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Billy Collins' “Introduction to Poetry”

Updated on October 8, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Billy Collins with Poetry 180 Banner


Billy Collins' "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.

Reading of Collins' "Introduction to Poetry"


Serving as poet laureate of the United States (2001-2003), Billy Collins instituted the project titled, "Poetry 180 / A Poem a Day for American High Schools."

The opening poem from "Poetry 180" is aptly enough titled "Introduction to Poetry." The number 180 speaks to the number of days that public high schools in the US are mandated to offer instruction. Collins hopes to insert a poem into each day of the year's readings.

The first poem is the poet laureate's own creation. It consists of seven unriming versagraphs. It offer instructions to students about how to understand a poem.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

First Versagraph: "I ask them to take a poem"

The first versagraph features three lines, wherein the speaker, likely a teacher beginning a lesson on poetry, tells the students to "to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide."

The act of trying to look through the poem stands metaphorically for the act of merely pereceiving what is in the poem. As one would look through a "color slide," one may look through the poem for its imagistic contents.

Second Versagraph: "or press an ear against its hive"

The next versagraph, consisting of only a single line, takes a metaphoric turn from sight to hearing with the ears being "press[ed] against" a beehive. The speaker directs the student to listen carefully to what the poem is saying, just as curiously as they would listen to busy bees inside a hive as the bees make honey.

The speaker cleverly avers that a poem may contain colorful things, interesting sounds, and even sweetness of images, if they will only looks and listen to perceive with their senses these plesantries.

Third Versagraph: "I say drop a mouse into a poem"

Now the speaker, like a science instructor, asks the students to introduce a mouse into the poem and watch its behavior. The mouse's purpose is the help stimulate the discussion of possible meanings.

While perusing any written discourse, especially a poem, the reader must spectulate, asking what if this means this, what happens then.

Fourth Versagraph: "or walk inside the poem's room"

The speaker then suggests another approach: he instructs the students to "walk inside the poem's room / and feel the walls for a light switch." He leads them to looking hard to whatever shred of connective meaning they can find.

The speaker attempts to lead them to search deeply, to think deeply about the words and how they lead to meaning. The colorful and fascinating images of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch should ping the mind with possibilities, if that mind is fully engaged.

Fifth Versagraph: "I want them to waterski"

The teacher/speaker directs them to "waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author's name on the shore." He offers this metaphor to make sure they continue thinking playfully about the poem's possibilities.

Just a nod to the poet is all that is needed. They need not concentrate on the poet's biography to gain meaning and enjoyment of the poem. The poem will click inside the head of each student, if s/he is fully engaged with the piece.

Sixth Versagraph: "But all they want to do"

Drawing to a close with the lesson, the teacher/speaker reports that the students in customary fashion expect the poem to display its meaning as if by confession.

They therefore want to "tie the poem to a chair with a rope" and then "torture" it until it tell them something they think they might want to hear. They seem to think that the poem is like a thief who has stolen the meaning of poem and is hiding it somewhere out of sight.

Seventh Versagraph: "They begin beating it with a hose"

Instead of offering the poem their loving attention and gentle playfulness, these students want to "beat[ ] it with a hose." The poem would easily yield its treasures, if only they would calmly watch, listen, feel, and truly think about what is before them.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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