Poetry is not a mathematical problem that will always have the answer at the end of it. Unlike other subjects, poetry doesn’t always have an answer. It is a thing that needs to be felt not deduced to something arid in nature. Billy Collins presents his thoughts about how to read a work of poetry and how to appreciate it. The technique referred to in ‘Introduction to Poetry,’ somehow welcomes the idea of “close reading” of the American New Critics.
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Summary of Introduction to Poetry
‘Introduction to Poetry’ by Billy Collins presents a poetic persona who seems to be a professor of English literature. Here, the poetic persona is none but the poet himself. The poet tells his student to first of all take a poem as it is. They have nothing to look elsewhere. A poem is a world in itself. There are sound, visuals, colors, complexity, simplicity, everything. A reader has to be concerned about the senses. Poetry generally demands an association of seeing, smelling, feeling, and last but not least it also gives enjoyment. The poet says, “I want them to waterski/ across the surface of the poem”. This line presents the essence of the poem. However, in the end, the poet feels dejected about the attitude of readers to poetry. They somehow want a meaning, no matter if it has one or not.
You can read the full poem Introduction to Poetry here.
‘Introduction to Poetry’ by Billy Collins is a free verse poem of modern literature. There are a total of 7 stanzas in the poem. The stanzas don’t have specific line lengths. Some stanzas only contain one line while the comparably long stanzas contain only three lines. The poem doesn’t have a specific rhyme scheme. However, the poet makes use of some occasional slant rhymes in the poem. As an example, “light” in the first stanza somehow rhymes with “out” in the second stanza. Likewise, some of the lines end with the word “poem” that is used to create an internal rhyming in the poem.
The first person perspective of the poem makes it a lyric as well as gives it the quality of a dramatic monologue. The poet is the sole speaker in the poem and the students appear to be silent listeners. There isn’t any metrical pattern in the poem. The poet uses the trochaic, iambic meter, and anapestic meter without any order. The meters just help to maintain the flow of the lines. The short lines along with the easy to pronounce words give the poem an air of ease while reading.
‘Introduction to Poetry’ by Billy Collins features a poetic persona who talks in the poem with an ironic tone to satirize the modern sensibility regarding poetry. In the first few stanzas, the tone is welcoming and simple. What is in his mind, the poet says it directly. So, the tone of the poem is also direct and to the point. In the last few stanzas, the tone of the poem transforms into an ironic one. It is relevant to the idea present in those lines.
Themes and Imagery
‘Introduction to Poetry’ by Billy Collins introduces the theme of appreciation of a poetic work in the first few stanzas. The poet brings home the theory of postmodernism in an innovative manner. According to the poet, a work of poetry is rather to be felt and enjoyed instead of brooding on its meaning. One can truly appreciate a poem when there is an involvement of all the five senses with the poetic work. Otherwise, it seems to be some words placed in rhythm. The essence of poetry dies, what remains is the ashes of letters, and the crumbled ideas of an intellectual mind. The poet also presents the theme of modern sensibility in the last stanza. To make the theme more vibrant the poet uses an image of a man tied to a chair with rope.
However, the poem is full of images too. There is visual imagery, auditory imagery, olfactory imagery, and tactile imagery in the poem. The poet uses an image of a color slide held up to the light in the first stanza. Thereafter he uses the images of a hive, mouse, a dark room, and water skiing in the following stanzas. Each image introduces a concept that associates different features of a poetic work. In this way, the use of imagery in Collins’ poem makes it more interesting to read and think about.
‘Introduction to Poetry’ by Billy Collins is full of metaphors. The poet uses this figure to make way for his exceptional ideas into the body of his work. Likewise, there is a metaphor for the color slide in the first stanza. The concept is introduced here with the help of a simile. The poet refers to the visual imagery of a poem. In the next stanza, the “hive” metaphorically represents the auditory imagery within a poetic work. The poet associates the idea of the complexity of a poem by using the metaphor of a mouse. There is also a metaphor for the rhythm and flow of a poem.
In the following stanza, the poet uses the metaphors of a room and a light switch to refer to compare these with the themes in a poem and the essence of a poetic work alternatively. When the poet talks about water skiing on the surface of a poem, he metaphorically says that a poem is fluid-like and a reader should float above it for enjoying the work. If readers want to know more, they have to dive deeper into the watery world of poetry. The concept of “close reading” is metaphorically introduced here too. The “hose”, a metaphor, refers to the analytical mindset of readers in the last section of the poem.
‘Introduction to Poetry’ by Billy Collins uses enjambment as a means of internal connection between the lines of the poem. The poet also uses some other figurative language too. There is a simile in the first stanza. The comparison is made between a poem and a color side in this line, “and hold it up to the light/ like a color slide”. There is a metonymy in the usage of the word “hive”. It refers to the bees living inside it and their sound. Hence it also presents an implied onomatopoeia of the humming sound of bees.
