Billy Collins has become hugely popular in part because he changed the way readers perceive poetry. Now, with Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, he is once again changing the way people experience his work, and both new and old fans will be delighted.
Collins has always been masterful at breaking down barriers for readers and employing an everyman’s voice that sounds familiar, perceptive, and prescient. He knows how to write layered, subtly witty poems that anyone can understand and appreciate – even those who don’t normally like poetry.
Those strengths are evident here, where both writer and reader benefit from the careful selection of poems from Collins’s last four books, spanning 2002 to 2011. The strongest poems seem stronger, and every poem feels necessary. The old really does seem new.
The collection opens with the poem “Reader,” where Collins addresses those who might peruse the book – from skimmers to English majors and perfect strangers – as he continues “rushing to the window” or “picking up the phone/ to imagine your unimaginable number.” That familiarity gives one permission and an invitation to enter the poems that follow.
From there, Collins makes a seamless shift to “The Country,” from the section "Nine Horses," which begins, “I wondered about you.” The continued familiarity forms a bridge that helps new readers delve into the work and explore the subjects and perspective that begin here and run throughout the collection. Experienced readers will also appreciate that shift, the first of many times when poems seem to speak to one another, which heightens their richness and resonance.
A few pages later, the title poem demonstrates another reason why Collins has earned almost rock-star status, enabling him to fill large auditoriums. The poem begins with a bemusing comment that articulates the joy many people feel about the mundane pleasures of life: “This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,/ I fell in love with a wren/ and later in the day with a mouse/ the cat had dropped under the dining room table.”
As the poem progresses, Collins moves from observation to association: “This is the best kind of love, I thought,/ without recompense, without gifts/ or unkind words, without suspicion,/ or silence on the telephone.”
Collins’s wit and insight allow him to broaden the poem with every stanza and convey universal feelings without sounding coy. So many of his poems leave readers feeling as he does several lines later: “But my heart is always propped up/ in a field on its tripod,/ ready for the next arrow.”
Nature, poetry, love, and mortality are threads that appear in each section and weave together over time to create a memorable portrait of the poet who – at his best – is wry, surprising, and effortlessly communicates the thoughts many readers wish they had thought or said themselves.
As the collection unfolds, the associations made in the poems become deeper and broader. Collins becomes increasingly aware of death – a bookend one can’t ignore – and the importance of the poet’s role. By “Horoscopes for the Dead,” from 2011, the work is sharper, bolder, and more taut than before. The last poem is perhaps the most surprising because Collins is so content in the moment that does not feel the need to put pencil to paper:
"Not even that dark cormorant
perched on the No Wake sign,
his narrow head raised
as if he were looking over something,
not even that inquisitive little fellow
could bring me to write another word."
In this pruned, essential version of the work, that thought is cause for alarm. The Collins in these pages is distinctive, evocative, and knows how to make the genre fresh and relevant in an age when commercialism lowers standards and encourages bestselling writers to produce copious amounts of work.
The new work shows that Collins does indeed have more to say, and readers should spend time with these poems, many of which are quite good. As Collins thinks about missed seasons, travel, and “living a life of continual self-expression,” he shows the importance of constant re-examination and discovery, which is vastly different from treading familiar ground.
Even readers who may have felt that they had tired of Collins’s work will appreciate the intuition and striking language in poems like “The Music of the Spheres,” which describes “that chord of seven notes,/ one for each of the visible planets,/ which has been sounding/ since the beginning of the universe,/ and which we can never hear.”
Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry critic.