New and Selected Poems
By Billy Collins
Random House. 288 pp. $26
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Reviewed by Katie Haegele
'Billy Collins puts the fun back in profundity," poet Alice Fulton says playfully, and she's right. His work is funny, flippant, even rude. But is it profound? Sometimes. Yeah, sometimes it is.
This hefty collection includes work from four books as well as previously unpublished material, and it spans more than 10 years. It is not recommended that you try to read it all the way through. Compiled seemingly with a mission to "bury them alive" by editor David Ebershoff, this avalanche of poetry has the regrettable effect of making people who are fond of Collins' work - and there should be a lot of us, as he was the poet laureate of the United States twice, and was called "the most popular poet in America" by the New York Times - start to feel a little weary of Collins' work.
But don't be discouraged. There's good stuff here. If you pick out poems based solely on how amusing you find the titles, for instance, you will not be disappointed. "Hangover" and "Pornography" are glum and sensual, gleeful and subversive, just as the names suggest.
The collection's title, Aimless Love, is a clever thing itself. I carried the book around with me for a few weeks as I read it - again, don't do that - and often when I saw its cover peeking up from inside my bag, or beside the bed, I'd read it as "endless love." Intentional or not, this play on words has an interesting effect. Endless love is something we've heard of, an idea we can believe in - something that is, on the face of it, pretty poetic. But aimless love? That's good! The poem by the same name tells us what it means: In gorgeous, tender language, Collins describes his huge and fickle love for everything in the world, from Florida highways to brown field mice to lavender-scented soap. How like a poet to refuse to settle down.
Generally speaking, though, Collins doesn't often traffic in the sounds of words, and only sometimes does he play with puns and double meanings. He is best known for creating a sense of wonder in a different way, via charming and unusual observations that often read as much like punch lines as they do lines of poetry. In more than one poem, the title is the gag. One such piece addresses a "large brown, thickly feathered creature / with a distinctive white head" whose name Collins cannot remember, but which he promises to look up in his illustrated guide to North American birds as soon as he gets home, even before he washes the gasoline from the boat off his hands, or hangs the ignition key on its nail, or pours himself a drink - he's thinking a vodka soda with lemon. The poem is called "Osprey."
Beyond his sense of humor - mordant and goofy at once (a fine combination, if you ask me) - he is a master of small moments, the detritus of the modern everyday. He seems to be telling his entire life story in poems, one after the other, about meals and trips to the pharmacy and the article he just read in an architecture magazine. Reading this collection, you have the image of a journalist with a notebook, jotting down every detail, as in every detail of his life - as the title of that E.L. Doctorow book would have it, Reporting the Universe.
And his ideas can be arresting. In "The First Night," he muses on life after death and the inadequacy of words and our minds to imagine it. "This is where language will stop / the horse we have ridden all our lives / rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff." "A Dog on His Master" is a tiny, angry masterpiece from the pet's perspective that should give every animal lover pause.
But other times his ironies aren't, really. He writes, "She was turning the pages of an expensive book / on a coffee table, even though we were drinking tea . . ." and we can't help but think the poem would have benefited from one extra stroke of the red pen.
A reader familiar with Collins' style might find herself wishing some of his older work had been included. The haunting "Some Days" from 1998's Picnic, Lightning, in which he likens a person's life to a doll in a dollhouse, stuck at a doll-sized kitchen table - "staring straight ahead with your little plastic face" - seems more like vintage Collins than some of those collected here. It's a bit tougher, a bit less twee, and, one imagines, the kind of work that put him in the running for poet laureate in the first place.
It happens that Collins has a wonderful speaking voice, and he has done interesting projects with it. For the series "Action Poetry," several of his poems were imagined as beautiful and eerie animated films over which Collins reads his own words. They're worth watching, and if, after viewing them, you find you hear his voice in your head as you read, it won't be a bad thing. It may lend the poems a certain gravitas and atmosphere you want them to have but can't always find.