(New and Selected Poems)
by Billy Collins
141 poems, 263 pages
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8129-8465-1
Copyright © 2013 by Billy Collins
Publisher: Random House
To Order: www.amazon.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
It has been observed that there are only two living poets whose work supports them
exclusive of any other job: Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. No argument here. Ms. Oliver,
who is recently deceased (January 2019) inspired untold numbers through her life story, a
story which also gave rise to her wise and incisive verse. Spend an hour with Collins’
Aimless Love, and you will agree—Billy Collins is a poet’s poet whose work stands alone
among his contemporaries. Little wonder that the former Poet Laureate of the United
States (2001-2003) and Poet Laureate of New York State (2006-2008) is much in demand
as a speaker and lecturer in this country and around the world.
Aimless Love, features selected poems from four of Collins’ seminal collections: Nine Horses,
The Trouble with Poetry, Ballistics and Horoscopes for the Dead. In addition, the compilation
showcases fifty new poems.
It is my inveterate habit to “pre-read” collections of poetry as step one in my reviewing
process by perusing the work for interesting titles. In the case of the instant volume, these
titles, among others, took wing and flew off the contents page: “Writing in the Afterlife,”
“Christmas Sparrow,” “Building with its Face Blown Off,” “Poetry Workshop Held in a
Former Cigar Factory in Key West,” and “Brightly Colored Boats Upturned on the Banks
of the Charles.” Collins often surprises with titles which are in no way catchy, for
example, “Flock,” “Carry,” and “Lost.” Best of all, the poems themselves justify the titles
and never fail in rewarding lucky readers with a memorable poetic experience.
Playful but Provocative
When I open a volume of poetry, I instinctively ask, “Does this poet respect my
intelligence?” That is, does he or she assume that I have a sensible mind? What I like
about Billy Collins is the same thing I like about Ted Kooser. Both poets seem to go by
the maxim, “Why not just be clear?” At the same time, Collins’ poetry challenges me to
think in new and fresh ways about life. He takes ordinary things, elevates them, holds
them up to the light and examines them in ways never thought of before.
In The Lanyard, the poet transports himself back in time where he sits at a workbench at
a camp near a deep Adirondack lake. There the camp facilitators teach their campers how
to make “lanyards” as gifts for their mothers. In delightful and vivid lines Collins
contrasts making a boxy red and white lanyard for …
She who gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard. [Italics mine]
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and I gave her a lanyard. [Italics mine]
When Collins reads The Lanyard in public his audiences react with tears and laughter
imagining a small boy who was
as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
Collins’ playfulness continues in Bathtub Families, which is not just a “made-up phrase.”
No, this bathtub family was part of a shelf display in a pharmacy containing one cow and
four calves, the purpose of which is to float in your tub. He almost buys the display but
resists the notion for reasons that will bring a smile.
When is the last time you carried on a conversation with the entrée served to you at a
restaurant? In The Fish, the main course stares up at the poet with its “one flat, iridescent
eye.” The fish speaks as only a fish can in a Billy Collins poem. Then, of course, Collins
engages the fish in conversation as only Billy Collins can in a Billy Collins poem. Be
sure to pick all the flesh off the bones of this poem.
My basic premise in considering the poetry of Billy Collins is that he makes great poetry
out of the most ordinary things. Few poems illustrate this better than the collection’s title
poem, Aimless Love.
Could you, dear reader, love a dead mouse dropped under your kitchen table by your cat?
Could you fall in love with a seamstress at work in the tailor’s window or a simple bowl
of broth? How about a clean white shirt or a hot evening shower? There’s more. While I
like those things, I haven’t until now, considered them as objects to love or even as
objects worth loving. That is what I mean about Collins as both playful and provocative.
He continually nourishes my heart, perhaps more than any other poet, offering new and
fresh perspectives never before considered. Here is Collins’ defense for the things he
This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.
The poem draws to a gentle close with the affectionate feel of a bar of soap …
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.
Want to live life with an ever-deepening appreciation for common things? Let Billy
Collins show you how to weave lanyards of Aimless Love.