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Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry," "The Golden Years," and "The Blues"

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 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 on "Introduction to Poetry"

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.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Introduction and Text of "The Golden Years"

The retired speaker of Collins' little sonnet offers an amusing cogitation about the names of retirement communities, whose names often do not correspond to their function.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins composed his playful sonnet titled "The Golden Years" to contemplate the notion that a name does not always fit the entity that bears it. His sonnet form is the Elizabethan, the same form famously employed in the Shakespeare sonnets, thus also called the “Shakespearean” or “English” sonnet. Collins' little drama features the traditional three rimed quatrains, ABAB CDCD EFEF, and the rimed couple GG.

The tone of Collins' sonnet contrasts greatly with the seriousness often associated with the English sonnet form. He analyzes and overanalyzes the trivial but also makes a clever observation all seemingly for the primary purpose of entertainment more than for sharing information.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Golden Years

All I do these drawn-out days
is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge
where there are no pheasants to be seen
and last time I looked, no ridge.

I could drive over to Quail Falls
and spend the day there playing bridge,
but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail
would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge.

I know a widow at Fox Run
and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge.
One of them smokes, and neither can run,
so I’ll stick to the pledge I made to Midge.

Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge?
I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.

Reading of "The Golden Years" (mislabeled "Pheasant Ridge"

Commentary on "The Golden Years"

Former poet laureate Billy Collin crafts an amusing little sonnet, taking as his subject several retirement communities that are haphazardly named, for example, his own community is called “Pheasant Ridge” but the place has neither pheasant nor a ridge.

First Quatrain: A Recent Retiree

All I do these drawn-out days
is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge
where there are no pheasants to be seen
and last time I looked, no ridge.

The speaker, apparently a fairly recent retiree with much time on his hands, announces that lately his only activity is to spend time sitting at his kitchen table. Thus his days are long and drawn-out. He then reveals the tidbit of information that despite the name, Pheasant Ridge, the place where he is residing is not a ridge, and it has no pheasants.

Second Quatrain: Finding Something to Do

I could drive over to Quail Falls
and spend the day there playing bridge,
but the lack of a falls and the absence of quail
would only remind me of Pheasant Ridge.

In order to provide some other activity besides sitting in his kitchen at pheasantless and ridgeless Pheasant Ridge, he could drive over to Quail Falls. And at Quail Falls, he could play bridge all day. But the problem with spending the day playing bridge at Quail Falls is that there are no quail there and neither is there a falls.

These omissions would only remind the speaker of being at pheasantless, ridgeless Pheasant Ridge. Predicting that he would be thus reminded, he opts to continue sitting in his kitchen, musing on other wrongly named communities.

Third Quatrain: No Surprises

I know a widow at Fox Run
and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge.
One of them smokes, and neither can run,
so I’ll stick to the pledge I made to Midge.

By the third quatrain, the reader pretty much knows what to expect. So when the speaker says, "I know a widow at Fox Run / and another with a condo at Smokey Ledge," the reader can be fairly certain that there are no foxes and runs at the former nor smoke and ledges at the latter. However, the speaker twists things a bit to avoid the fault of total predictability.

One of the widows is, in fact, a smoker, but "neither can run." Leaving the reader to sort out which is which, the speaker then confesses that he has made some sort of pledge to Midge which keeps him located at his seat in his kitchen at Pheasant Ridge. How handy for the poet that his companion's name rimes with his retirement community's name.

Couplet: Dabbling in Clever Reparteé

Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge?
I ask in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge.

So while still sitting in his kitchen at pheasantless, ridgeless Pheasant Ridge, he proffers the question, apparently to the Midge, to whom he has pledged some sort of fidelity, "Who frightened the fox and bulldozed the ledge?"

The speaker suspects that the fox must have, at some point, scampered off, perhaps from fear, while the absence of a ledge at Smokey Ledge indicates the work of bulldozer. Collins' clever little drama offers a light-hearted glimpse at the simple fun of non-serious musing.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Introduction and Text of "The Blues"

The speaker in this poem reveals his impression of what that style of music is all about.

In his poem, "The Blues," former U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, creates a speaker who dramatizes the skill of a blues song to influence an audience: if a person merely reports that he lost his love, little sympathy would be garnered.

But if he dramatizes that loss in a blues song with sad guitar sounds and emotional phrasings, his song will bring about sympathetic reactions that his mere statement of fact never could.

The Blues

Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn't even stop to say good-bye.

But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent, and beseeching key,

people will not only listen,
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation

by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar

and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you're a hard-hearted man
but that woman's sure going to make you cry.

Reading of "The Blues"

Commentary on "The Blues"

First Stanza: The Importance of Repetition

Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

The speaker begins by commenting on the fact that repetition is part of the blues song. He frames this fact as resulting from human nature, which according to this speaker, is unlikely to notice the pain of others unless it is repeated at least twice.

Second Stanza: Phrasing for Sentiment

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn't even stop to say good-bye.

Further elaborating his first observation, the speaker asserts that nobody will listen to a simple admission that "your baby left you early in the morning / she didn't even stop to say good-bye."

Those lines allude to and represent the many variations on the theme, for example, the line from "My Baby Left Me" by Elvis Presley, "My baby even left me, never said goodbye." Many blues numbers focus on this theme and some combination of phrasings for this sentiment.

Third Stanza: Spoken vs Sung Words

But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent, and beseeching key,

The speaker continues his observation that if a man simply spoke those words to people, most would hardly notice, but "if you sing it again / with help of a band," they will gladly listen as the music "lift[s] you to a higher / more ardent and beseeching key."

Fourth Stanza: Listening and Listening Carefully

people will not only listen,
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation

Not only will the people listen, they will listen carefully with deep interest and "shift to the sympathetic edges of their chairs." While the simple report that one's baby has left him will not bring much reaction, if that loss is framed in a song and performed with a band, the audience will become deeply moved by the man's predicament. The audience listening to the sorrowful loss of love will be "moved to such acute anticipation."

Fifth Stanza: The Screaming Guitar

by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar

The speaker then focuses on the drama that draws the audience's interest. He exaggerates by asserting that the listeners will not be able to sleep until the song is brought to a full dramatic close by the last note that is "release[d] with one finger / a scream from the throat of your guitar."

Sixth Stanza: That Common Theme

and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you're a hard-hearted man
but that woman's sure going to make you cry.

Continuing with the drama of the last few bars of the song, the speaker highlights the last few lines that would express the following sentiment: "you're a hard-hearted man / but that woman's sure going to make you cry." Again, the speaker alludes to the common theme that runs through many blues tunes, that of a big, strong man can be brought to tears by the loss of his woman.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes