Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry"

Updated on June 20, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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


Introduction and Excerpt from "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. . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "Introduction to Poetry," at the Library of Congress.

Billy Collins Reading His Poem


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

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

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

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

The speaker then suggests another approach: he instructs the students to "walk inside the poem's room / and feel the walls for a light switch." 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

The teacher/speaker directs them to "waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving 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

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 "tie the poem to a chair with a rope" and then "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

Instead of offering the poem their loving attention and gentle playfulness, these students want to "beat[ ] it with a hose." 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 have remained without poetry most of their academic lives. Those students believe that poems have hidden meanings that only the teacher can find. This speaker's instructions are meant to lead the students to thinking for themselves about the poem's promises, its images, and special nuance.

The speaker leads to 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 be present, to believe that there are keys to understanding, and that that understanding leads to appreciation will go a long way toward assisting a mind that has remained poetryless to begin the process that leads to the awareness that poetry has value and can be fun and entertaining as well.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes


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