Sailing Alone Around the Room
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. From the Trade Paperback edition.
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As you read through Collins' book of poems, we will explore various elements of his writing: his tone; his style; the themes he emphasizes throughout his work; and the devices he uses and how they impact the meaning of his work. There will be several videos that explain the elements listed above, and questions that help you go deeper with this text. Watch the video below, and answer the question at the end of the poem regarding tone. (This annotation contains a video)
Did you know that this curriculet has a built-in "Define" tool? To use it, click on any word, and select the "Define" option. A short list of definitions will be provided for most words. Try this tool on the word "coda" in the poem to the left.
Which of the following BEST describes how Collins' tone changes from the beginning to the end of poem?
Collins is known for the way in which he makes magical twists in the point of view about his subject. He often starts with a mundane or simple concept, like walking on the water, and then suddenly turns the point of view upside down or looks at the subject from a different, unique angle. In what way does Collins do this near the end of this poem?
A troubadour (shown below) is a composer and performer of French medieval poetry. They sang their songs in the presence of ladies, and their songs mostly dealt with the themes of chivalry and romantic love. (This annotation contains an image)
What theme is Collins' MOST likely conveying through this poem about his troubadour approach to women?
Collins uses personification in this poem to convey a message about the famous saying, "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Watch the video below on personification, and think about how this familiar saying is seen in a unique light through his personification of "History." (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following BEST describes the subject of this poem?
Collins suggests that one should write in a place that is clean, but then he redefines where one should clean, and ventures outside the confines of the home. What effect does this sudden shift have on you? How does it make you look differently at how to find inspiration for writing?
In what way does Collins show emotional transparency in this poem?
One of Collins' more frequently used techniques is called juxtaposition. He juxtaposes two unrelated subjects--like not being able to sleep (insomnia) and the biblical story of Noah's ark--and creates a magical description of where his imagination wanders to while trying to fall asleep. What interesting point of view does he take as he describes the vivid picture he has of Noah's ark?
Which of the following is MOST meant to create an effect of surprise in this poem?
The highlighted phrase is an example of a metaphor. This particular metaphor offers a unique way to look at a book cover. Watch the video below to get a refresher on metaphors and similes. (This annotation contains a video)
Collin's tone of ________ in this poem is made MOST clear by how he connects books with his fondest memories and experiences.
There is no such thing as "universal saloon practice." However, Collins uses playful exaggeration to consider the point of view from someone on the inside (of the bar) looking out. Again, he challenges you to step into a different point of view when looking at something you might already have made your mind up about.
Which line from the poem BEST reveals the author's sardonic tone towards people who are not in the bar?
Pay attention to how Collins personifies death. Why do you think he treats this subject so comically?
According to Collins, what are those who read poetry NOT supposed to do?
Fredrick Edwin Church is an American landscape painter from the 19th century. His regional paintings of Vermont and other New England states hang today in this museum. One is shown below. (This annotation contains an image)
How does the narrator appreciate the artwork in this poem?
Collins makes many allusions to famous authors and poets in his works. Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlett Letter, is referenced here because the main character in this novel, Hester Prynne (shown below), is forced to wear an "A" on her clothing for committing adultery. (This annotation contains an image)
Part I Quiz
In Part I of this curriculet, we looked at Collins' style, particularly how he juxtaposes two subjects or objects in order to create a contrasting effect, like in "Insomnia" where he makes a humorous connection between sleeplessness and Noah's Ark. Part of what makes his juxtaposition so effective is that he uses imagery to help the reader visualize the connections he wants to make. The following video will explain imagery, and we will examine this aspect of his style more closely in this curriculet. (This annotation contains a video)
What is the focus of imagery in "American Sonnet" that Collins uses to share his thoughts on how the poem has evolved over time?
