The newest book by Billy Collins was probably on the wish list for many poets this holiday season. But if you didn't find The Trouble With Poetry: And Other Poems, Mr. Collins's seventh collection, under your tree, it may be just as well.
Those familiar with Collins's work know that he is masterly at writing witty, accessible poems that illumine ordinary moments. That ability - and his use of graceful, unpretentitious language - has made him a literary pied piper, with a following of both general readers and serious writers.
In "The Trouble With Poetry," however, the piper seems overly concerned with attracting the masses. The opening poem, "You, Reader," begins: "I wonder how you are going to feel/ when you find out/ that I wrote this instead of you."
Perhaps intended as funny or tongue-in-cheek, the lines instead come across as self-observed and obvious. The second poem, "Monday," is also self-conscious, as Collins explains that "what the oven is to the baker ... so the window is to the poet":
Just think -
before the invention of the window,
the poets would have had to put on a jacket
and a winter hat to go outside
or remain indoors with only a wall to stare at.
Kind readers may dismiss this as a bit of throat-clearing on the page, but the warm-up continues for much of the book. The poems feel undeveloped, and the language is often disappointing, as when the poet states that "All I wanted was to be a pea of being/ inside the green pod of time."
This is not quintessential Collins. There's little spark or imagination as he muses about literary history, savors a beautiful day, or recalls going to a friend's house and finding no one there. Perhaps to compensate for lack of inspiration, Collins returns to well-trodden ground or overanalyzes. Take, for example, these lines about Florence, a harried waitress, from "Traveling Alone":
Florence looked irritated
as she shuffled from table to table,
but was she just hiding her need
to know about my early years -
the ball I would toss and catch in my hands,
the times I hid behind my mother's dress?
There are a few good pages in "The Trouble With Poetry," but in general, the most satisfying moments come at the end of the poems, as if Collins suddenly regains his touch.
The one stellar poem is "Flock," about sheep in a pen, unaware that their skin will soon be used to make a Gutenburg Bible. This poem moves beautifully, easily, and has the quiet, meditative tone the poet seems to be aiming for throughout the collection.
Unfortunately, with so few high points, the reader is left wondering if this excerpt from the title poem unwittingly explains what happened:
the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
While Collins points a finger at other poets here - there are more people who write verse than read it these days - his message may apply to himself as well. Cranking out book after book, trying to keep an audience happy, can lead to unsatisfying results.
• Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.