It seems almost churlish to complain about Billy Collins's poetry; he works so hard to be ingratiating while maintaining the appearance of effortless composition. He is popular in several senses--among contemporary poets, "popular" meaning appealing to a large and varied audience, is a rare quality, and yet to all appearances, Collins has gained and maintained an uncommonly wide readership. To his fans and his critics, this is attributable to his approach to poetry--he writes what any reader would agree is "accessible" poetry--poems about chance encounters with familiar objects that prompt odd thoughts or responses, providing new perspectives or witty comments about the familiar; or recognitions of unfamiliar objects or experiences that somehow impinge on his consciousness and force him to reconsider the ways the new perceptions force rearrangements of the old and the familiar. The reader is treated to the shared recognition of that feeling of comfort and familiarity, or the feeling of oddness and possible shock, only to be reassured that the new fits with the old, if only through the exercise of some witty transformation or transition. And there is always wit. Perception and wit, clever verbal manipulations of ideas and feelings--what else could we want from poems?
Yet, the repetition of pretty much the same method -- a sharp perception or evocation, a clever move toward defamiliarizing, and comforting reversal returning us to the familiar -- many of the poems reproduce this pattern and suggest to the reader who is traversing many pages of Collins's poems that his work is better read in moderation, a few poems at a time, with long rests between.
This is because the patterns so often seem to be the only excuse for the poem. Collins depends on his sharp senses and his witty manipulation of words to keep the readers' attention while entertaining and reassuring them that they have enjoyed a good poem. That is often true, but "good" is about as much as one can say for them. They are well crafted, they amuse or entertain, on a very few occasions, they may prompt serious thought or deep feeling, but mostly they skim surfaces and allow easy exits.
Collins is very aware of these reservations from his critics. In this collection, we find several poems, a few from years back, a couple from the "new" section, wherein he comments on the "problems" with poetry and with being a poet. "The Suggestion Box," for example, is especially relevant. He humorously describes a day during which several people tell him that he "could write a poem about that." People who know he is a poet offer "subjects" for poems--a waitress spills coffee in his lap, there is a fire drill interrupting classes, he encounters a man with a face full of tattoos, and so on. He jokes that people expect him to write about quirky experiences, and he suggests to himself "Maybe I should write a poem/about all the people who think/they know what I should be writing poems about." And so the cute and witty turn--he is writing a poem about writing a poem in the context of readers' expectations. And that poem entertains, especially with its final image of a pair of ducks emerging from the water, in exactly the way the people expect. It also, to some extent, gets Collins off the hook, since he is acknowledging that there are some who think his poems are shallow while, simultaneously, and justifiably, claiming that there is a difference in depth and significance between his poems about objects and occasions and the triviality of the subjects offered by his readers--he is better than they think, he claims, and that is true.
In another such poem, "No Things," opens with a reference to "This love for everyday things," and mounts a defense of finding the poetic wonder in what another poet called "the stuff of what happens," while giving a backhand to the poets of "no," with Philip Larkin's name prominently displayed as a poet of everyday life who finds darkness, misery, even despair, in the elements of an ordinary day's encounters. Collins's ironic attack on poets who are always "banging away on the mystery" is both a pointed critique (sometimes the doomsayers can be as repetitive and seemingly mechanical in their poetic procedures and Collins is accused of being, but on the negative side) and a pointed self-defense--he values "the firefly,/the droplet running along the green leaf,/or even the bar of soap sliding around the bathtub" and implicitly refuses to be forced to see the dark sides of such images.
The ongoing battle in the American poetry business between the champions of the "accessible and audience-friendly poem" and those who insist that such work is mere versifying at best, kitsch at worst, and certainly not poetry, who assert the superior value of poems as language machines, deep images, surreal or dreamlike experiences (poems are not about anything), leaps of imagination, inspired nonsense, etc., continues and is unlikely to abate, though neither side can produce convincing arguments for the exclusive superiority of their preferred poetic modes. Collins is a high level practitioner of the charming and accessible poem that is both thoughtful and witty, even occasionally moving and enlightening. He is unlikely ever to be ranked with the great poets, because our aesthetic tends to value the dark and serious and probing over the light and charming and amusing. So be it.
As for this volume, it offers a generous selection of Collins's earlier poems and a similarly generous selection of previously uncollected poems. It seems to me to be an excellent introduction to his work for a new reader, a pleasant set of additions for anyone who already knows the earlier works. While there are several very strong poems among the new ones, there is little difference from his earlier work--which is perhaps his strength for those who like his work, though it probably also confirms the negatives for those who do not. The concluding poem in this volume, it must be said, is a departure--"The Names: (for the victims of September 11 and their survivors)" is an uncommonly serious poem--an expression of respect for the grief, the pain, the loss, carried forward as a kind of litany/catalogue of names linked with images of time passing, life ended and life going on. As it really had to be, this was and is an exceptional poem in Collins's body of work.