Introduction to PoetryPosted: February 22, 2013
In Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” (The Seagull Reader), he explains how poems should be analyzed. Collins is a Professor of English at Lehman College where he’s taught for over thirty years. The speaker seems to be Collins himself (or the Professor side of him), with the audience (his students?) as anyone who has ever analyzed poetry. The poem is written in free verse with seven stanzas; three are tercets, three are couplets, and one as a single line stanza. This piece is pretty straightforward, filled with metaphors and humor. I’ve nicknamed this the “metaphor poem” – and writing this blog, I couldn’t think of a more fitting poem for this assignment.
In the first stanza, the poem is compared to a color slide because they are dark and hard to decipher at first, but after we “hold it up to the light,” the image is better seen. With poetry, it’s the same way. At first read, poems can be mystifying, vague, and cryptic, but after additional read throughs, they become more sensible – the light to the color slide.
The second stanza urge readers to “press an ear against its hive.” This is the only stanza with a single line, meaning Collins really wants the audience to take time to analyze it. Here, the hive is a metaphor for sounds that poems can create, informing the audience that the auditory sense is relevant to analyzing poetry. In this case, hives make me think of bees and their buzzing sound. The words “press,” “against,” and “its” in this stanza gives this buzzing quality, which illustrates the speaker’s point.
The mouse is a metaphor for poetry’s composition in the third stanza. As the mouse roams, it touches all parts of the poem, creating structure and form – the composition. When the mouse “probe his way out,” it represents our initial understanding; our first thoughts and interpretations of the poem.
The light switch in the fourth stanza is a metaphor for comprehension. If it’s turned off, then we don’t know the poem’s meaning. When the light switch is turned on, then we have some understanding – like light in a dark room, it provides awareness and guidance.
When the speaker encourages the reader to “water-ski across the surface of a poem” in the fifth stanza, he advocates poetry immersion, and making the reading experience a visceral one, which aligns with its purpose: full enjoyment of the experience. Plus, by being less in our heads, the meaning of the poem might come sooner. The mention of “the author’s name on the shore” refers to a thoughtful nod to the poet.
On the sixth stanza, the poem takes a darker tone. The speaker says that readers like to “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.” The rope is a metaphor for restriction, and when we torture a poem to get its meaning, it’s actually preventing or “restricting” us from achieving that. The overall reference is to many readers propensity in forcing meaning out of poetry as opposed to letting it naturally surface. Collins put this stanza right after the one before it because he wants to accentuate the contrast: what to do, what not to do.
In the last stanza, the poem continues its violent streak: “They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.” I equate hose with water, suffocation, drowning. At this point, the audience desperately wants the meaning behind the poem, but by using a hose, the message is drowned out and has floated away because of the aggressive approach – the antithesis of the speaker’s intent.
The lesson here is that poetry interpretation should be a visceral, natural, and unforced experience. It should also be an enjoyable and positive one as well, because that’s the best way to learn what poetry has to teach. We can accomplish this by thoughtfully using our senses and immersing ourselves. Sadly, the darker ending suggests the speaker has had a difficult time expressing this lesson to his audience. The hope then really comes down to each reader. If we’re able to take value away from this poem and wisely apply it to future poetry readings, then the speaker has achieved his goal.
I wonder: Has “Introduction to Poetry” taught you any new techniques about interpretation? If so, what is it, and how do you plan on using it?