Billy Collins suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death

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.


Just added a part two: Billy Collins discusses the value of getting to the end of a poem and what can happen afterwards. Enjoy the poetic genius and humor of Billy Collins reading his poem “January in Paris” and Billy Collins humorously disagrees with Heraclitus showing how to go into the same water twice.

The Library of Congress Web Guides: Billy Collins: Online Resources.

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6 Responses to “Billy Collins suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death”

  1. deborahbrasket Says:

    I loved this post. I’m still reading parts of it, keeping it up on my browser so I can check out all the links. I agree with what Collins and Stafford say about writing poetry, and also with what you say about it being a mystery and also how the “meaning” unfolds unexpectedly, surprising the poet when it completes itself. But I have a quarrel with a lot of modern poetry that doesn’t unfold itself, that hides itself, or is deliberately obtuse. Poetry should reveal itself, in the end, to both the poet and the reader, and if it does not, then what use is it? Its meaning is not always a thing that can be analyzed but it should be felt and understood on some level, as an emotional or aesthetic experience, a wholeness that is satisfying or enlightening or opens us up to a new way of seeing things, appreciating things, or being.

    I also believe that analyzing poetry has its place in the classroom. It helps students (and teachers) see how things are created, how one word connects with and colors another, how rhythm and rhyme are used to create an emotional and aesthetic experience, how imagery creates sensations and elicit memories and experiences that connect the poem to our own lives, to us, deepen our experience of ourselves and our lives. Analysis should not be to get to some pat “meaning”, as perhaps, some teachers teach it. But analysis should take us through all the layers of a poem and give us a deeper, more intense, thorough, and pleasurable sense of what it is. Or so it seems to me.

    Anyway, I deeply appreciate your sharing this, and as I said, I will be following its links at a leisurely pace.


  2. Ken Chawkin Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Deborah. I agree. I later found more poetry readings followed by interviews with Billy Collins and discussions about creativity and writing poetry that I thought of linking to. For example he describes how he starts a poem and just keeps at it, whether it takes him 20 minutes or 6 hours, until it’s done. He then goes back to consider assonance, alliteration, and cadence and makes minor tweaks.

    He sounded a bit agitated when answering that question about meaning in a poem, but he’s coming at it as a poet, not a teacher, even though he also teaches the reading and writing of poetry.

    But his everyday images are very clear, easy to relate to. You know what he’s talking about. I think that’s another attempt to avoid obscurity. He’s spoken out against that many times. So you’re in good company. 🙂

    I always find myself amused when I read his poetry. Sometimes laughing out loud. He’s clever, skillful, and sneaks up on you with where he ends up. Easy on the mind.

    Too much analysis can destroy the magic of a good poem. Some great poet mentioned something about that once. You know who I mean? If you think you figured out how and why a poem may have worked on you, it no longer does. The mystery is gone. You’ve destroyed that magical aspect of the poem. The whole (effect) is always greater than its parts, if it works well. And that’s a good thing!

    Let me know what you thought of the rest of this blog post. I appreciate you taking the time to look more deeply into it with all the links to more. Hope it inspires you, but I have a feeling that you’re probably already familiar with most of what I put together. Nice to share and get feedback from like-minded souls.


  3. Ken Chawkin Says:

    Another way to look at it could be that artists, writers and poets, reflect their times. And if their poetry seems obtuse, opaque, then maybe they’re just reflecting that confused state of consciousness in society. Their consciousness has not been able to penetrate behind the obvious to more subtle layers of consciousness.

    For a poem to be profound, to have an effect over time, it must reflect a deeper truth, a deeper inner level of consciousness, of the Self of the writer, and stir the inner life of the reader.

    Vedic Science talks about 3 aspects of knowledge: the rishi, knower; devata, process of knowing; and chhandas, the known. Another way of saying it is the observer, the subject; process of observation; and the observed, or object of observation. All 3 taken together, samhita, constitute complete knowledge. Each one hides the other, like nesting dolls. Society, education, just emphasizes the known, the objective aspect of life, ignoring the inner dynamic process of knowing, and the subject, the knower, or the Self. The foundation of knowledge is baseless. How can we know anything if we don’t know our own Self. The Vedas say, Know That, by knowing which, all else can be known.

    It all ties back to how creativity expresses itself, how creation comes about. As part of an innate desire to know itself, pure consciousness divides into 3 aspects of/within itself, as knower, knowing, known. Their self-interactions produce the universe. From the 1 came 2, then 3, then the 10,000 things. The unified field, through its own internal dynamical self-interaction, produces a symmetry breaking, expressing the basic force and matter fields, and the universe. It’s a cosmic language, the Veda, unfolding and commenting on itself, a blueprint of creation, not man-made, eternal.

    Here is a blog post about it with links to more information: Singing Image of Fire, a poem by Kukai, with thoughts on language, translation, and creation

    I’ve also written a poem about this process in Coalescing Poetry: Creating a Universe, (into haiku forms).


  4. Billy Collins discusses the value of getting to the end of a poem and what can happen afterwards | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] we’ve seen in an recent post about the writing and teaching of poetry, Billy Collins wants the poem he’s writing to complete […]


  5. Billy Collins humorously disagrees with Heraclitus showing how to go into the same water twice | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] more about Billy Collins on this blog, see this two-part post: Billy Collins suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death, followed by: Billy Collins discusses the value of getting to the end of a poem and what can […]


  6. Enjoy the poetic genius and humor of Billy Collins reading his poem “January in Paris” | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] Billy Collins humorously disagrees with Heraclitus showing how to go into the same water twice | Billy Collins suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death | Billy Collins discusses the value of getting to the end of a poem and what can […]


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