On Making Wood Pulp from Billy Collins’s Author-Annotated Copy of “Sonnet” (in Poetry)

On April 18, 2013 I attended former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins’s 7:30 reading at the Kent State University Ballroom. He read for a little over an hour. In preparation for his visit, I altered my syllabus for “U.S. Literature, 1865 to Present” so that we could include a sampling of Collins’s poems before his visit. I’m teaching from second volume of Bedford Anthology of American Literature (1st ed.), in which Collins has not yet been added, but I have no doubt he’ll show up in the revision. So I chose three poems from Sailing Alone Around the Room to read with the class: “Sonnet,” “Shoveling Snow with Buddha”, and Forgetfulness.

After his reading, I waited until the end of his signing (he was very generous and stayed for almost 100 people) and showed him the two versions of his poem “Sonnet,” one in my spouse’s copy of Sailing Alone Around the Room, the second the periodical version from Kent State University’s library stacks, also available on JSTOR (subscription required). I had used the difference between the periodical version and the Sailing Alone Around the Room version in my class so that I could ask my students why the two versions were different—and then ask Collins. The difference between the two versions, in wording, occurs in line 2. In Poetry, the second line is “and after this next one just a dozen” (2). In Sailing Alone Around the Room, the second line differs: “and after this one just a dozen” (2). The word that differs is “next,” and my class came up with these two questions to ask the poet:

  • Did you change it because you couldn’t count? (i.e., in Poetry version because the “next” line is the third line and only 11 lines follow the third line). That was a student’s questions. I sorta thought “next” could refer to the line after the first one, the second line, so a “dozen” lines follow the second line (and I didn’t really want to ask a poet laureate whether he wrote a sonnet even though he couldn’t count to fourteen).
  • Were you unplaying the “iambic bongos” that the periodical version had? In the Poetry version the second line has five metrical feet: the feet are not predominantly “iambic,” unstressed followed by stressed, in that line. In my scanning trochees predominate. I’d scan periodical version like this (bold for stressed syllables):

    and af | ter this | next one | just a | doz en

    Even if trochees predominate in this line, a reader might detect echoes of pentameter, hence a reason for the poet to revise that version and undo the bongos.

So, armed with my students’ questions, I went to the reading (which was wonderful). And afterwards he sat and signed many posters and copies of his books. When he was done, I inquired with my class’s question, about like this (reconstructed from my memory).

ME: I have two copies of your poem “Sonnet” here, and there’s a difference between them.
COLLINS: Let’s see, what is that?
ME: A copy of the periodical Poetry.
COLLINS: Why do you have this?
ME: I was teaching the poem in my class, and I asked the students for possible reasons the poem was altered so we could ask you.
COLLINS: That’s a textual variant.
ME: I know. I’m a textual scholar. Some reasons for alteration that we came up with in class included that you did not want to play “iambic bongos” or that you could not count to twelve because “next” is ambiguous and could refer to third line—I thought the last was not a nice question.
COLLINS: I see. Well, that [Poetry version] is the earlier version, and this [Sailing Alone Around the Room version] has been cleaned up.
ME: I was wondering if you could correct it.
COLLINS: Oh, well, sure [He strikes out word “next” and signs below on the page].
ME: Thanks very much [suppressed squeals of delight].

So that’s how Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, came to “correct” (though I wouldn’t necessarily say that—and he did say “cleaned up”) in his hand the Kent State University Library’s copy of “Sonnet” in the journal Poetry. The poem has been anthologized in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It’s officially part of the canon now, I suppose.

Soon, if things go as planned at the library, the copy annotated by Billy Collins should be ground into wood pulp. I need to return the copy to the journal stacks. It’s not my copy—it belongs to Kent State Library. One hopes that libraries preserve scholarship for the future. And this copy is certainly of interest. But I don’t know whether that’s a good idea because the Kent State Library is not really committed to preserving print copies of journals. I am the chair of the library committee for the English department (not a glorious position—I pester people to place book orders), and I recently received a memo from an Assistant Dean for libraries, which informed me that the number of print copies of journals held in library (8000 titles) will be cut in half in May of 2013. The faculty has about 4 weeks to review 8,000 titles, and we in English department have about 260 journal titles to review. Two relevant facts justify removing print volumes of the library, according to the assistant dean:

  • “While the vast majority of our journal holdings are now online, most of these 8,000 titles are not online. Nevertheless, very many of these volumes are ceased titles, cancelled titles, and/or have little or no use for many years.” (Klingler)
  • “In our world, the word ‘withdraw’ does not necessarily mean ‘throw away.’ ‘Withdraw’ means that we review the items for ownership in the state-wide depositories. If the item is already held in the state-wide depository system, we dispose of the items. If it is not held, we transfer the item permanently to the depository.” (Klingler)

In other words, because print journals have little use, they could be “withdrawn” or placed in remote retrieval service called AssureVault. But you see, nobody really wants to pay to store multiple copies in the depository. And the memo does not really go to any pains to distinguish between “copy” in the sense of “paper copy” or in the sense of “digital copy.” In my simplistic bibliographical world, destroying a paper copy is the same as destroying a paper copy, like in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the library world, there’s no such thing as destroying anything unless you’ve destroyed the last copy (print, microfilm, or digital) in the state. And we have other uses for libraries on a university campus. I joke with my like-minded colleagues that we are speeding the transition from library as depository to library as infotainment emporium.

So if not next month, maybe next year, maybe later, this copy of the journal should be pulped. Because, as you know, there are plenty of copies of the journal Poetry available everywhere. And nobody will bother to go to the library to look at paper copies of journals anymore (or so my departmental colleagues and graduate students tell me). Any one periodical is exactly the same as another, and the vast majority of our library holdings are now digital anyhow. So it really makes no sense to keep it and clutter up library space with paper copies of journals that have no value.

So that’s why it should be pulped. To make this point, that libraries and scholars no longer appreciate the value of individual copies of journal articles, which generations of labor wrote, peer reviewed, copy edited, typeset, printed, distributed to libraries, bound into volumes, and saved to benefit those who would follow. But we’re in a new digital world, where scholarship does not exist if it’s not digitally accessible. So if nobody else cares, why should I?

Works Cited

Collins, Billy. “Sonnet.” Poetry 173:4 (February 1999): 274. JSTOR. 26 April 2013. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23045442

Collins, Billy. “Sonnet.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. E. Eds. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 837. Print.

Collins, Billy. “Sonnet.” Sailing Alone Around the Room. New York: Random House, 2001. 146. Print.

Klingler, Tom. “Library Journal Review: Your Input Please by May 10.” Email to Wesley Raabe [and All Chairs, Directors, and Library Representatives]. 2 April 2013.

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