Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”

Teaching has changed my views on the interpretation and analysis of fine art and sundry objects (e.g. comic books). On the one hand, while I work with a toolbox heavily influenced by New Criticism, close reading, and the esoteric/exoteric distinction, I love when someone can focus on a detail in a painting or poem and say it spoke to them. If they want to speak of impressions—if the tone of the work struck them a certain way or activated a certain mood—I’m all for that. Going off-topic is perfectly fine when it comes to things made to provoke thought; grappling with one’s bafflement yields only good outcomes.

At the same time, I’m angrier with artists who are hostile to study of their work, as if criticism was meant to pigeonhole them personally. Their hostility isn’t always loud, but it certainly isn’t muted. Naive expectations about audiences and critics abound. It feels like audiences should only be filled with wonder and gratefulness, ready to deliver moving testimonies about the work they’ve seen or heard. Critics are considered from some era of taste-making that has now passed and are only good for publicity. Thing is, let’s say someone earnestly wants to appreciate, say, poetry. These awful expectations on the part of some artists prevent others from even approaching the field. There’s no space for someone new to ask questions about how things are made or the different ways they work. Such questions don’t occur in a vacuum. People ask questions based on what they know and do—they may be eager to link something written today to a line they remember by Walt Whitman. They want to hear about process and how it mirrors their day jobs. They want to know what things mean and deliberate value. Pretending one’s own creation is magical both in its creation and effects does a disservice to serious minds.

With this in mind, I ask myself: is Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” fair? The poem seems to argue that finding out what a poem “really means” is a form of violence. That students, perhaps under pressure for a grade, want to “tie the poem to a chair and torture a confession out of it.” I believe part of the spirit of Collins’ poem is closer to the spirit of my enterprise than many would care to admit. But I’ve known poets who use the words below to argue they are beyond not just criticism, but contemplation. Their craft doesn’t need a reader’s useless thoughts and attempts to grasp meaning. What they need and deserve is whatever validation they demand at the moment. Therefore, I wonder if “Introduction to Poetry” may be missing a crucial consideration:

Introduction to Poetry (from Poetry)
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. 

Collins’ description of entering poetry is excessively gentle. I like it, to be honest. There’s something really beautiful about discovering one pure color from a poem. When I’ve held poems up to the light like a color slide, I’ve realized that some poems speak the tender and the bittersweet within wonder, like D. Nurske’s “Venus.” And if you press an ear against the hive of a poem, you can hear in a lot of curious sounds one powerful voice stick out, naturally commanding. Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” works like this, I feel–there’s so much going on with the riddle of nobody that it takes a while to sort out that feeling like nobody is distinct from being treated like nobody.

But again, Collins pushes an excessively gentle approach to poetry, and maybe not every poet wants that approach. Do you really approach Blake with the idea that you can drop a mouse into his work, and watch it find its way out? In one sense, yeah, you’re not tearing apart the poem syllable by syllable looking for code or reading three biographies of Blake at the same time. But his poems ask you to note symbols and press for meanings that have immediate impact. The tenderness of wonder doesn’t matter when one considers the violence inherent to “The Tyger.” The poem asks you to ask hard questions of it, and those hard questions mean you bring your own hardness to analysis and interpretation. You know you’ve been used and abused; you’ve seen violence; you’ve seen “nice” people endorse and do horrible things. A method which feels gentle–questions of the instructor which exhibit innocence and innocence only–is a luxury. Some of the people who use poetry to keep sane can’t conceive of what a waterski is, let alone having one and skimming across the surface of the water.

You may argue that one’s temperament has nothing to do with seeing the possibilities inherent in a poem. The problem is that students want an answer and a grade. They want to be done with reading and writing! Tie up the poem and make it confess! I can’t get on board with criticizing their attitudes–do you know what kind of pressure is on a student who struggles to make the course fees for community college? Do you realize what you ask when you ask a refugee from a war torn country to explore the nuances of meaning in Neruda’s “the blood of children ran in the streets / like the blood of children?”

Do you know how insulting it is to tell someone interested in your work how to read? As if I’m not analyzing and interpreting in order to know better or find some wisdom? As if my job is to please an author with every speck of my being? As if my trying to know better is some kind of threat to a poet focused on a career?

The missing consideration in Collins’ poem and from artists who detest having their work analyzed: you’re missing how privileged you are. Sure, not all of you have “made” it. Careers are a struggle. Sure, you don’t want your work to be badly misinterpreted and dismissed. I get that. I would ask that you consider those who might need to find meaning to live better. Your work does have the impact you thought it would. That’s why it’s being tortured in some cases. People need what you said, even if they don’t understand what they’re looking for or how to look for it. Even if you don’t reap immediate rewards from that need. Even if you’re resentful that you’re being read.

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