The Hobby Horse I Ride (Billy Collins, too!)

When I was in graduate school, there were two types of people in the English Department: Lit People and Writing People. The Lit People breathed the rarefied air of theory, while the Writing People were pretty much viewed as the idiot savants of the department:

Awww, isn’t that sweet. You wrote a lit-tle po-em. Bless your heart. Now, step aside while I tell you what it REALLY means and why, in point of fact, you felt compelled to write it. No, better yet, I shall deconstruct it into meaninglessness. And if that is not enough to send you sniveling back to your misbegotten scribblings, I shall prove that your poem does not even EXIST until I read it!

All right, I may be exaggerating just a wee bit.

However, I do believe that poetry is meant to be experienced, not used as an exercise in sociocultural and phenomenological theorizing.  Interpretation, analysis, and historical context are all useful when they provide us with insight into our experience of reading the poem, when the discussion enriches and enhances that experience.

When a poem becomes nothing but an artifact or a case study, it ceases to be poetry. And here is where the hobby horse comes trotting in: I also believe very strongly that teaching poetry as an exercise in cryptography is a sure way to make students hate it.

Imagine my delight, then, to stumble across Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” in a slide deck entitled “How to Kill a Word,” of all places. (The slide deck is purportedly about editing one’s writing for clarity and conciseness. I considered using it for my writing process class–then decided that starting off Week 6 with Ernest Hemingway naked from the waist up pointing a double-barrelled shotgun at my students while proclaiming “The first draft of anything is shit” probably wasn’t a good idea.)

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.

Vindication! From a Poet Laureate! Take that, Lit People!

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t include my favorite Billy Collins poem, “On Turning Ten.” I was first introduced to it in a seminar on the literature of aging, and I was simply beside myself with delight at its unexpected perspective. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. (Yes, my first bike was blue.)

On Turning Ten


The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now if I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

183 thoughts on “The Hobby Horse I Ride (Billy Collins, too!)

  1. Such lovely pictures! I remember writing a poem once titled ‘A Dead Poet’s Woes’
    It was about a poet who wants to shout from the heavens above and tell the Lits that they’ve got it all wrong. He didn’t write what they finally deconstructed!
    This was an interesting read Liz.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Sonia! You’re a woman after my own heart. My question to the deconstructionists was, If your position is that literary criticism can be deconstructed into meaninglessness, why should I read what you have to say?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful introduction into the poetry of Billy Collins for me, Liz, thank you. Also, very insightful post I enjoyed your thoughts about those you chose theory versus those who chose “reality” 🙂 Funny how almost every piece of life is divided up of those two group of people, last week I was talking with a friend of mine about wine, telling them I know what I enjoy but find myself spinning when listening to people deconstruct the wine with words, and your sentence “poetry is meant to be experienced, not used as an exercise in sociocultural and phenomenological theorizing” is perfect in the description of what we see every day 🙂 And a perfect poem to show this. Also, your photo “On Turning Ten” look like it is a work from Norman Rockwell ~ so special 🙂 Happy holidays!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I love this post. Those poems by Billy Collins are a great reminder that poetry is not pretense, it can be real. And human too –not just an effort to impress the reader with clever words, but get her/him right into it.
    And I also really like your wee exaggeration though I’m not sure it is – reminds me of so many critics of the arts, whatever the artform may be.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Cynthia! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I had very wise literature professor who reminded us that the poets and fiction writers we were studying didn’t write to be analyzed in college courses.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are two of my favorite poets for the same reason: they’re unpretentious. Same goes for Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein too. I love it when people are unafraid to play and be themselves no matter what the lit people/theorists say.
    I went to art school and the visual arts have their own equivalent of “lit people”. I shudder in revulsion to remember them. I prefer to just play and enjoy my creative life in the actual living of it. Less theory more action is my mantra. Just enjoy the poem, the painting then go on with life…😊 The Arts are practical aids to help us deal with the stuff of life not instruments of torture to make us despair of living!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, I’m so pleased that you’re also a Billy Collins and Mary Oliver fan! I’m not surprised to hear that art school has the equivalent of “lit people.” I suppose that experience does confirm our resolve of what kind of artist we want to be. The joy is in the experience.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes! At some point we who are determined to be our creative selves and enjoy the experience come to realize that the cranky lit/art crit people who’re continually yelling “You’re not doing it right! Get off my lawn” aren’t the whole world and certainly aren’t the boss of us. They just want us to believe that they and they alone hold the keys to the creative kingdoms. But who benefits if we believe that?

        Just enjoy your own creativity and share it with those who’ll enjoy it with you!!

        Liked by 3 people

        1. “You’re not doing it right! Get off my lawn.” I love this! I would say, “I planted, watered, and tended each and every blade of grass. Get your Rototiller away from my lawn!”


  5. Great post, Liz! The biggest reason I didn’t complete my English Ph.D. is that I hated the arrogance of everyone in a department that thought it was the holders of The Truth of Literature and made fun of everyone else, who, of course, had no idea of what literature really was all about.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You’re pretty scary to me, Liz Gauffreau, let alone Billy Collins. I barely got through High School English. My favourite English subject was Film Study. I like a poem I can wallow in. I do like that line from Introduction to Poetry, “or press an ear against its hive.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Liz, I appreciate your bit of humor (and sarcasm) with writers (and poets, too). Like the hobby horse and later the bicycle, my own writing is a journey . . . and yes, sometimes that first draft looks destined for the scrap heap or worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Liz!
    Enjoyed both poems from Billy Collins and enjoyed learning more about your background and the two types in grad school –
    Ahhhhh – lots to chew on here – oh and my first bike was blue also – a powder blue – Looks like yours was more navy blue?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Yvette!
      I’m glad you enjoyed the Billy Collins poems. I’m a huge fan. My first bike was more of a royal blue, if I recall, but it was a very long time ago!! Thank you for stopping by to read and leave your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. As someone who struggles with poetry I found this post insightful and enjoyed both Billy Collins poems. I have a couple of friends who are poets. One is also a farmer’s wife and occasional freelance writer for an agricultural journal. Her poems are sparse but atmospheric evocations of place. The other, also a part-time farmer, is more academic. Many of his poems tell entertaining stories. He has recently experimented with surrealism. He also has a deconstructive side, with another role as a “Beckett Scholar”. The title of his principal work on Beckett says it all: The Empty Too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and comments, Frank. I’m glad you enjoyed the Billy Collins poems. Are any of the poems your friends have written posted online? You’ve piqued my interest.


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