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The Trouble with Poetry: Billy Collins's Aimless Love - review

Dubbed the “most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, Billy Collins has won countless admirers for his chatty, witty, wholly dependable poetry. At pains to welcome the reader with avuncular charm, he writes lines that are more serious than they seem, though by how much, you’d be hard pressed to say. Wry and self-mocking, his favoured territory is the suburban everyday – a pop song stuck in your head; people-watching on public transport; a “perfect” spring day – though he is most at home striking a knowing and self-referential pose, “looking every inch the writer / right down to the little writer’s frown on my face”. ‘If This Were a Job I’d be Fired’, quips the title of one poem, its narrator swanning off having penned the most inconsequential of verses. Philip Larkin would have surely labelled him the “shit in the shuttered chateau”. But while some critics have called Collins a philistine, there is a productive quirkiness to his poems, finding surprise and profundity in unpicking objects, phrases and peculiar factoids. As a poet who is especially reader conscious, his writing is both unusual and praiseworthy for attempting to balance accessibility with intelligence, “picking up the phone / to imagine your unimaginable number”.

Aimless Love follows on from Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (2000) as the second selection of Collins’ poems for a UK audience. It draws on his four collections published since then, alongside some 50 new poems. The poem ‘Aimless Love’ is as trademark a Collins poem as any, typifying what you may find to admire or dislike in his work, depending on your taste. It finds our poet wandering about, falling for just about every creature that meets his happy gaze, whether “a wren”, “a mouse / the cat had dropped under the dining room table”, or even a bar of “patient and soluble” soap. Some will gag at this kind of whimsical fancy, but it’s worth noting that Collins is rarely committed to a poem’s initial stance; the concept is simply the occasion to get things going. In this case, it turns out to be a reflection on love itself, imagining how it might exist “without recompense, without gifts, / or silence on the telephone”. “But my heart is always propped up / in a field on its tripod”, the speaker laments, “ready for the next arrow”. Though we calculate between its revivifying promise and its emotional cost, the poem suggests, most of us are victims to love’s unpredictable strangeness.

What frustrates in Collins’s poetry is hardly this balancing act between the whimsical and the moving. Rather it is the kind of predictable laziness that creeps into many a gifted poet’s writing, not least after they have had their share of prizes, fellowships and, in Collins’s case, a publisher bidding war resulting in a six-figure advance. There are several gems collected in Aimless Love that everyone should read: ‘No Time’ is a bittersweet familial recollection reminiscent, in its brevity and precise imagery, of Tony Harrison; ‘Ballistics’ conjures a violent daydream that captures our petty enmities; ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ blurs the mythical crossing of the Styx with the “infernal process” of poetry itself, a purgatory where “not a thing is moving, only our diligent pens”. But for each of these inventive, crisp, clear-eyed poems, there are those that make for the poetic equivalent of art that matches the furniture: cosy, winsome, mild-mannered, and utterly forgettable. “If ever there was a spring day so perfect”, begins ‘Today’, before ambling about as if it were a sponsored ad for the great outdoors; ‘Cemetery Ride’ is schmaltzy and similarly meandering, as the poet writes of the ‘dazzling sun’, ‘blue sky’ and ‘sandy paths’: a ‘glorious April day’ to resurrect the dead, no less, and pop them in a bicycle’s ‘wire basket’.

Collins’s besetting sin, however, is surely his readiness to write about writing and the writing life. Whether it be an ‘Ode to a Desk Lamp’, ‘Lines Written in a Garden by a Cottage in Herefordshire’, or ‘Memorising “The Sun Rising” by John Donne’, “jotting down little things” in a “life of continual self-expression” comes far too easily, and it shows. A thin oeuvre is perhaps one of the few courtesies to the reader that Collins has overlooked; his prolific pen has produced some wonderful poems, but they risk getting lost amid the makeweight: “that winter I had nothing to do / but tend the kettle in my shuttered room” states ‘January in Paris’, and we know another bicycle ride is on the cards. “The trouble with poetry is / that it encourages the writing of more poetry”: this is a writer who knows what he’s up to, but in the end, the nudges and winks become tiresome. I find myself wishing for a little more “gravel in the craw”, as the poet once said – the acidity that surfaces in Collins’s poetry when he is on form. Take the “linkage between friendship and money / and the sweet primacy of one over the other” in the blunt reflections of ‘Lucky Bastards’, or the delicious lampoon of ‘Irish Poetry’, raiding its florid word-hoard to “whorl me into knowledge”.

Despite – or perhaps due to – his predictability, Billy Collins remains to Middle America what John Betjeman was to post-war England: popular, relatable, nostalgic, gently comic. His appeal on this side of the pond will likely grow with this latest collection.

review first published in The Guardian