Apart from that, the poet uses a paradox while he tells readers to drop a mouse into a poem. There is another metonymy in the phrase author’s name. It symbolically presents the author of a poetic work. An alliteration is there in the phrase, “tie the poem”. The poet uses personification in this stanza where the phrase is present. The last two lines of the poem contain irony. It satirizes the tendency of finding the meaning of a poem, anyhow.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
I ask them to take a poem(…)like a color slide
In this first stanza, the poem’s central idea is established. We have a speaker. In this instance, we can assume that the speaker is Collins himself. When the speaker says, “I ask them . . .” we can assume that he is referring to a group of students or perhaps his readers in general. Therefore, it’s clear from this line and the title of ‘Introduction to Poetry’ that Collins is speaking to the audience about his teaching process.
Using a simile to compare a poem to a “color slide” the poet is encouraging his students and/or readers to take in poetry at a glance, to let the image of the piece imprint itself on their minds. This is the first of many such metaphors, each encouraging a different type of reaction to poetry.
or press an ear against its hive.
The second stanza is just a single line, which gives it emphasis, as it seems to stand out from the rest of the poem. Collins is comparing poetry to a buzzing hive of insects, asking the readers to simply listen.
This is an interesting idea; each word in work could be considered an individual worker bee. The words are, individually less important than the whole, but at the same time, each has its own importance. The poet could be saying that it is more important to take in the poem as a whole than to pull apart the hive and look at each worker bee individually.
I say drop a mouse into a poem(…)
The next stanza brings the next metaphor and a poem becomes a maze. It’s true that poems often have turns, are complex, and for some, they can be confusing and hard to get through. Collins, when he says he wants to “drop a mouse into a poem . . .” could be implying that poetry is best enjoyed and understood without a guide. Perhaps, the historical context and poet’s biography are not important in Collins’ poetry courses. Does the former poet laureate think of his students as mice lost in a maze? Does he take pleasure in watching them try to find their way out, or does he think that there is value in that struggle? Scientifically, a mouse in a maze is a classic experiment, considered to be a wealth of knowledge, much like poetry.
or walk inside the poem’s room(…)
In these lines, Collins compares a poem to a dark room. The readers are left to grope blindly for the lights. This is another metaphor that implies that people should be lost when reading poetry, that knowledge about a poem is actually detrimental to understanding it.
How is a poem like a room? A poem has fixed dimensions and can be vast or small, like a room. It is filled with fixed items of various values and importance.
I want them to waterski(…)waving at the author’s name on the shore.
In the fifth stanza of the poem, the poet tells readers to enjoy a poetic work. This section refers to the entertaining aspect of poetry. To bring home his idea, the poet uses the image of water skiing “across the surface of a poem”. Ironically, the element of enjoyment is present on the surface of a poem.
The poet wants to say that if one really wants to enjoy a poem he/she has to dive deeper into a poetic work. However, one can also enjoy a true work of genius even from the thematic energy and poetic diction far before getting into the essence of it. At last, the poet says to express one’s gratitude to the person who wrote the poem. It will motivate the poet to offer more such poems to the readers.
But all they want to do(…)and torture a confession out of it.
In this stanza, comes the turn, the point in the poem when the tone shifts and the audience is forced to re-examine the rest of ‘Introduction to Poetry’. In this instance, Collins does this by, instead of talking about his attempts to teach poetry as he has for the rest of the poem, but by describing his students and their blunt attempts to dissect poetry.
The metaphor here explains that poetry students and readers only want to interrogate poems. They want simple answers, facts, and they don’t care how they get them. It’s clear from the universally negative image of a defenseless person being tortured that Collins doesn’t approve of this approach.
(…)to find out what it really means.
The final stanza echoes the previous one. Collins continues to lament his poetry students and their single-minded quest to find the meaning of the poems they read. ‘Introduction to Poetry’ concludes with the image of a piece of art being bluntly beaten until it reveals its secrets, secrets that it may not even have.
Billy Collins is one of the most popular, recognized, and influential American poets writing today. He was the poet laurite of the United States of America from 2001 to 2003. This is only one of the numerous honors, accolades, and titles he holds. He works as a teacher, co-founded a literary magazine, has published numerous works, and edited various collections.
The poet is known for his wittiness, use of humor, and ability to encourage in the masses a love of poetry. His readings regularly sell out, and his goal as poet laureate was to encourage school children to connect with poetry.
‘Introduction to Poetry’ was first published in 1988 in “The Apple That Astonished Paris.” The book was described by Collins as his “first real book of poetry.”