Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Things to Do With Poems: the Collins report

Yes, that's Collins as in Billy Collins, who gets no respect from the blogoisie, precisely because he is so easily likeable, and by so many of the wrong sort of people, who then think that they--middlebrow book-club readers, country music fans, even (gasp!) Republicans--like poetry.

So, anyway, here's a poem by Collins which is all about getting students to do different things with poems, and about their response:

“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.

On my grumpier days, this poem strikes me as rather disingenuous. Collins depends on our being comfortable with some fairly complex reading strategies: not just a facility with metaphor (we can imagine or “unpack” each successive figure, stanza by stanza), but also a dash of previous literary knowledge (like the fact that “stanza” comes from the Italian for “room,” which helps when reading stanza 4). Because of this familiarity, which we aquired somehow, somewhere, “we” don’t have to interrogate the poor poem “to find out what it really means”; we just “get it,” don’t we?

This fine sunny morning, on the other hand, I see the poem more as a character study. Pity the the hapless "Introduction to Poetry" instructor who gives these sorts of assignments, only to find his students responding the best, the toughest, the most direct way that they know! (Perhaps they've had earlier teachers who spoke, as mine did in college, of "interrogating the text.")

What do you all think of this poem as an “Introduction to Poetry”?

On the earbuds: Toby Keith, Shock'n Y'all

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