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.