The New York Times calls Billy Collins “the most popular poet in America.” In his poem, Introduction to Poetry, the former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003) suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death. This blog post also reveals how Collins writes and teaches poetry. It may surprise you.
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.
The Apple that Astonished Paris © 1988, 1996
Listen to Billy Collins read his poem, Introduction to Poetry.
Billy Collins speaks to English teachers in this poem who look at poetry as something to be analyzed and dissected. They teach their students to try to find out what a poem means instead of emotionally responding to it. To make his point, Collins amusingly suggests ways students might approach and experience a poem, instead of “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.”
Writing and Teaching Poetry
Collins reveals more about his writing process and how he teaches poetry when answering a question from a middle school English teacher. He acknowledges the search for meaning in a poem, but when he writes a poem, meaning is the furthest thing on his mind. He’s just trying to get to the next line, and the next, to finally arrive at the ending.
Basically when you’re teaching poetry, despite that poem (Introduction to Poetry), you’re talking about meaning. We’re basically extracting meaning from the poem. And I realized at some point, that when I wrote a poem, meaning was the last thing on my mind. I never gave it a thought.
Basically, in a poem, I’m just trying to find the next line. I’m trying to find a way for the poem to go. And I’m trying to get to some destination. I’m not thinking about, ‘What’s the poem about, or meaning?’ Or, I’m not thinking of, ‘How will people write study questions about this poem and make any sense out of it?’
So I try to bring some of that into my teaching. I try to substitute for the question, ‘What does a poem mean?’ the question, ‘How does a poem go?’ ‘How does a poem get where its going?’ (It goes from the beginning to the end, maneuvering through shift points along the way, in search of a destination.) A poem is always searching for its own ending. And that’s what poets are thinking about. It’s not a search for insight, particularly. It’s a search to be over with.
PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Billy Collins on their Poetry Series about his new collection, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems. “I knew that poets seemed to be miserable,” said Collins about his younger self, yearning to fit in. While he admits he “faked a miserable character” at the start of his career, he’s since embraced his sense of humor. Poet Billy Collins on humor, authenticity and ‘Aimless Love’
William Stafford on Writing Poetry
William Stafford was Poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1970, what a Poet Laureate was called before they created the office. He was named Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975-93. Stafford’s style of writing and teaching was process-oriented. He gave no praise or blame to his students’ writing. He encouraged English teachers and writing students to be innocent when writing poetry, without any preconceived notions of how it should go, and to be open to discovering the unexpected turns a poem could take on the way to its own completion.
Stafford was very open to spontaneity and receptivity when writing poetry. He said most teachers would spell out what a piece of writing should look like, and expected their students to reproduce the same. This product-oriented approach left no room for the imagination. “They want a wilderness with a map.” But, he asks, “how about errors that give a new start?” Errors, he said, “make a music that nobody hears. Your straying feet find the great dance,” and “stumbling always leads home.” That’s how he wrote poems, early every morning. Enjoy reading these William Stafford poems, A Course in Creative Writing, and You and Art.
My Own Experience as a Writer
I agree with Collins and Stafford that the creative process is a mystery, and coming to the end of a poem is a wonderful relief, especially when I see it finishing itself. It also surprises me with what it’s about, sometimes revealing a deeper meaning at the end than imagined. This meaningful sense of completion is why writing poetry can be so fulfilling.
Two early meta-poems describe this process: Writing—a poem on the writing process, and Sometimes Poetry Happens: a poem about the mystery of creativity. Two early poems I’d written that surprised me with their endings are, As Above So Below, and later, Pine Cone Trees.
My son Nathanael Chawkin wrote a poem called INSPIRATION, an outcome from the first homework assignment in his Grade Six Literature class. He felt strongly that you couldn’t force a student to write a poem; it had to come on its own accord. The poem innocently and profoundly expresses the spontaneity of the poetic process. I also added information with links after his poem about the writing process you may find interesting.