The question, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?", is a critical question that addresses the angelology and scholastic work of the medieval Catholic church. The church insisted on using rational thinking to answer questions about faith. Legend says that Catholic scholars sat around debating this question, while an army seized their city. Thus, this question has come to reflect the pointless nature of highly scholastic, intellectual questions, and the way they make one miss out on what's really important in life. (This annotation contains an image)
How does Collins ultimately answer the question posed at the beginning of this poem?
Collins references historical periods and figures in many of his poems. The highlighted section contains several of these references, and because these references reoccur, we call these motifs. The video below explains motifs and how they tie into the larger thematic message of the author. Can you identify the motifs in this poem that are related to history? (This annotation contains a video)
Below is an image of two pages from a Renaissance manuscript. How well do you think Collins' words (imagery) match the reality of this type of document? (This annotation contains an image)
Based on Collins' tone and the subject of this poem, what opinion has he come to form about modern poetry?
The following video clip is from Pixar's animated movie, Inside Out. The story takes place inside a young girl's head, and this particular scene allegorizes what happens when she forgets something. Compare this scene to Collins' description of forgetfulness. How is Collins' description different? (This annotation contains a video)
Here is the self-portrait Collins' alludes to. How much congruity is there between the poem's description of the painting and the painting itself? (This annotation contains an image)
In this poem, Collins is helping the reader to find ______ in a situation we most likely would have never imagined.
John Constable is an English Romantic painter who spent most of his art career painting the English countryside. One of his works is shown below. (This annotation contains an image)
What appears to be Collins' MAIN purpose in this poem?
This poem is about perspective. Are their objects or events from your childhood that you perceive differently now that you are grown up?
Which of the following BEST explains what the imagery in this poem describes?
"Vade Mecum" is a Latin phrase that literally means "Walk with me!" (as in a command). A vade mecum in modern usage is a guidebook that one carries with himself to use as a reference or consultation manual. Who do you think Collins is talking to in this poem?
Notice how Collins twists the realism of a still-life painting into something magical and surreal. Why do you think he does this?
What kind of person is the subject of this poem?
A page of Dick and Jane (shown below) is what Collins alludes to in this poem. These stories were "First Readers" that were used to teach young student how to read. Notice the simple sentences, and emphasis on building sight word recognition. (This annotation contains an image)
Which statement BEST describes the thematic message that Collins conveys through this poem?
Collins' tone in this poem is self-deprecating. In other words, he's humorously critical of himself. Why do you think he takes this tone when writing about how he gets himself ready to write?
Part II Quiz
Do you think Collins really finds "Consolation" in staying home instead of traveling through Italy? While most readers might be surprised at this unexpected point of view, we must consider that Collins is using irony. The video below explains irony. Which version of irony do you think Collins uses throughout this poem? (This annotation contains a video)
Osso buco is an Italian dish made with veal (bone-in, as shown below) and often accompanied with an assortment of vegetables and risotto rice. (This annotation contains an image)
What does the osso buco meal MOST awaken in Collins?
As with many of Collins' poems, the reader may not always get what he expects based off of a literal understanding of the title. Collins always finds a way to twist the narrative into a deeper, more magical moment of contemplation about life. How does Collins convey the theme of life and death in this poem?
The Dixie Hummingbirds, Five Mississippi Blind Boys, and other groups mentioned are all Southern gospel groups.
What does Collins criticize about his culture through this poem?
Collins celebrates the simple things in life. What images does he best remember of his days when he smoked?
Which image in this poem BEST creates a sense of tension?
Samuel Pepys (shown below) is an English naval commander from the 17th century. His most famous contribution to history, though, is the private journal he kept that documented details about daily life in England, including significant historical events, like the Great Fire and the Black Plague. (This annotation contains an image)
What connection does Collins make between the English journalist Samuel Pepys, the Greek goddess Aurora, and himself?
The highlighted text is an invocation--a popular literary device used in poetry. The poet invokes, or calls out, to a higher being or an object of reverence. In what ways does Collins show reverence to Canada and his memories there?
