Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins; Random House, 261 pages ($26). The definitive case against Billy Collins – former poet laureate and probably the most widely popular American poet since the dreaded Rod McKuen – can probably be found in Adam Kirsch’s “The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.” While wisely reminding us that “Rod McKuen was a best-seller but so was Robert Frost,” he also says that “if Billy Collins is a crowd pleaser, it is for a fairly elevated crowd. His ideal reader is a well-educated literate person, probably an English major, maybe even the holder of an M.F.A. who can recognize the surprisingly wide range of reference in his poems: Wordsworth and Stevens, Izaak Walton and Duns Scotus, Nick Adams and Emmy Bovary. Though Collins often honors the tones and strategies of stand-up comedy, making ingratiatingly clever observations on the trivia of life, his poetry is not all jokes.”
When Kirsch brings the hammer down, it is on “a peculiarly American form of laziness” in Collins’ attachment to the quotidian. “His relentless joking can be a way of discouraging curiosity, ambition and endeavor without which there is no greatness in art.” It doesn’t exactly help Collins’ cause that his new books are cunningly issued as what might be termed “poetic product,” i.e. the lion’s shares of the books are collected older poems with a quantity of new ones (in this volume more than 50) to finish the book off. Amid Collins’ new work, then, are many versions of the familiar.
But then among the new poems there is one that squarely addresses those consigning him to the world of pop trivia. It’s called “If This Were a Job, I’d Be Fired.” In it, he writes of reading poems by contemporaries – Gerald Stern, W.S. Merwin (“which made me feel I should apply for a position in a corner sandwich shop”) and Charles Simic (“which ended with a couple on a rooftop watching a child on fire leap from a window, to get me to replace the cap on my pen/put on some sweatpants and go for a walk/around the lake to think of a new career.”) But there’s “five quatrains right there,” he thinks, “as I headed merrily out the door.” America’s poet of Starbucks and sweatpants, clearly. It’s a living.
– Jeff Simon