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Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Introduction and Text of "Introduction to Poetry"

The opening poem from "Poetry 180" is appropriately titled "Introduction to Poetry." Public high schools in the United States are mandated to offer instruction for a total of 180 days per academic year; thus, the ambitious title of the project demonstrates that Collins had hoped to insert a poem into each day's readings for the academic year. It would be fascinating to know the results of this experiment, that is, how many of those public schools actually offered a poem a day and for how long!

The first poem is one of the Poet Laureate Collin's own creations. It consists of seven movements in six versagraphs, offering instructions to students about how to understand a poem.

Introduction to Poetry

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.

Billy Collins Reading "Introduction to Poetry"

Commentary

Employing a bit of levity along the way, the speaker of this poem attempts to offer instructions to students about how to understand a poem.

First Movement: Looking for Images

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

The first versagraph features three lines, wherein the speaker, likely a teacher beginning a lesson on poetry, but the instruction sounds like something a science or photography instructor might command.

The act of trying to look through the poem stands metaphorically for the act of merely perceiving what is in the poem. As one would look through a "color slide," one may look through the poem for its imagistic contents.

Second Movement: A Metaphoric Turn

or press an ear against its hive.

The next versagraph, consisting of only a single line, takes a metaphoric turn from sight to hearing with the ears being "press[ed] against" a beehive. The speaker directs the student to listen carefully to what the poem is saying, just as curiously as they would listen to busy bees inside a hive as the bees make honey.

The speaker cleverly avers that a poem may contain colorful things, interesting sounds, and even sweetness of images, if they will only looks and listen to perceive with their senses these pleasantries.

Third Movement: Stimulate Discussion

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

Now the speaker, like a science instructor, asks the students to introduce a mouse into the poem and watch its behavior. The mouse's purpose is to help stimulate the discussion of possible meanings.

While perusing any written discourse, especially a poem, the reader must speculate, asking what if this means this, what happens then. The "mouse" represents metaphorically the questioning of "what if."

Fourth Movement: Another Approach

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

The speaker then suggests another approach: he instructs the students to walk around inside the poem’s metaphorical "room." He leads them to looking hard for whatever shred of connective meaning they can find.

The speaker attempts to lead them to search deeply, to think deeply about the words and how those words might lead to meaning. The colorful and fascinating images of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch should ping the mind with possibilities, if that mind is fully engaged.

Fifth Movement: Think Playfully

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

The teacher/speaker directs them to metaphorically "waterski" over the poem as if it were a lake as they wave "at the author’s name on the shore." He offers this metaphor to make sure they continue thinking playfully about the poem's possibilities.

Just a nod to the poet is all that is needed. They need not concentrate on the poet's biography to gain meaning and enjoyment of the poem. The poem will click inside the head of each student, if s/he is fully engaged with the piece.

Sixth Movement: Stolen Meaning

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

Drawing to a close with the lesson, the teacher/speaker reports that the students, in customary fashion, expect the poem to display its meaning as if by confession. They therefore want to treat the poem like a capture spy and "torture"it until it tell them something they think they might want to hear. They seem to think that the poem is like a thief who has stolen the meaning of poem and is hiding it somewhere out of sight.

Seventh Movement: Loving Attention and Gentle Playfulness

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

Instead of offering the poem their loving attention and gentle playfulness, these students want to treat it as if it were a criminal. The poem would easily yield its treasures, if only they would calmly watch, listen, feel, and truly think about what is before them.

Reading and Appreciating a Poem

In Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry," the speaker is attempting to overcome the prejudices of students who have remained without poetry most of their academic lives. Those students believe that poems have hidden meanings which only the teacher can find. This speaker's instructions are meant to lead the students to think for themselves about the poem's promises, its images, and special nuance.

The speaker leads the students to find in the poem the keys to understanding and appreciating the piece. By likening the study of a poem to a science study or by letting the students know they can also listen to the poem as well as see it, the speaker is attesting to the multifaceted nature of reading a poem.

Just allowing the mind to focus on the words and images of the poem and to realize that those words and images are the keys to understanding is the first step in grasping the meaning of a poem.

The understanding of the poem attained through this method leads to appreciation. And that appreciation and will assist students in becoming aware that poetry has value and can be fun and entertaining as well.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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