When I first began reading poems with zealous aplomb, I was still a teenager, fresh out of high school, and I needed poets who were accessible. Initially at least, I appreciated the poets who were conversational, who illusioned that the complexity of their language was veiled by its casualness. I’ve progressed a long way as a reader and a writer, and in turn, my palette for poetry has changed. Of course, there are plenty of poets who I adore deeply from when I was a fledgling poetry enthusiast years ago—I still love Fleda Brown, Pablo Neruda, and James Brock, possibly even more with age.
During this time, I became a devout Billy Collins fan. I consumed “The Art of Drowning” (1995) and “Picnic, Lightning” (1998) like fast food burgers. His work was seminal to the way I now perceive a poet crafting their own specific voice. A week ago I picked up Collins’s most recent collection, “The Rain in Portugal,” partially because I hadn’t read his work in years, but also because my obligation seemed driven by my contemplation of whether or not his work would hold up.
Granted, before admonishing disappointment (perhaps in myself), the preface to make is that Collins knows what he’s doing. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States almost 20 years ago, so his verse isn’t for nothing. However, my inclination to sift through “The Rain in Portugal” and find anything unexpected came up short. It’s undoubtedly a Billy Collins poetry collection, but I eventually found myself dragging my eyes across the pages.
This is my fault. I wanted to believe Collins could hold up, but in the spirit of his contemporaries, and my own evolving desire for diverse poetry, it was almost as if he didn’t know how to not be Billy Collins.
“The Rain in Portugal” is a prime example of poetry, that, albeit full of voice and life, is to some degree gasping for air. Maybe I’m the one who’s exhausted. Maybe I’m the one who’s tired of easy poems about dogs and observing things out one’s window. Collins has never felt this distant to me, but I ponder if it’s actually me who’s moved away. At his most personal form of closeness with the reader, Collins demonstrates the relaxed perspective of a philosopher who has never wanted to argue with anyone, but rather create a comfortable relationship with us. I miss Billy Collins in a way that I don’t quite know, and yet, after “The Rain in Portugal,” it appears that, in some fashion, maybe I do know.