What theme does this poem MOST touch upon?
Collins poetry often writes poetry about writing and reading poetry. This poem gives us an introspective view of Collins' mind as we get to see the train of thought in his analysis of a poem. In what ways can you relate to his experience of reading a poem?
Collins writes many poems about writing poetry. What tone does Collins have towards poetry in this poem, "Budapest"?
Think for a moment about the imagery used in this poem. How does Collins creatively use images to offer a fresh perspective on what it feels like to live into a new century?
Where did Collins MOST likely come up with the idea for this poem?
This poem is an example of Collins' self-depracating tone. He is making references to the time period when man thought that he was the center of the universe, and that the sun and moon rotated around Earth. Science has shown that this is not true, but historians like to look back and say that man thought this because of his egocentric view of life--everything revolves around us. What brutal truth is Collins revealing about himself in this poem?
What subject is Collins MOST making fun of in this poem?
Collins calls his piano a "hallucination." Why do you think he describes his piano using this specific metaphor?
This poem alludes to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." Listen to the song, and make connections in the text to the lyrics and music in this song. (This annotation contains a video)
What theme does Collins BEST convey in this poem?
What subtle statement does Collins make about femininity in his society? Think about the contrast Collins makes between the woman on Earth and the woman in a science fiction movie. The poster below presents one of many sci-fi heroines from Collins' time. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of Collins' central ideas does this poem MOST refine?
Collins' writing is full of tension. Watch the video below. It explains tension more clearly. Think about the tension between nature and melancholiness in this poem. Also, think about how other conflicts arise throughout Collins' work, and how they help you see themes and sense the mood and tone more clearly. (This annotation contains a video)
What inner tension does Collins MOST acknowledge in this poem?
One aspect of Collins' appeal is that he takes everyday topics (like prepping foods for dinner) and well-known art (like "Three Blind Mice") and plays out the ridiculous logic of these things that people hardly ever question. Most people don't take the time to really think deeply about little things. This is one of Collins' main messages. Try to experiment with this perspective. Think about a little saying or behavior you do every day, and ask questions about it, dissect it, play with it.
Collins suggests that he is often full of _______ while nature is in harmony with itself.
Consider how Collins slows the pace of the last lines of this poem. The first part of the poem seems to move at a brisk pace, but the last part slows down for him to talk about "the one I think of most often". Why do you think Collins makes this change? What effect do you think he hopes to create?
Which of the following themes does this poem humorously approach?
Death is the subject of this poem. Many poems treat this subject by inviting the reader to have courage in the face of the inevitability of death, like Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." How does Collins offer a humorous approach, though, to the fears that he has of death?
Which of the following words BEST describes the mood Collins conveys through the highlighted simile at the end of this poem?
Collins switches his point of view twice in this poem. The first point of view is his. He looks at the smallness of the bonsai tree relative to everything around it. He then switches his point of view. What point of view does he take in the second half of the poem? Why do you think he makes this shift?
How does Collins MOST change through his experience shoveling snow with Buddha?
Listen to a few minutes of Theolonius Monk's "Ruby, My Dear." Do you agree with Collins' point of view about how this song connects to snow? (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following perspectives about poetry does the haiku about a moth and bell help shape in Collins' mind?
Collins is using a technique called anthropomorphism in this poem. He is giving unreal objects--in this poem, pictures of Victoria's Secret models--human traits and behaviors. Obviously pictures don't talk, and he's imagining that they are, but in animating these models, he's revealing his inner psyche. What do you learn about him from his perspective about these models?
"The Madonna of St. Jerome" is shown below. Why does Collins suddenly shift from risqué lingerie models to this Renaissance painting? (Hint: the Victoria's Secret ads are meant to create a different effect on the reader based on their eyes and posture.) (This annotation contains an image)
Which aspect of human life does Collins MOST convey through this poem?
