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

BY BILLY COLLINS

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

BY BILLY COLLINS

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.

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

  1. Love the description of two focuses in college. I hadn’t thought of it that way but can see it’s true. And the poem–Turning Ten–What wonderful memories. The girl in the picture has no helmet, no shoes–freedom. Sigh.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thank you, Jacqui. At the university where I received my master’s degree, the division between the writing students and the literature students was pronounced. The same division was in place for the faculty–perhaps even more so.
      I’m so glad you enjoyed “Turning Ten.” I was wondering if anyone would note that I was not wearing a helmet or shoes to ride my bike. What is out of the frame of the picture is the road on the side of the house, which was paved with crushed oyster shells. A very good incentive to learn how to balance and pedal at the same time!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent, excellent, excellent post, Liz! Such an articulate description of the conflict between literary theory and the praxis of poetry. Collins is a poet, period. We have a mutual interest in the trying to determine the difference between poetry and prose, but I’m at a loss to describe this difference most of the time! It’s as you’ve said elsewhere, you know poetry when you see it 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience, not to mention these adorable photos!

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Mary Jo! To add to my questioning of the difference between poetry and prose, I recently discovered something called “proem,” which PROEM magazine describes as not poetry, not prose–and don’t even think about sending a prose poem! While the intellectual side of my brain is curious about such matters of definition, in the end, what best characterizes any literary art form is what it does, not what it purports to be.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Liz, Your heading photo is beautiful, sweet and poignant. A treasure when photos were still a rarity.

    Your description and insights on poetry are fascinating. I have not read poetry often until I began my blog about two years ago. I read beautiful, mesmerizing, transporting poetry almost every day now. I now have books of poetry in my library.

    I had an ‘aha’ moment when I read your sentence “…teaching poetry as an exercise in cryptography is a sure way to make students hate it.” Possibly, why I have not picked up a poem since school.

    Wow, vindication by Billy Collins. Goosebumps and tears brimming “On Turning Ten.” And the bittersweet decade reflections begin. I love everything about this post, Liz! I will continue to “waterski across the surface…” allowing the words simply to transport and delight. ❤️ Erica

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Erica! It has made my day. You’re right about the difference between photo-taking “then” and phototaking “now.” I don’t remember when the first photo was taken, but I remember the day the second one was taken very clearly. There is a companion photo of my little brother in the same pose on his bike. My dad took the pictures because he was so proud of teaching us to ride our two-wheelers without training wheels. (He was philosophically opposed to them.)

      Teaching poetry to children and young people in such a way as to make them hate it pains me to no end. The meaning and value of poetry come from experiencing it–as you so eloquently put it, “allowing the words simply to transport and delight.”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a delightful post, Liz. Thank you! Oh grad school. . .we could sit down sometime over coffee and tea and compare English and History departments. 😏
    I do not enjoy reading poetry that is so obscure that I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean when the poet is doing that deliberately. It seems self-indulgent and a way of saying, “Look how clever I am.” That’s different from me not understanding a reference in a poem, especially a poem written a long time ago. I enjoyed a literature class I had in college where the professor explained a lot of the meaning and symbolism in the Romantics and Yeats, etc.

    You were such a cutie. I love those photos! 😀

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thank you, Merril! I’m so glad the post resonated with you. I’m starting to realize after many, many years that perhaps others in the writing program felt as intimidated and out of place as I did.

      I know exactly the type of academic poetry written for an audience other academic poets you’re referring to. I don’t bother with it. I was fortunate to have the same experience in my undergraduate literature classes that you describe. I think the reason it was such a good experience was that the professors’ lectures were focused on opening up the world of the poem to us, not shunting the poetry off to the side as merely representative of whatever theory was in vogue at the moment.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. While in English language / Literature undergraduate school
    I was not a fan of the writing simply because the dominant prof in that sphere was mean and very unfriendly
    Literature was my forte , I loved to tell and read them stories

