Readers are reassured in Billy Collins determination to be the most understood poetry in American history, more accessible even than, say, Rod McKuen or Maya Angelou. The spirit of the public poet , communicating the subtle essences of not so subtle everyday whims and wiles, thrives in the hands of someone who seems to write exclusively in the manner of Topic Sentences. His poems are an achieved art of assiduously applied craft, a poetry carpentered, chiseled, planed carved and made smoothly elegant , line by line, containing no filigree, no garnish, no excess weight. There's not a speck of cereal, the butcher's thumb isn't anywhere near the scale. He's a poet you can bring home to your family, dressed in a nice suit, clean shaven, well behaved, amusing as the funny local weatherman, able to make you laugh and talk about things you know something about about.
All this is a way of saying that I find alot of Collins' poems to belabour the obvious epiphanies and revelations too often; his work often sounds, on second or third readings, like very polished versions of the sort of desparately ernest themes one reads in high school year books. These are okay when he subverts the cliches and does something that hints at a gamier side of life, but there is no sense of the street in this man's work. There isn't an incomplete thought in his work, nor a sentence that does not contain the conceit of settling an issue with an universe-engulfing allusion. Everything is containable in a neat set of stanzas, and that is what prevents me from enjoying Collins even more. He would rather collect cars than drive them, I suppose.
He's learned well from his masters. What The Symbol shows us is that one of his masters, his teachers, a large influence, is Rod Serling, the television guru of the surreal moral lesson and conspicuous irony.
Mind you, Serling is a sentimental favorite of mine, and I consider much of what he did on Twilight Zone to be done decades in advance of the sort of ambiguous story lines TV drama hands us now; he was a master of demonstrating , over and over, that there is a universe that responds to our vanities, mirrors ours pride, and responds when evidence of our pride upsets the balance of the cosmos. It was the classical formation of Tragedy, and in Serling's hands , it produced absolute little gems.
Collins , though, displays the lessons too obviously and fills the poem with stuff that seem like hand-me-down pathos as we are made to imagine mirrors, opposed to one another on facing walls, reflecting an unending reiteration of the same negative space, forlorn, sad, resigned to their assignations as mere elements with specific purposes in an exacting contexts. The poem under consideration, The Symbol, is a puppet show without the puppets.
.... the reward for their patience
arrived by night in the empty shop
when they could look down the long
corridors of each other—
one looking at the dead mirrors of the past
the other looking into the unborn mirrors of the future,
which means that the barber shop
must symbolize the present, in case anyone asks you—
the present with its razors, towels, and chairs,
its green awning withdrawn,
its big window and motionless pole,
and the two mirrors who lived unhappily ever after.
One of the very cool things about Twilight Zone episodes were the prologues and epilogues that bookended the stories, with a savvy, cool voiced Serling introducing an enticing set of allusions , and then appearing at the end of the tale to wrap up the ends with a sweetly, vaguely melancholic reminder that we are all, after all, subject to fates that are beyond our power to imagine or change. A bit fatalistic, perhaps, a little too much like saying "we're just dust in the wind, man", but this was in service to a story and a gathering of developed characters (or character types) who would ping-pong back and forth as protagonist and antagonist until actions and events provided a satisfying narrative. Serling, it seems to be , had the story in mind first , before composing his more abstract for-warnings and after-dinner musings on what just occurred. He trusted the tale, he knew when to shut up and let the play unfold.
Collins gives us, in contrast, nothing but a Serlingesque summing up through out the poem, a telling rather than a showing of his sub-textual inclination; everything here sounds like a set up. One hears his voice rather loudly over the drift of his thinking, and it makes the poem an overwhelming victory of an identifiable style over a hackneyed premise.