Click on the link below to read William Wordsworth's original "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey." Why do you think Collins chooses to write a new version of this poem? How is his message different from Wordsworth's? (This annotation contains a link)
Why does Collins MOST likely write this paradelle?
Collins talks frequently about the process of writing and the struggles he has as a poet. Why do you think he writes an elegy for the poem he wrote in his head but could not remember?
It seems like this poem was going to get a little steamy. Collins, however, cuts the undressing of Emily Dickinson short, and gives her a little more privacy than what we might expect. Why do you think he makes this choice?
Collins intersperses lines from Emily Dickinson poems throughout his poem about her. Do you recognize any others?
What message is Collins attempting to convey in this poem about Emily Dickinson?
Notice the imagery Collins uses here to describe a piece of wood split into two halves. What effect does the unexpected erotic language and imagery have on you? What does this tell you about Collins' perspective?
The real tension in this poem is between
Collins is not afraid to express the irrational thoughts and feelings that he has. What fear does he express in this poem?
Which of the following BEST describes the mood that Collins creates in this poem?
It's obvious that Collins is alluding to several well-known literary works, like the creation story in Genesis ("This is where you find / the creation of light"), Darwin's "Origin of Species" ("a fish wriggling onto land"), and John Milton's Paradise Lost. As you read, you will notice he is describing the structure of a story. But if you look more closely you will notice that this poetic description of structure carries another message.
Collins' description of the structure of a narrative or drama (beginning, middle, and end) is to convey which of the following messages?
Collins' use of the phrase "If only" throughout the poem is an example of repetition--a literary device that poets and authors use to achieve various effects. What effect do you think the use of this phrase has on you as you read this poem? (Hint: Notice how Collins' perspective about dogs evolves from the beginning to the end.)
The title of this poem is an example of
Which type of imagery does Collins use in order to create a sense of playful suspicion?
Collins reflects often on his childhood and the reverence he had for his days of youth and imagination. How does this poem compare to his other poems on the same topic?
Why does Collins compare his unwritten poem to a bird?
As you get close to finishing this book of poetry, think back to the poems that Collins writes about writing poetry. What would you say is his general attitude towards the structural methods of his poetic predecessors? What attitude does he have in this one towards sonnets?
What element of this poem creates a humorous effect based off of irony?
Collins helps us appreciate the things in life we might take for granted, like waiters and waitresses. We have all been served so many times by people whose faces and names we don't remember. Do you think this poem helps you become sentimental about your experiences with waiters and waitresses?
Why does Collins use sarcasm in this poem?
As you read this poem, you tend to trust that Collins is leading you to discover some great moral truth. Maybe it has to do with the musician's passion to put work before pleasure. Maybe it has to do with the intelligence and musical genius of the young boy. How does Collins shatter your expectations at the end of this poem? Why do you think he does this?
This poem makes a sobering statement about masculinity. What is it?
How does this poem pertain the theme of the struggling artist Collins has penned again and again?
What tone does Collins MOST convey throughout the entire poem based off of just this one highlighted line?
Collins shares very intimate details about his inner-life. Take a moment and reflect on what experience Collins is trying to share with you in this poem. Have you ever felt this irrational jealousy over a bad dream you had?
A tome is a large, heavy book. Most books we see these days are not this large, but older styles and methods of printing created larger books like the ones shown below. (This annotation contains an image)
In reflecting on the pleasure he has reading a book about world history, what does Collins MOST come to realize?
Collins takes serious subjects, like egocentrism, and treats them humorously. Why do you think he does this so often in his work?
What does "pedalling" represent in this poem?
Collins talks a lot about the past, the present, and the future. At times he celebrates the past, but at other times, he seems less celebratory about it, like in this poem. Why do he seem this way in this particular poem?
A cormorant (shown below) is a type of bird who feeds off of fish at the surface of the water. (This annotation contains an image)
Which complementary images in this poem BEST symbolize the emphasis on the life and death theme?
Part III Quiz