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Dave. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The “Awww, isn’t that sweet…” came from a literature professor’s saying, “Oh, you writers . . . ” in her veddy, veddy British accent when one of us dared mention our own work.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember cutting a deal with my American Lit professor in college. If I would stop attending class and berating my fellow students on their ridiculous interpretations of the masters, he would give me a B. I accepted with pleasure and spent the time reading.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. Great post Liz. Love the sentiments expressed. Thanks for the introduction to Billy Collins; I’ve bookmarked for future reading. As Philip Larkin put it “Poetry is nobody’s business except the poet’s, and everybody else can **** ***” . I have reblogged. Have a great day.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Goff. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think about Billy Collins’ poetry. What a great line from Philip Larkin! He must have been sorely provoked by the literary critics to have said it. I remember liking his poetry very much in British Lit. I wrote a paper on “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album.”

      Liked by 2 people

  8. This was great, Liz! I loved reading your comparison between the lit people and those who write. It made me think of those fellas who joined a faternity and those who played hacky sack in the quad! You look so adorable…I love the photos!

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Hi Liz, my apologies, somehow I missed your reply. My younger son initially struggled with Shakespeare. He read The Merchant of Venice this year. This is one of my favourite plays. I bought him the children’s edition which he read and it helped him understand the story. It was better after that.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I think science is like marble and sculpture whereas poetry is a blend of head and heart, as you said so well, Liz. “It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends” is so nostalgic that no science could analyze. The photos that evoke the heart that flows into poetry is a great example!!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve never thought of science being like marble and sculpture, but the comparison does make sense, particularly for representational sculpture of the human form. The thing about poetry is that it expresses aspects of the human experience which nothing else can. If someone wishes to analyze nostalgia, write an essay!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. It made me laugh so hard when you said, “If someone wishes to analyze nostalgia, write an essay!” Isn’t it true? I just try to remember how I felt when I wrote a poem. I think I literally went from the top of my head to the bottom tip of my heart.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. I’m glad my opinionated little comment made you laugh, Miriam. I think you’re right about the physical feeling of writing poetry, like a prickling of the scalp and a swelling in the chest.

          Like

      2. Great post Liz! And Miriam’s comment and yours regarding science reminds me of what John Steinbeck wrote in “The Log of the Sea Of Cortez” and I grossly paraphrase here, Steinbeck says that science may give us an accurate description of a fish but it doesn’t tell us how it feels to catch a fish. We need both kinds of descriptions of the world but we need to be able distinguish between them and use both in useful, not harmful, ways.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Bette! “Starving” is a good word to use for how some teachers approach poetry in the classroom. It makes me wonder what they’re doing teaching English to begin with. I’m so glad you enjoyed the poem. Poetry is indeed to be savored.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I don’t know Billy Collins but will definitely be finding out more. I love On Turning Ten and his Introduction to Poetry reminds me of when I was doing my Masters in Creative Writing. My tutor showed one of my poems to an ‘English Lit’ (possibly even more linguistics) person who came out with all sorts of utter guff including that it had been written by a man ‘in the voice of a woman’. There was more on the Scots language in which it was written. It all made me start to wonder if I had actually written it 🙂 One of my favourite poems sort of on this topic is ‘The prize-winning poem’ by Fleur Adcock. After a litany of what it should and should not contain the last line is: There is only one prescription for it: it’s got to be good.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I’m so glad you will be finding out more about Billy Collins, Mary! So, you’ve had your own run-ins with “the lit people.” The interpretation of your poem is a fine example of utter guff. I just sought out and read “The Prize-Winning Poem.” Precisely so! It also reminds me of a statement by my first (and best) creative writing professor after a discussion of standard conventions of fiction and stories that work despite not meeting them: You can do anything you want–as long as you can get away with it.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. What a great poet, Elizabeth. Thank you for introducing me to Billy Collins. I love the poem about poems. So true. I feel that way about prose too. My education almost “analyzed” a love of poetry and reading out of me. And a poignant favorite. ❤ Ah, there are such losses when we grow up.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I’m so glad you appreciated Billy Collins’ poem! I agree that the same applies to prose. The ironic thing is that if you give students the poem or the story and just ask them to tell you about their experience of reading it, they will come to those deeper insights naturally in the course of the conversation. As with all things writing, trust the process!

