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Introduction to Poetry -- Billy Collins

Guest poem sent in by Phebe Haugen
(Poem #1397) 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
Not long ago, when my teenage son was struggling with poetry in his English
class, I gave him this wonderful poem.  For a kid trying to figure out what
imagery is all about, this little gem offers itself as a color slide, a
hive, a dark room, a lake, a knowing, but silent, defendant.  It invites
us to engage all these images - except the last one - so that we might see
into the heart of a poem without bludgeoning the poor thing to death.

And who among us doesn't know that feeling of being the mouse dropped into
the poem, trying to probe its way out?


52 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mallika Chellappa said...

Another poem that comes to mind which teaches
the young to nurture their imagination
(sorry - this one's from my nursery class
- how many out there remember the readers
called "The songs the letters sing"?)

Baby blew a bubble
Softly let it fall
Like a Rainbow Fairy
In a Silver Ball
"Pretty little Bubble
Won't you stop and play?"
But the bubble, bubble, bubble
Bubbled right away.

Baby blew a bubble
Very hard she tried
Saw another Baby
Like herself inside
"Pretty little Baby
Won't you stop and play?"
But the bubble, bubble, bubble
Bubbled right away.

I'm not sure whether the last four
lines should in fact be identical in
both stanzas. Or whether bubble
is repeated once or twice in the
penultimate lines. (It's been a while)


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Chellappa Mallika (Mallika) said...

Another poem that comes to mind which teaches the young
to nurture their imagination (sorry - this one's from my
nursery class- how many out there remember the readers called
"The songs the letters sing"?)

Baby blew a bubble, Softly let it fall
Like a Rainbow Fairy In a Silver Ball
"Pretty little Bubble, Won't you stop and play?"
But the bubble, bubble, bubble, Bubbled right away.
Baby blew a bubble, Very hard she tried
Saw another Baby Like herself inside
"Pretty little Baby, Won't you stop and play?"
But the bubble, bubble, bubble, Bubbled right away.

I'm not sure whether the last four lines should in fact be identical in
both stanzas. Or whether bubble is repeated once or twice in the penultimate
(It's been a while)

Lily Chambers said...

Hey im 12 and my class had to wright a critisism paragraph on this to
show what we think it means. this is mine: The author wants you to
carefully examine his poem but not to strangle it. By holding the
colored slide to the light means to see the brightest colors and
strongest meanings. He wants you to listen to the poems secrets like
you “listen to a hive”. He wants you to put your thoughts inside the
poem and let them scurry around like a mouse inside of a maze. “Feel
the wall for a light switch” he wants you to gently feel the poem for
and answer or idea He has complete control over you when you read the
poem like the poem is the skies and the author is the boat. You wave
to congratulate him and that’s all he needs and wants for you to do,
to understand and thank him. But you shall not harm the poem or jump
to conclusions by tying it to a chair and hearing only what you want.
Listen to the poem don’t destroy it.
I got an A- on this one

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Anonymous said...

I thought it was ironic that, as a school project, my class was asked to pick this poem apart in analysis, a poem which clearly advises against exactly that. It's a little hard to do when facing that message, I thought.

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