Spelling it out: Kleinzahler’s “Hotel Oneira” and Collins’s “Aimless Love”

Collins and the New Jersey-born August Kleinzahler grew up on opposite sides of the Hudson River but the gulf between their work is much wider.

The George Washington Bridge on the Hudson River. Photo: Getty.

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
Billy Collins
Picador, 288pp, £9.99

The Hotel Oneira
August Kleinzahler
Faber & Faber, 96pp, £12.99

Aimless Love selects work from Billy Collins’s four most recent collections and includes 51 new poems. Collins, a New Yorker, is a former US poet laureate. He is hugely popular in the States and since his fans clearly like what they’re getting, he shows no signs of changing his formula. Each of his poems begins by noting an amusing or irksome aspect of everyday life: a hotel offering a “baby listening” service (a form of babysitting by phone); a pharmacist selling “bathtub families” (inflatable toys); or the way many young people nowadays say “I was like” instead of “I said”. Such occasions then inspire a few ironic and mildly surreal musings.

The means by which Collins achieves his effects are similarly limited. The pace is always accommodatingly slow. He avoids rhyme and metre, except for the purposes of parody. His line breaks and stanza breaks always coincide with sense pauses, giving the effect of chopped-up prose. Should Collins hit upon a striking image, he immediately spoils it by explaining it.

For example, having written “The proofreaders are playing the ping-pong/game of proofreading”, Collins evidently becomes anxious he has asked too much of his reader, so he adds a line: “glancing back and forth from page to page”. Elsewhere, he deems it necessary to remind the reader that a baby’s ear is “tiny”, that the sun is “dazzling”, that the American landscape is “hilly” and that marble is “hard”.

The pay-off, such as it is, comes at the end of each poem, to give a sense of closure. This usually takes the form of a reassuring return to normality after the poem’s flight of fancy; but if Collins is feeling daring he may end with a surreal image. Either way, the closure is usually signposted by the words “So” or “But”, or by a phrase such as “By the way...”, “It’s anybody’s guess...”, or “It may not be any of my business,/but let us suppose...”. To stage-manage a poem in such a clumsy way insults the reader’s intelligence, and for all the whimsy there is a sourness to this work. Collins clearly equates lack of ambition with humility and has contempt for more ambitious poetry: Dante, Donne, Keats, Yeats and “Irish Poetry” are all mocked and parodied. Aimless Love offers a diminished and diminishing view of art and life.

Collins and the New Jersey-born August Kleinzahler grew up on opposite sides of the Hudson River but the gulf between their work is much wider. Kleinzahler made the news two years ago for attacking the “appalling taste” of Garrison Keillor’s poetry radio show, giving special mention to Keillor’s fondness for Collins. Kleinzahler, it is fair to say, is not a populist poet. His principled avoidance of anything like a formula has kept his work fresh and risky.

Not all of the pieces in The Hotel Oneira work, but the hits far outnumber the misses and always come from unpredictable angles. In his subject matter and in his chosen forms, Kleinzahler keeps moving: his eye is drawn to trains, tank columns, parade floats and cruise ships; and his poems rarely have a centre – instead, you fall in step with him for a spell, passing through an experience before you know quite what happened.

The title poem begins with a sentence that hovers between tenses: “That was a heavy freight moved through last night,/and has been moving through since I’m back”. The grammatical uncertainty is fitting, for this is a poem about both temperamental and circumstantial restlessness: “There is going on just now a vast shifting of inventory/ from the one place to another. I can feel it, inside my head”. We are left guessing at the reasons for the speaker’s itinerant lifestyle: “There is a story here, but one I choose not to know”.

Kleinzahler isn’t interested in maintaining such a plain-spoken style for long and often approaches language like a connoisseur at a feast. “When the Barocco” celebrates the advent of the Spanish Baroque style: Woodwoses mingle with Styrians and Savoyards to a soundtrack of “passacaglias/ of birdsong”. Elsewhere, he extends his vocal range by adopting personas, such as the monkey in “Tuq-Tuq” (“Thass me, your jibber-jabbering Sulawesi booted macaque, most amused to be/braining rodents with fig-buds from up high . . .”), or using collage, as in “The Exquisite Atmography of Thomas Appletree, Diarist of Edgiock”, which draws on the journal of an 18th-century weather-obsessive: “Those Medicelestiall seas of Atmosphere,/a Mappa Mundi depeinted in clouds...”.

The opening poem in the sequence “Snow” describes a tank column moving through a snowstorm. The poem ends:

...Nothing blocks the way ahead. Nothing is gaining upon them from behind.
Their turrets judder in the fierce cross-winds.
This is a lacuna, whiteness, between what was
And what is about to become, in countless volumes,
In rack upon rack of grainy newsreel footage, history.

This is an unusually grand occasion for this poet but the focus is characteristic: Kleinzahler wants to capture experiences live, before they are recorded and mediated. He is always aiming for the moment of potential when something – in this case, history itself – is up for grabs. An impossible ambition perhaps but one that can produce thrillingly various results.

Paul Batchelor is a critic and poet. His collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe (£7.95)