I rarely read a book of poetry, and my taste runs more to Rudyard Kipling than most modern poetry. However, when I learned this book included a poem on etymology (something of a pleasure for me), I undertook to explore Billy Collins’ poetry.
What I discovered was articulate and evocative description to delight and surprise me. His ability to capture a place, time, or mood is significant, and I believe I enjoyed every one of the poems in the first section “Away,” though some connected with me more than others.
The second section, “Home,” frustrated me though.
Again, the description is written with a talented hand, the moments firmly captured so they unfold in front of me. And yet, in this same section is a dismissal of every reader’s experience, every moment of connection or understanding, as over-thinking. The poem, titled “Introduction to Poetry,” rails against the look for deeper meaning in poetry, a common refrain, and one I can sympathize with even as I reject the premise. But then, this is me finding meaning, so would most likely be dismissed as “beating it with a hose.” Or perhaps he’d consider I understood this poem perfectly, while rejecting the other meanings that tore me from his description and broke the connection I’d found.
My issue with several of the poems in “Home” is how they reveal him a result of rather than a commentator on society. “Child Development” is a wonderful, perceptive understanding of both childhood and the strictures put on people in the name of maturity that deny our actual experience or bury it deep where it springs forth in unreasoned anger or self-destructive behavior.
Then, having built that expectation, I get to “Earthling” where, in a few, short stanzas, Collins manages to connect with shared experience and then reject that experience and every person who does not fall into the “norm” who can revel in being perfectly adapted. Sure, it can be interpreted as him saying to be happy with who you are. However, he makes a point of establishing the personal happiness in the context of someone who is “average” while using those descriptive skills to point out the “other than average” nature of those who are not well suited, in his opinion of their opinion, for Earth.
There’s no apparent awareness of the underlying message that is weighed down with social convention and denying anyone who stands outside that norm. There are other poems in the collection with the same type of message, so disappointing when so much of the poetry is communal with shared experiences presented vividly.
Ultimately, I’d recommend reading Billy Collins’ poetry for his clear understanding of the English language and his ability to paint pictures in so few words by choosing the one detail that the majority of readers will have experienced, if not in the place where Collins’ refers to it. That is the strength of his poetry, and well worth experiencing. However, be aware that he is a product of his society, and when not directly intending a commentary, the commentary he offers is one of conformity.