In this poem, Billy Collins, renowned writer and professor, describes the act of teaching poetry. He lists all the many ways he would like his students to look at poetry, and in the end expresses his frustration with their limited and narrow desire to find meaning in poetry.
In this article, I will begin by examining the poem stanza by stanza. Then, I will make note of the poem’s structure. Finally, I will discuss the piece’s significance within the broader scope of Collins’ body of work. You can read the poem in full here.
Introduction to Poetry Analysis
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 the poem 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.
The second stanza is just a single line, which gives it emphasis, as it seems to stand out from the rest of 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 a 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.
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 classic experiment, considered to be a wealth of knowledge, much like poetry.
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.
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 the poem. 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 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.
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. The poem concludes with the image of a piece of art being bluntly beaten until it reveals its secrets, secrets that it may not even have.
The poem is written in free verse. It is presented as a speaker describing his experiences, reactions to teaching poetry to students. It contains a series of metaphors describing the poet’s ideal method for examining poetry but also a description of the typical approach to poetry that his students take.
Billy Collins is one of the most popular, recognized, and influential American poets writing today. He was 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.”