Monday, October 21, 2013

The Laureate Looks Back On Life At 72

Billy Collins, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems

Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins regularly reads to standing-room audiences, and reading his poems, it’s not hard to see why. They reward multiple levels of interpretation, unpack hidden implications in seemingly undistinguished moments, and wink sly humor at playfully receptive readers. But there’s a moment in this collection where a switch flips unexpectedly. This produces a book that starts strong, but ends on a surprisingly flat, tired-sounding note.

Collins’ longtime readers know his familiar arc: an ordinary moment on an ordinary day triggers a Proustian connection, seemingly sudden but wholly consistent. Perhaps memory intrudes, or ruminations run wild—a quote from a writing text imbues a moment with unanticipated urgency, or an ancient photo in a modern building creates a discordance Collins can’t easily reconcile. Sometimes he just starts thinking, and the results surprise even himself:
“Writing in the Afterlife”

I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin
in the leather purse of the man holding the oar,
but how could anyone have guessed

that as soon as we arrived
we would be asked to describe the place
and to include as much detail as possible—
not just the water, he insists

rather the oily, fathomless, rat-happy water,
not simply the shackles, but the rusty,
iron, ankle-shredding shackles…
While scholarly poets vanish into themselves, equating incomprehensibility with depth, Collins recognizes who reads his work. The baker doesn’t bake the bread he wants to bake, but the bread his customers need to eat. No wonder, in a crowded poetry market, readers seek Collins out.

Collins’ poems have familiarity not in their outcomes, which persistently surprise even attentive readers. Rather, we relish the surprise as his words expose something distinctly novel in familiar circumstances. We anticipate being blindsided, and come to prognosticate: what will he do next? Thus he forces us to reexamine our own preconceptions, and turns us into poets ourselves. Could you have created “Divorce,” which I quote in full:
Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
Yes, I suspect you could have created it if, like Collins, you have practiced thinking like a poet. Collins challenges us to circumvent our learned limitations and see moments anew. At his best, Collins opens our eyes, guides us through the labyrinth of our own minds, and returns us to the start, enlightened and ready to bring his lessons in poetic insight into our regular life.

At his best. Sadly, like any of us, Billy Collins isn’t always at his best.

This book suffers moving into the “New Poems” section. Compiled for the first time, these poems lack the muscular through-line that defines his prior sections, and meander episodically. This last section, running nearly ninety pages, percolates with such Hail Mary passes as (gasp!) poems about poets and poetry. Seriously. He has a villanelle, titled “Villanelle,” about writing a villanelle. MFA instructors work assiduously to stop students doing that.
“Lines Written at Flying Point Beach”

or at least in the general vicinity
of Flying Point Beach,
certainly closer than I normally am

to that beach where the ocean
crests the dunes at high tide
spilling tons of new salt water into Mecox Bay,

and probably closer to Flying Point Beach
than you are right now
or I happen to be as you read this. [...]
Not that he stops being good. Moments of insight penetrate, as in “Digging,” about backyard artifacts unearthed, and histories imputed to them. But it becomes much harder to find such moments. Instead, he gives over to what many non-poetry readers disparage in contemporary poetry: formless prose broken into ragged, end-stopped lines. It reads like diary entries, like Collins stops pushing himself to that next level.

It pains me to say this about one of my heroes, but at 72, Collins may be getting tired. Poetry’s heightened aesthetic, its language inviting multiple interpretations, its intensively layered themes, demand time and energy. And Collins, who maintains a teaching and reading schedule that would deplete much younger men, maybe can’t dedicate himself to writing like he once could. That would explain these later poems’ rushed feel.

I love Billy Collins, and I love most of this book. Like the best poets, when Collins succeeds, he could transform our world. But the more a poet risks, the bigger his potential disappointment. Let’s just say, Collins writes more reliably than William Wordsworth; but if you read his work, recognize, not everything succeeds equally.

Poets on parade. From left: Sam Stecher, Kevin L Nenstiel (the reviewer),
Billy Collins, and Rick Marlatt

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