By Norah Christianson
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.
Billy Collins was born in 1941 in New York City. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in romantic poetry from the University of California. He has been called “The most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, and in 2001 was named Poet Laureate of the United States. In 2014 he traveled to Russia as a cultural emissary of the U.S. State Department. He has toured alongside the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, presented TED talks, and given three readings of his poetry at the White House.
Some critics and poets see Collins as uninteresting and bland because he mostly writes about the mundane, and in ordinary unpoetic words. (I think they suspect him because he’s popular, and therefore too plebeian to be taken seriously. But keep in mind, critics and even poets can be jealous.) I believe, though, it is exactly his plain language, his wit, his quirky unseriousness, as well as his writing about everyday things, that makes him so beloved.
I once heard Collins read his poetry at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Farmington, CT. It was a hot day and when I arrived I was dying of thirst and no water available. I wondered how I’d make it through the reading without dehydrating to death. But Collins was so absolutely charming, relatable, and so funny, his dry sense of humor did away with my thirst. (Now there’s an oxymoron.) Some people can read the train schedule and make you swoon. I think now how, even with poetry, presentation is everything. I spoke with Collins after his reading and told him how I enjoyed him, how his poems were so fine my thirst disappeared with his first poem. Later, while milling around in the crowd with my spiked punch, I overheard him happily telling the festival director what I’d said. It’s true, even The Great are pleased to be praised.
Talking to a friend the other day, I confessed that I can really, really love a poem—its mood, the beautiful and strange words, the feelings it gives me—and not know precisely what the poem means. I have a sense, but what the poet literally means, I am unsure. For instance, I love Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking,” but cannot figure out what he specifically means by his first line, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” It’s puzzling. I could sit for an hour wishing he’d said instead, “I wake from sleep….” I could examine it for another hour and write down several imaginative personal interpretations (what grad students do), but not have them mean what the poet meant. In the end, I really can’t know what it means. I only know I love it.
Billy Collins, in his poem “Introduction to Poetry” is defending the idea that, as Archibald MacLeish has written, “A poem should not mean, but be.” Collins is writing here as a teacher of poetry speaking to his students, asking them to see a poem as a work of art, as a kind of mystery. He wants his students to simply experience the poem, to have an emotional response as if they were looking at a form of art. We look at “Whistler’s Mother” and feel peaceful. But we do not pick the old lady apart, or demand to know what she means by holding on to that handkerchief, or demand that Whistler explain why he painted her and not a busty milkmaid, etc. We do not look at “Starry Night” and insist on knowing why Van Gogh painted those twirly stars instead of artichokes, or what do those stars symbolize anyway? We just look and love.
Collins wants his students to hold the poem up in the light, to really listen to it, to waterski over it, to have fun with it. But all the students want is to beat a meaning out of it.
And here’s a piece of irony! Look what I’ve just done! I’ve gone ahead and beaten a meaning out of this light-hearted, funny, wise poem. But then, if I didn’t, I’d be out of a job.