The Troubador's Simple Songs
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
(Random House, 2013)
I once worked in a bookstore and this large soft, new-age guy—Lennon-ish spectacles, long hair, deep interest in eastern philosophies and martial arts/practices, tea instead of coffee—was just enough off that I couldn’t like him. One night he was doing stock work in the basement, and, the next day, we discovered that, along with stocking, he’d scrawled Collins poems on large sheets of paper and taped them all around. They stayed hanging up the rest of the time I worked at the bookstore, neither offensive nor in-enough to matter. They were mental furniture.
Which is largely how I’ve thought of Collins: he’s been in the world of poetry for the last few decades, popular enough with the folks who cherish the stentorian whispers of NPR, was the U.S. Poet Laureate—verily laurel-wreathed in matters of success or attainment, yet not once has a friend or acquaintance ever texted or called saying man, you have to read this new Billy Collins poem. Liking Collins’ work felt sort of silly, the equivalent of liking a utility: I love Con Ed. Who gives a shit?
And then: I began to have to teach poetry, and because it can be tough and moderately saddening to teach stuff you adore, to watch students manhandle the (literary) things that most move you (plus it’s often deeply hard to articulate how something you adore is working and pin it up like a scalpeled-open bug when, more often, our response is a thickish all-senses yes), I found myself thinking well, hell, fine and reaching for a Collins poem, and using it in class, and suddenly students got it. Students reacted strongly to his stuff, and to one they were enthusiastic because finally they got it—a sensation frustratingly rare on offer to novice poetry readers from contemporary poetry.
Here’s a representative start to a Collins poem:
One bright morning in a restaurant in Chicago
as I waited for my eggs and toast,
I opened the Tribune only to discover
that I was the same age as Cheerios.
That’s from “Cheerios,” one of the new poems in Aimless Love, Collins’s latest new and selected collection, and it hews closely to what might be called the Collins pattern: the poem is chatty, genial, approachable, and, as (almost) always, centered around Billy Collins (a vanishingly small number of his poems don’t feature an “I” or “us”). His subject matter is, almost always, himself, and to get at himself, he frequently uses either writing and reading, or he uses banalities (like breakfast)—or, maybe better said, mundanities (having a glass of wine, for instance).
That poem, “Cheerios,” continues with Collins reflecting on how he’s slightly older than Cheerios (“for today, the newspaper announced, / was the seventieth birthday of Cheerios / whereas mine had occurred earlier in the year.”), then imagining how he’s perceived: “Already I could hear them whispering / behind my stooped and threadbare back, / Why that dude’s older than Cheerios.” The poem ends with sunlight shining on orange juice.
The word is millieu: what Collins does more and (perhaps) better than any writer going is create ambiances of tiny day-to-day scenes in which incredibly small things happen to some end of varying significance. He’s the reigning king of domesticity. There is of course tremendous value and glory in poetry which focuses on and considers tiny things and tries, through centering focus on such, to allow the reader to extrapolate outward, to move from a small, specific a-ha to a larger, more abstractly encompassing one (most poets working now operate thus: Kay Ryan’s work’s another great example). And Collins’s work has the added bonus of precision: he almost never offers the reins to muddling ambiguity (another key reason novice poetry readers can so easily find purchase, through Collins, on the otherwise unsettlingly sheer cliff face of Poetry).
Yet there, I’d argue, is the rub: Collins’s poems are almost never really searching. They’re almost always pat: they’re quaint, delivered things the reader simply receives instead of taking part in. Maybe this is just me, though I doubt it. Collins asks the reader to do very, very little work, and while a reader’s work-load can’t be an exclusive metric regarding any art’s goodness, isn’t there some element of the creator and receiver working together in lots of good art? Isn’t one of the big rewards of art not that we’re merely given something, but that we feel rewarded for taking part, for the emotional/intellectual work the art calls of us? The lack of work goes both ways: Collins asks us to do little, and he himself, in the poetry, spends more of his energy crafting economically precise lines than on trying to, for lack of a better phrase, Go Big: he establishes wonderful milieu and settings but then, most of the time, takes awfully paltry risks within them. In “Cheerios,” the poem really is merely a man reflecting on the age of things—himself, a breakfast cereal, hills. That’s it. Collins builds for himself no opportunity to move the poem (or its significance) from the booth at which he’s about to eat breakfast. It’s pleasant but unruffling art, inert. It’s fine: nothing to fire you up, nothing to Mapplethorpeianly drive you to denounce it.
One wants not to get too broad, but it’s worth noting that our present faith in the unearned pleasure of certain pursuits (government, religion, art) is an anomaly. Call it the candyification of living: as recently as a hundred years ago, effortless reward didn’t really make sense. Satisfaction came hand in hand with strain, was in fact the result of strain. Certainly, too: poetry once was oral and much more bawdy and fun, less the chewed-arm-of-spectacles thing it now is. If you’re willing to think in those terms, Collins is almost pre-modern, a troubadour singing simple songs we’re welcome to take in, enjoy, and let go of easily. There is of course nothing the matter with this, but one almost wishes to ask Collins to make us work a little bit more, to ask him to take bigger risks, to trust that we’ll follow further out than simply a mildly intellectual breakfast.
WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of You'd Be A Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX Books, 2010) and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press, 2012).