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Understanding Poetry: Billy Collins, Introduction to Poetry

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    Billy Collins uses dark rooms, oceans, hives, color slides and mouse mazes to describe his poem “Introduction to Poetry”, but also a way to analyze poetry in general. Growing up, students are advised by teachers how to analyze poetry. The speaker of Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins, attempts to guide the readers by teaching them a unique and appropriate way to analyze poetry. The use of personification and imagery, by the author, gives the readers a new perspective to interpret and find the significance in poetry.

    In this particular poem, the speaker does not want the reader to listen to the teachers of the reader’s past, “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it,”(Collins 11-12) but the readers should enjoy and relate to their own personal experiences to the poem and what the author is conveying. Collins believes poetry should be studied preciously, if not, they will lose their beauty. Collins presents a unique speaker who changes tone throughout the poem reflecting his frustrations in how readers analyze poetry.

    As the poem progresses the reader senses a change in the authors tone, these changes can be detected through the speaker’s dialogue. The speaker tone begins as friendly, with the use of requests (I Ask) than gradually develops into a pleading inflection (But all they want to do). After Collins introduces the idea of asking the readers in polite manner it quickly changes in the next stanza to firm tone (I Say). This firm tone abruptly changes to bargaining, with the speaker presenting multiple options for the reader (Or). The bargaining with the speaker shortly turns into pleading (I Want).

    Finally in the final stanza, the speaker fails at persuading the readers to looking at poetry in a new light, and surrenders. “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide. ”(Collins 1-2) By first reading Introduction to Poetry, the reader feels the need to dissect each word to understand the deep meaning behind each stanza. The speaker of Collin’s poem plays a roll of a teacher, attempting to persuade the students to interpret poetry in a new light. The speaker wants the readers, who take up the roll of students of the poem, to envision poetry as a color slide.

    The speaker wishes the reader to understand that he cannot see the full detail of the slide if it is not held into light. When thinking of this in a metaphorical way, the speaker is asking the reader to examine poetry and see all of its beauty and self-interpreted meaning. Most readers tend to base their interpretation on methods they have been taught, but what the speaker wants the reader to do is to use their own mind to illuminate the poems meaning, much how you use you’re to eyes to decipher visual imagery. The sense motif continues into the next verse switching from visualization to hearing.

    The metaphor shifts from the reader’s eyes looking through a slide, to ears listening pressed up against a beehive. Just as the speaker is asking the reader to hold up a poem to the light, he is also asking them to press their ears against a beehive, and listen to the bee’s making the honey. The speaker wants readers to take something they perceive as white noise, and listen more intently to hear the true intricacies of poetry. Readers fail to realize that poetry can hold the sweetness of honey as well as clear colorful imagines as seen through a slide.

    In the third verse paragraph, the speaker is telling the reader to visualize a mouse being placed into a maze, as if though placing themselves into a poem full of words. The speaker wants the reader to have his/her own interpretation of the poem, asking intriguing questions and trying to find the meaning by themselves. “I say drop a mouse into a poem, and watch him probe his way out,” (Collins 5-6). Today scientists use mice for experiments letting them run through mazes testing to see if they can find a way out.

    This reflects a reader’s relationship with poetry, as the reader is thrown into a maze of words. Like a maze the reader searches their way through poetry to find a meaning. They both will try to find their solution; the only difference is that the reader will find its “out” by interpreting and analyzing the poem. Both mice and readers must undergo a trial and error process to truly find an understanding behind a piece of poetry. With this metaphor, Collins is asking the reader to have patience with poetry and not rush through it to find a meaning.

    Similarly to the mouse metaphor, in the fourth verse paragraph, the speaker presents another idea for interpretation that requires trial and error. The speaker asks readers to walk inside poetry’s room and feel around in the darkness for a light switch. The reader blindly searches the boundaries of the piece of poetry looking for its meaning. “Walk inside the poem’s room, and feel the walls for a light switch. ”(Collins 7-8) Most readers have a hard time finding this “light,” and are often discouraged by this.

    What Collins once again asks of the reader is patience, to search for the meaning. Instead of giving up, Collins requests the reader to continue their search for their own interpretation of the poem. Collins goes on to describe this process as being an enjoyable experience. “To waterski across the surface of a poem, waving at the author’s name on the shore. ”(Collins 9-11) The fifth verse paragraph presents a metaphor in which Collins compares reading poetry to a fun activity. He asks for readers to enjoy themselves while they uncover the meaning behind a piece of poetry.

    He also wishes the reader to recognize the author behind the piece they are reading, but for the author not to interfere in the search for the piece’s meaning. Collins advises readers to joyfully understand poetry, instead of torturing the meaning out of it cruelly. In the last two verses the speakers tone changes, almost as if he has given up in trying to convince the reader to look a poetry differently. From there he paints an image of how readers try to force a meaning out of poetry when they read it. “They begin beating it with a hose, to find out what it really means. (Collins 14-15) This torture that the readers apply to access meaning degrades poetry’s artist merits, as readers do not treat poetry with the respect and enjoyment Collins believes it deserves. The reader feels the only solution to understanding poetry is “beating” and forcing a complex interpretation to fit the speaker’s needs. In result of beating and torturing poetry, readers lose the ability to think of their own insightful interpretations. Readers today misconstrued poetry, losing the meaning and beauty behind poems.

    What Collins asks of them is to treat poetry in a different way; something that differs from their usual interrogation for the meaning behind poetry. Collins asks readers to enjoy poetry and to seek the meaning on their own, to cherish the process and not treat it as labor. Collins believes that poetry should be treated with respect as that any form of art should deserve.

    Work Cited

    Collins, Billy. “Introduction to Poetry. ” Literature: Reading to Write. Ed. Elizabeth Howells. New York: Pearson, 2010, 106. Print.

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