“Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins

Introduction to Poetry (from poetry 180)
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.


This poem is a trap for me – in analysis, I more than likely have the poem tied up and beaten with a hose. But I have to analyze the poem to know that for certain.

The poem presents a speaker (“I”) and his frustration (“them”). “I ask,” “I say,” “I want” are the speaker giving way to “them.” The speaker starts with requests, moves to commands, then fades away into intent. “They” take over, beginning with their “want,” and “begin” all over again. So the poem has at least two middles – “I” and “they” create a list of five, the center of which is a wish that they would “waterski across the surface of a poem.”

I think, despite the blood that is all around me right now, that I understand the “waterskiing.” It’s something like learning to play with details as they’re presented, not just moving to metaphor – or worse – making some assumption that treats the author’s deliberate exercise like it doesn’t matter. When you really understand a poem, it’s something that you might be able to say yourself without any hesitation, and yet still wonder what it means.

But the poem has another center. It has seven stanzas; here’s the 4th stanza:

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

This is a strange stanza upon rereading. When going through the poem the first time, it’s a perfectly obvious metaphor – go inside the poem, try to find out how it is meant to light up, enlighten. But we are familiar with the last two stanzas now, and while we can say the poem isn’t a room in the last two, an ambiguity still lingers. It’s interesting that the speaker moves past this image to the waterskiing image, as if something about the will to know isn’t quite compatible with the playfulness of poetry. Socrates danced through the history of philosophy prior, and it is a lot harder to find readers of the pre-Socratics as opposed to Plato as a result. Knowledge is a deadly business, perhaps especially when it is playful.

So let’s start waterskiing – that’s what we’ve been invited to do. We start with an image that could be out of a biology class. The light we start with is scientific, an investigation into nature. We are gentle and reconciled when pressing an ear against a hive, and the movement from sight to sound is seamless. The picture is too complete: everything is too perfect. A poem is not an entry out of the encyclopedia. It asks questions. Our speaker, in his asking, is at a distance from the poem itself.

So now we are moved from sight and sound to touch. Something has been growing steadily as the poem progresses – color slide/bees/mouse. The mouse may be inadequate for probing: how exactly does one drop a mouse into a poem? You’d have to have the most gentle yet tenacious of assumptions to work with a poem’s text. It would more than likely go nowhere.

To find the light switch is to find what makes the poem work. Again, I’d say that discovery comes at a price, and that price is something our speaker does not want to pay. This could be the end of wonder, the poem just becoming another text.

I’ve said waterskiing is knowing the true surface, knowing why the surface is the surface in large part. But I don’t know that the speaker means this. For all we know, he could just be moving away from the dark room he has placed his students in. He had to put his students in that room; poetry means nothing if it is not read, and the beautiful thing about this introduction is how it emphasizes that reading is ultimately something social.

That’s what separates the speaker (“I”) from his frustration (“them”). The speaker doesn’t have the answers to what the poem means. But he wants to stay as gentle as possible as the poem and the other people reading it speak. When the students want to tie the poem down, one wonders if they also want to tie their teacher down, and get him to confess. When I watch graduate students – in some cases, doctoral students – ask people who I consider some of the best scholars in the world questions about what to bring to the exam for 10 minutes straight, I know exactly why people would torture with a hose. Everything that one feels matters is in a book people don’t see, the marks that must convey an intent. Our lives are defined by listening, and control in life is hearing what one wants to hear, right?

5 responses

  1. Ughhhh!! If I had a dime for every time I tied a poem to a pole and beat it with a hose – I’d be a rich man!

  2. Are all poems written for the sake of analysis? I wonder sometimes whether poems shouldn’t just be read and enjoyed. And if a deeper meaning springs forth, cool. But be careful of trying to make that ‘deeper meaning’ gospel WRT to that poem.

    That’s my take on it. And it’s not gospel truth ;-)

  3. Brilliant analysis this really helped me to understand the poem more which gave me the opputunitny to enjoy it more! Very grateful for your work, keep it up maybe you could try some more poems?

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