Former U..S.Poet Laureate Billy Collins has made a career wrenching irony from the small things and people that occupy his corner of the world, something akin to Fred Rogers trudging into his apartment , talking to his unseen friend, and then revealing the special wonders of the banal things that one might find in a single, middle-aged man's drab apartment. Collins' narrating presence booms all over his verses, soft, pleasant, melodious voice over a moderately amplified microphone, complete with windscreen, characterizing the houses, the workmen, the rote tedium of daily tasks done in homes and in small-town business districts. It is not long, of course, before something makes the narrator expand this universe with an intervening sigh, a deep, worldly intake and release of air containing both stress and relief, like someone taking a bong hit, proceeding then to speak of those human conundrums that refuse to allow our lives to remain restful and fulfilling without interruption. This neighborhood is a ganglion of bittersweet recollections, unpronounced love affairs, deferred passion, a corresponding universe of small matters, petty concerns twined together with a writer's straining sense of whimsy. I imagine this world as similar to a perverse Twilight Zone episode where the residents of a nostalgically named small town --Willoughby, anyone--live in knowing terror of the Writer who lives down the street who stares out the window , lurks in coffee shops and public parks, observing, jotting notes into a notebook or typing them into a laptop, returning to his study by mid-afternoon and composing his scenarios based on what he has seen ; inevitably, the scenarios, made up of minor tragedies, crashing irony, practical jokes, or static sadness, materialize in the town, among the residents, a citizenry compelled to enact and fulfill the musings of a writer who is incapable of doing anything else other than reshuffle his templates, mix-and-match his scenarios.
My problem with Billy Collins and this poem are because of his pieces, and his poem ends with a "characteristic Billy Collins twist", which is another way of saying that it reads like dozens of professionally constructed verses he has produced. A twist in a story is a turn that we didn't see coming, in theory, but if the twist is "characteristic", it stops being a surprise. The trick of anthropomorphizing nonhuman things--and that is exactly what it is, a trick--is ultimately a tedious way of talking about human vanity as age encroaches and one's last days near. It is the kind of poem that Collins dispatches with the uniform alacrity and craft a thrice-weekly op-ed columnist produces a quickly drawn essay; the repeated tropes, the favored conceits, the reiterations øf conventional cleverness --are soon enough revealed. I admire Collins the way I admire grade B film directors, those able to produce endless fare with little variation in quality. He is a poet who is vigorously the same after all this time. A vision of hell, I imagine, with the neighborhood transforming with new poetic unfoldings that are, in fact, a punning variation of jokes and anecdotes that have already been told. For the residents I imagine to live in the town Billy Collins' evil twin controls, what began as a stimulating change from their daily lives has become a bother, a terror of mediocre surprise, the case when the Unexpected becomes the norm. For the reader, it is the kind of thing that makes you want to have been over the poet's shoulder while he wrote the poem in question and telling him to stop. "I've heard this joke before", you would say, "you need to write food reviews rather than poems. Please stop."
"Make it stop" a voice chimes in from the poem being written.