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Amazing Billy Collins poetry.. and love the post. Heart and soul and our personalities go into the verse we write. Apart from school that was never very keen on colouring outside the lines when it came to poetry, I have met some righteous adherents to the proper form that should be used and they can be downright scathing. When young it discouraged me from writing poetry at all, and I only picked it up again in my 60s. They have no idea how much creativity they stifle…#brilliant post Liz..xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Sally. Adherence to form for its own sake is pretty pointless, particuarly in view of the fact that what is “proper form” today will be outdated and cliched tomorrow. There is no excuse for scathing. Aside from stifling someone’s creativity, it’s sadistic and cruel.

      Liked by 3 people

  13. Also love the poem. Thank you for introducing, Liz. The images are wonderful too You look very serious. Is it so different among literary scholars? Well, scientists have to sort of separate themselves. In law as well as in theology, one simply represents massively very own theories. Lol Happy Thanksgiving! Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad you love the poem, Michael. I guess I did look serious. Riding a hobby horse is serious business.:) At this moment in time, literary scholars are much closer to sociologists than they are to poets and fiction writers.

      Like

      1. Hello Liz,
        very serious business, indeed. 😉 This image had also brought a lot of own memories back. 😉 Good to know about the actual behaviour of literary scholars. The poem is great. Thank you for introducing, and have a beautiful weekend! Michael

        Liked by 1 person

  14. What a great post, Liz! I was not familiar with Billy Collins, but these poems are fantastic. “On Turning Ten” is such a vivid reminder of the magic of childhood – like when my friend’s swing set was a pirate ship, you know. My first bike was also blue. Great photos, too.

    I’m working on a project of high school notes and diaries, and it turns out I have a collection of papers I wrote for my World Lit class my senior year. I’m going to revisit those works – the stories and poems, anyway – and see what they mean to me now. I have no desire to revisit King Lear, Heart of Darkness, or Return of the Native, however!

    Just got your book yesterday and look forward to reading!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Eilene! I’m so glad you enjoyed “On Turning Ten.” Your project of high school notes and diaries sounds very interesting! I remember that I despised “Heart of Darkness” when forced to read it in high school. I didn’t read King Lear until I was in college. I don’t think I’ve read Return of the Native.

      I hope you enjoy Telling Sonny!!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Liz, if I had been introduced to Billy Collins earlier, I might have actually learned to like poetry! Delightful. And I enjoyed your humorous exaggeration as well, along with your amusing reference to editing and Hemingway. Entertaining and educational read. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Ranee! Thinking back on my K-12 education, particularly high school, I was fortunate that the school system didn’t know what they wanted to do with curriculum, so there were no misguided attempts to indoctrinate us about proper form for poetry.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. Unfortunately intellectual types are often the least intelligent though they often think they are smarter than anyone else.

    A poem (no matter who wrote it) means exactly what the author who wrote it sayes what it means; anyone else’s interpretation is not only subjective but suspect.

    As far too many people seek to impose their own viewpoint or perspective on someone else’s writing.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I will concede that someone else’s experience of reading a poem of mine may differ from my intent for it, but I strive to make the gap between my intent and their experience as small as possible. The worst (funniest?) example of someone imposing their own viewpoint on my work was a literary magazine editor who rejected a story I submitted (which of course happens all the time).However, instead of just sending a form rejection and being done with it, the rejection slip made a point of referring us rejected to the type of story the magazine was looking for–and the link was to the editor’s own work!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. That’s wild. Back in the mid 1990’s i first published my poems on the Prodigy’s Bulletin Boards (PBB). In the early 2000’s i posted a poem I’d written and published on Prodigy’s BB on another site after I’d edited and rewrote it. Only to have someone who had read it on the PBB’s when i first published it accuse me of plagiarism because i was using a different user name on the new site. Imagine that being accused of plagiarizing my own poetry! Once i explained who i was and he realized i was indeed the original author everything was ok. At least he thought he was defending me against someone he thought was stealing my work. In later years i found a blog here on WP whose author lifted one of my poems and posted it under his own name. Go Figure! 🤓

        Liked by 3 people

  17. I loved this post! Your description of Lit People and Writing People had me laughing, and there was much truth to it. And the vision of Hemingway in front of the class was a perfect attention getter. Billy Collins is quite a good poet. You are, too! Thank you, Liz.

