Ballistics--Billy Collins


This newest collection of the poetry of Billy Collins highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of his ability. The notable poems in the collection deal with the details of everyday life and illuminate the human experience in such a way as to surprise and delight us. This is the final effect of poetry. There should be a little aha, an amused laugh, or a sudden piercing insight--not necessarily of anything terribly important, but just a way of looking at something that hadn't been considered before.

As a poet, Collins has a way of hijacking his own poems and taking them off to some other place. For example, in the poem "Dublin," there are exactly two stanzas devoted to anything about Dublin, the remainder being dedicated to an exhibit of the Codex of Leonardo. This is not a bad thing--it is part of the poet's rhythm and surprise. And when it works, it works wonderfully well, to help you see things in a different way.

Sometimes the very good may be a trifle overplayed as in this example from "Despair."

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,

Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,

While it provokes a laugh and certainly rounds out the point of the poem, it may be over the top. (Note, may be. I like the poem so much that I'm not certain I'm willing to admit that point yet.)

The poems that speak most to me are those that highlight the magic implicit in everyday life. I quoted in an earlier entry from the poem "Tension." Poems such as "Searching," "Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant," and "Looking Forward" are other examples. The middle poem also indulges in a bit of subject-hijacking I spoke of earlier.

References to previous poets abound. Bloom, if he chose to direct his attention this way would relish the anxiety of influence so obvious in some selections. For example, the title "The Idea of Natural History at Key West," and an explicit mention in "August" reveal the influence of Wallace Stevens. In "No Things" we are threated by a "Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker's coat." Ovid, Paul Valéry, Charles Lamb, Juan Ramon Jiminez, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Amy Lowell, and (I think) Randall Jarrell all make guest appearances as well.

A collection worth some time and attention--at time humorous and slight, humorous and gigantic, but almost always joyous with a real sense of play and delight in language that should be a Poet's hallmark.

Bookmark and Share



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 1, 2008 7:23 AM.

The Beginning of October was the previous entry in this blog.

How to Read a Book--John Sutherland is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll