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This review is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

ALL THE SAME BILLY COLLINS, The Trouble with Poetry (Picador) £8.99

Billy Collins's 'Theme' opens with the speaker feeling a poem coming on:

It's a sunny weekday in early May
and after a ham sandwich
and a cold bottle of beer on the brick terrace,

I am consumed by the wish
to add something
to one of the ancient themes -

This addition to the Muse's trove involves clichés like 'the roaring juggernaut of time', 'Nature's cyclical return', 'the fountain of creativity', 'frosty disregard', and so on. In 'Theme' we have, in fact, all of Collins's tricks: a poem about wanting to write a poem about Big Themes but finding oneself outscaled. At the end the speaker is picking out, 'with [his] index finger/ the melody notes of "Easy to Love"', having claimed his victory for ordinary experience and ordinary language against the crushing weight of the past.

The trouble with Billy Collins's poems is that they are all the same: their tone is the same, their subject is the same and their movement is the same. The tone first: it's a sort of chatty, homely patter that likes to think of itself as unflashy, wise and avuncular, quarrying meaning and wonder from life's trivial incidents. Collins tries to sound weathered and blokey, but he is in fact one of the most slickly packaged poets around.

Then the subject: Collins's poems are about him, and variations of him, even when these variations happen to ...


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