    Liked by 4 people

  18. “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins is EXACTLY how i felt in college literature classes, where we weren’t allowed to just appreciate a poem or a story, but had to try and determine what the author was thinking when they wrote it, and it always had to be something much bigger and more world-shattering than the word on the page. I love appreciating the rhythm and feel of what I’m reading, so this poem spoke to me!

    Liked by 4 people

  19. I am an engineer Liz, a Mechanical Engineer!! And have thought so often that I should learn English 😊 But I find living the life much more fun 🤩

    Beautiful pics and a great post!!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. I don’t always understand poems, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love a poem even if I can’t grasp its full meaning, so I think there’s a lot to be said for not trying to ‘understand’ it. I loved these poems that you shared.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. So much here – wonderful post. Enjoyed the poems. I switched from an English major to French due to the mind-numbing content. Needed more of a challenge. Not sure it helped me in the long run, but I avoided studying Old English poems, lol.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. This is a wonderful post! I can imagine you were a great teacher. Billy Collins in one of my favorite poets. I love the simple forthrightness of his poems. I believe poetry should be readable by anyone and interpreted by some! I loved the illustration of tying the poem to a chair and beating the meaning out of it! That takes too much work. I want it to slide through your mind like a butter on fresh baked bread slides down your throat!! You were very cute in these photos. Love the bike! The only age I ever felt different becoming was 60! I could feel the changes after that!

    Liked by 3 people

  23. Great to read another Billy Collins poem. I first discovered him via this (of which I most love the second poem): https://youtu.be/DOvbl3ZPPV4 And I love, love, love your childhood photos (are you barefoot on that bike? Eek!)

    When I was in my twenties I ran a poetry group and refused to let anyone critique the poems that we read aloud, they were entirely for enjoyment. Analysing a poem to death has never been something I’ve enjoyed.

    Do you know Taylor Mali’s poetry? This might amuse you: https://youtu.be/a1yWtFVH-tU It’s called ‘Any Language, Much Less English’

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for sharing the Billy Collins video, Val. I hadn’t encountered it before.

      “Critique” has started to become a dirty word for me as far as responding to writing is concerned. Its meaning seems to have evolved into “looking for what’s wrong with it.”

      I don’t think I’ve read Talyor Mali’s poetry before. I really enjoyed his “Any Language, Much Less English.” It was a great way to begin my day, in fact! (My first day back to work after Thanksgiving break.)

      Liked by 3 people

  24. Liz, I love both these poems and am saving them! I’ve never heard of Billy Collins and thank you so much for this introduction to him! Wow! He captures turning ten exactly and brings back memories of myself at that age. Yes, why do so many insist on straggling poetry and writing until nothing remains but letters on a page, the soul and heart of it dispersed! The photos of you are so sweet and lovely accompaniment to the post!

    Liked by 3 people

  25. Yep–I am a lit person. I have analyzed my fair share of poetry and prose and have taught students to break everything down to minute detail, but it’s true that students should also just enjoy the poetry. One of my best teachers would always start the class with: So, did you like what you read? I now remember to start there. Did you like it? Why? Read aloud a favorite passage–and then it’s easier to not kill a poem. Great review!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Cecelia! What I object most to is denying the experience of the poem and treating it merely as a cultural artifact. When the discussion starts with the experience of reading the poem, recognition of its cultural significance will evolve naturally over the course of the discussion.

      Liked by 2 people

  26. Love this post! I used to teach children’s lit to future teachers, and I always taught that poetry should be enjoyed and savored and not to drag children to that torture chair as torturers (and thus the tortured). That said, I have been in both places. I have a PhD in literature, as well as an MFA in creative writing and that represents my “two sides.” There is a place for both analysis and connection. At this point in my life, I admit that my years of lit crit have helped me in writing poetry, and I am thrilled to no longer interrogate any poems.

    Liked by 4 people

Thanks for stopping by!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.