heading up toward the hill,
piercing the ground with your stick. (47-55)
And with a wave of his hand, Collins steps into his car and drives away.
Billy Collins presents the images, similes, and metaphors on paper as though having a friendly banter with a close friend, an in-depth conversation with a cherished reader of his poetry, or even conversing with a respected loved one. He pulls each reader in as though each one is a devoted friend. and he speaks of recent ideas that have come to him, past memories that he has experienced, and future dreams that he imagines. Let each of us delve into Collins’ poetry as a trusted acquaintance and learn and grow from his words.
Collins, Billy. “Consolation.” Sailing Alone Around the Room. New York: Random House, 2001. 47-48.
---. “Death of a Hat, The.” 126-27.
---. “Directions.” 51-52.
---. “Shoveling Snow With Buddha.” 103-04.
---. “To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years From Now.” 89-91.