Aimless Love by Billy Collins

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“Go, little book / out of this house and into the world… / and talk to as many strangers as you can.”

These initial two and final lines of “Envoy,” as appeared in former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins’ newest compilation Aimless Love, proclaim not just a message to readers, but the spirit within Mr. Collins’ poetic approach for this manuscript. Supplying a broad range of work, Aimless Love gives reader who are familiar with Mr. Collins spoonfuls of hits from his previous collections, and contains a voyeuristic, almost surrealist side reminiscent of New York School poets, like Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, in his section of new poems. Likewise, this convergence of Mr. Collins’ multi-faceted approach makes Aimless Love a stellar jumping–off point for those who are new to his work.

Aimless Love contains selected poems from Nine Horses (2002), The Trouble with Poetry (2005), Ballistics (2008), and Horoscopes for the Dead (2011), as well as fifty-one new poems, making it an expansive read. In each section, Mr. Collins invites readers into the very fabric of his poetry by relying on humor, hypocrisies, social commentary, and hints of voyeurism. The themes explored in this compilation do not necessarily bare much consideration, as they are not meant to challenge a reader as much as to entertain.

The same point can be made regarding the form and structure of most of the poems within this compilation. Throughout much of the selected sections, Mr. Collins utilizes three and four line stanza, similar to Stanley Plumly and Theodore Roethke, which create enough white space to move these poems effortlessly, without seeming to be daunting. However, this style of free-verse form does not stay completely consistent in the section of new poetry, where Mr. Collins explores and modifies classical forms, such as the sonnet and villanelle.

Much of the thematic elements of Aimless Love come down to commentary. In the Nine Horses selection, poems such as “Royal Aristocrat” and “Velocity” touch on the plight of the poet (a seemingly favorite subject for Mr. Collins). Systematically, poems like “Istanbul” and “Love” uncover the varying types of love and longing. The title poem for the compilation, “Aimless Love,” addresses the types of love, while adhering to a list-form: “This morning as I walked along the lakeshore / I fell in love with a wren / and later in the day with a mouse / the cat had dropped under the dining room table… / After I carried the mouse by the tail / to a pile of leaves in the woods / I found myself standing at the bathroom sink gazing down affectionately at the soap.”

For The Trouble with Poetry section, Mr. Collins chose poems that obsess over daily life. Poems including “Genius,” “Monday,” and “The Centrifuge” comment on life and nature, no doubt as Mr. Collins’ attempt create meaning within colloquial phrases and daily experiences. These types of commentaries manifest an invitation to walk with the poet. In his poem, “The Lanyard,” Mr. Collins writes of the relationship between a boy and his mother, stating, “Here is a breathing body and a beating heart / strong legs, bones and teeth / and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered / and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp / And here, I wish to say to her now / is a smaller gift–not the archaic truth / that you can never repay your mother.”

Once again, with the selection from Ballistics, Mr. Collins writes of the plight of the poet. This theme is conveyed in poems like “No Things,” within the lines, “banging away on nothingness itself / some with their foreheads / others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of poetry.” Again in “Baby Listening” within the lines, “Lucky for some of us / poetry is a place where both are true at once / where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.”

Along with furthering the exploration of a poet’s struggles, these poems also make a commentary on art and writing. Mr. Collins does this in the poem, “The Great American Poem,” which comments on the idea of the great American novel, in relation to poetry: “If this were a novel / it would begin with a character / a man alone on the southbound train… / But this is a poem / and the only characters here are you and I / alone in an imaginary room / which will disappear after a few more lines.”

Probing mortality and the meaning of life resonates throughout the final section of selected poems, Horoscopes for the Dead. Focusing on concrete images like graveyards, renovated buildings, and flowers, Mr. Collins uncovers the mystery of mortality in poems like “The Guest,” “Grave,” and “Poetry Workshop Held in a Former Cigar Factory in Key West.”

billy collins In true Billy Collins fashion, the heaviness of these themes are conveyed through humor, which create a light tone of acceptance for such facets of life. Mr. Collins’ humor shines through the weight of the poem, “Cemetery Ride,” where he writes about biking through a cemetery. In it he writes, “wheeling past the headstones of the Lyons / the Campbells, the Dunlaps, and the Davenports / Arthur and Ethel, who outlived him by 11 years / I slow down even more to notice / but not so much as to fall sideways on the ground / And here’s a guy named Happy Grant / next to his wife Jean in their endless bed / Annie Sue Simms is right there and sounds / a lot more fun than Theodosia S. Hawley.”

In the section of new poetry, readers are privy to a side of Mr. Collins which mostly does not appear in preceding sections. Here, a surrealist and voyeuristic voice sets the tone, and Mr. Collins’ interests are splayed–out, like the cracks of a broken mirror. Many poems like, “Promenade,” “The Suggestion Box,” and “Cheerios,” reflect Mr. Collins reacting to his environment much in the same ways of the New York School poets. In “Sunday Walk,” Mr. Collins’ shares, “Not only colorful bed of flowers ruffled today by a breeze off the lake… / And I don’t want to leave out / the uniformed campus guard I saw studying / a map of the campus without a student in sight… / So many odd this to see / but mostly it’s the sun at its apex / inscribing little circles / little haloes at the top of the sky.”

Billy Collins newest compilation of poetry is a joy–ride through all layers of his approach from 2002 to the present, which should not only please his current fans, but inspire many others to dive into Mr. Collins’ work, head first.

Alexander Shafer lives in Oklahoma City, where he writes and plays drums. His work can be found in The Shelter of Daylight, The Writing Disorder, BlazeVOX and Pyrockinection. Shafer works as a Reading and Writing Consultant at the University of Central Oklahoma and he collections Billy Childish records with his paychecks. More from this author →