New and Selected Poems
by Billy CollinsThis book of poetry was a New York Times bestseller.
This book of poetry was a New York Times bestseller. I had to repeat that as I had no idea poetry could sell. I knew Billy Collins was popular, just not that popular. But maybe it shouldn't surprise.
When I was a lad, I enjoyed alternative music--a category that held in esteem those artists most of the public had never heard of. It was like a secret handshake with the band name being the password to get into the speakeasy. As soon as a band grew popular, they sold out and were disdained. Not by me, but that was the way we were supposed to treat villainous alternative sell-outs.
Perhaps because selling poetry books is rare, poets look on popularity with similar suspicion. For some, it may be jealousy; for others it may be like giving away the secret handshake, or bringing a tuba, drum box, and electric accordion to a heavy metal concert.
Does Collins and his aimless oboe truly belong in our exclusive poetry club?
Whenever Collins shows up at a gig, he hauls out the following: low-key Catholic Buddhism, clarity, awe for humanity, awe for nature, awe for the quotidian, a penchant to make nothing out of something, and an ear for the audience. This would be enough to qualify him as a minor poet. Maybe he might have shown up in a retrospective anthology or two, but he has two other qualities. One is humor. In one interview online he paused to let his one listener laugh. She did not. So he soldiered on, like any good stand-up comic. But if he had an audience, she would have laughed. The poems do feel more meditative on the page than when he reads it.
The other quality is the strange way he turns his images to present new perspectives. This isn't an uncommon trait for poets, but given the other ingredients in Collins's stew, this is the seasoning that stands out.
Let's take the opening poem, "Reader", where the poet addresses the supposed reader. He lists the possibile reader types, and says he's eager to meet you: "that is me rushing to the window / to see if it's you passing under the shade trees." It closes imagining a very human moment: "wondering where you are--/alone on a bench in a train station/or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor?" He not only welcomes his readers but allows for our inattention, even our nodding off.
"The Country" addresses Collins' special seasoning. He opens with a story about his friend telling him about mice and strike-anywhere matches possibly starting a fire, so Collins takes off with that to imagine the scene:
lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice,[...]That's not quite all. Some poets might have ended there, but he finishes with a jab at his friend: "one-time inhabitants / of what once was your house in the country?"
In "Velocity", Collins zooms in on how mundane thing (a line) that transforms other quotidian objects blooming into action, even things we wouldn't normally associate as active:
"I also drew many lines to indicate speed...
the man reading by a fire,
speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book....
even the child asleep on a summer night,Just in case he starts to build a case for transcendent truth, he steps away ["More Than a Woman"].
speed lines flying from the poster of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillow cases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body."
"I could be listening to music of the spheres the sound no one ever hears...
only the spheres are colored pool balls,
and the music oozing from a jukebox
whose lights I can just make out through the clouds."
The moment has a dual-layer where we inhabit both the celestial concept space and, apparently, a bar. But the last three words lift us to another landscape--not unlike the friend who, upon seeing we are about to dive into our favorite candy bar, points at something fascinating across the street and swipes our dessert. There's some cruelty, yes, but also humor.
This, I suspect, is that nothing the poet refers to when he states he is writing about nothing. But it is less nothing than the kind of misdirection one gets from the zen koans one gets fishing from the bottom of a cereal box. This isn't a slam, but a description. After all, I am still eager to excavate the prize from the bottom of a cereal box.
The poem that offers the book its title--"Aimless Love"--details the persona's many loves, from birds to mice and other varmints he may bump into. There's a gear-switching moment after he carries a mouse to its grave with solemnity: He washes his hands and falls for the soap.
This moment could be played for irony or the idea that he's washing his hands free of the mouse's death, but from the rest of the book's tenor, we can safely assume he means what he says but wants us to laugh at it as well. The title might refer to pointlessness or futility of loving everything, but one suspects it merely means love that doesn't just one single direction, not aimed at any one thing. It's hard not to love a man who loves so much.
This is an excellent starting point for Collins. You might as well begin here as elsewhere though his collections do share a similar perspective.