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Analysis of Poem 'Introduction to Poetry' by Billy Collins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Billy Collins and a Summary of 'Introduction to Poetry'

'Introduction to Poetry' is a poem that is more than the sum of its metaphorical parts. Billy Collins wrote it in the hope that it would encourage readers and students to look, listen and react to a poem in subtle imaginative ways, rather than ride roughshod over it.

The title of the poem suggests that this will be a basic, perhaps formal presentation of poetry, where the reader gets to know the poem's fundamentals. May I introduce you to sonnet—14 lines, terrific rhyme scheme, packed with metaphor and anaphora and has an iambic pentameter to die for.

  • But 'Introduction to Poetry' is the poet's way of saying that a poem is a thing of wonder and should be treated in a way that does not cause internal bruising to both poem and reader.
  • In effect, Billy Collins is declaring his love for poetry because, to him, it is a living thing, made of everyday language.

'There's mystery in the ordinary,' according to Collins. This mystery can be experienced by the reader (and the student/poet) if they are willing to approach each poem as if it were a new day in which they're about to be entertained. In this case, by a few metaphors and intriguing imagery.

Reading a poem a day is what Billy Collins wants everyone to do 'so that the poem will be a feature of daily life and not something that's just taught.'

'Introduction to Poetry' by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Analysis of 'Introduction to Poetry' by Billy Collins

'Introduction to Poetry' is a free verse poem of sixteen lines made up of seven stanzas. There is no set rhyme scheme. The meter (metre in British English) is irregular but one or two lines bring the familiar iambic rhythm into play, for example:

or press an ear against its hive. (line 4)

or walk inside the poem's room (line 7)

to find out what it really means. (line 16)

This is a reassuring rhythm because it is said to be the most natural in English, where the voice lowers then rises as stresses change, as in most daily conversation.

Metaphor (hive, mousehole, lake/body of water) and simile (like a color slide) are present, as is personification (torture a confession out of it). These all help to bring energy, texture and imagery into the field of play, which makes for a more interesting read.


This poem has a slightly didactic tone, that is, the speaker is standing before the reader like a teacher or lecturer, using the imperative to get the message across. I ask, I say, I want . . . and they're pretty insistent.

These requests are all direct yet contain a metaphorical package, various images appearing quite strongly throughout the poem.

So the tone is also one of subtle instruction, an appeal to the more sensitive, even playful side of human nature. The speaker introduces light, a mouse, a fun activity, brightness—these are all positives and are set against the more negative images that appear later on in stanzas six and seven.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Introduction to Poetry'

First Stanza

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Just three short words set the tone of the whole poem—I ask them—suggesting that this is a serious poem at heart, despite later playfulness. It is a poem of disguises and conceit and metaphor—and simile. They all play important roles in establishing the ethos of the poem.

So light is used as the prime medium through which a poem can be seen in its true color but first the language has to be held in the hand so to speak before the imagery can be understood.

The poem is a like a slide so we have here a simile, a comparison of poem with a film transparency.

Second Stanza

A one line iambic tetrameter (four beats), asking the reader to listen to the poem, to establish whether or not the hive has occupants, rhythm, a certain buzz.

If the reader listens carefully enough perhaps the nature of the poem will become apparent? No need to look inside to determine if there's honey or not.

Third Stanza

This is an unrhyming couplet, two lines, again with a request for the reader, this time involving a mouse and the reader's observation. The onus is on the reader to initiate—the mouse is to be dropped—which implies that the whiskered rodent is a newcomer to the poem, has never been in it before.

The mouse may be lost at first but with good use of whiskers and nose and the ability to learn, will soon be able to find the way out, through what might be a maze of language. Patience and skill are the tools to use.

Fourth Stanza

A continued second couplet, a parallel action almost in which the reader is invited to walk, not run, around the poem's interior. This inside room may be dark initially but by feeling, the guest should find the all important light switch. And once the switch is flicked, like a bright idea coming into the mind, the room, and the poem will take on meaning.

So the poem is metaphorically a room, with form and shape and that crucial light switch.

Poems may be technically constructed of letters from an alphabet but a poem is much more than a load of neatly arranged words on a page—they're all about feeling too. And the flow of electricity.

Fifth Stanza

A tercet (three unrhyming lines), with the final request—I want them—urging the reader to waterski across the surface of the poem whilst waving at the poet's name on the shore. This is all about enjoyment, risk and experience.

The speaker is suggesting that poetry is water, the element of feeling, emotion and romance, and it is only because of this the reader is able to ski. Yes, have fun, acknowledge the author, but know that only the most confident of readers are able to do both at the same time.

Sixth Stanza and Seventh Stanza

The last tercet. The poem is seen to turn. That all important word—But—contrasts sharply with what has gone before. There is an accusation, the speaker strongly asserting that all they (the readers, the teachers, the lecturers) do is harm poetry by restricting it, doing nasty things to it in the hope that they will find answers and meaning.

How the language and imagery changes. From the light, the hive, the innocent mouse, to the dangerous world of the torture chamber and the cruel hose. But meaning can never be beaten out of poetry, no matter how much you torture it, it remains loyal to itself.


  • 100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005
  • Poetry Foundation
  • YouTube
  • Staying Alive, Bloodaxe, Neil Astley, 2002

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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