How to Read Poetry with a Little Help from Billy Collins

Ah poetry, that thing we all universally love, appreciate, and understand.

Well, some of us, anyway. For others, poetry is a torture device full of alliterations, assonance, allusions, and apostrophe that cause anger. This is because some of us read poetry to appreciate it, think about it, and to find pleasure in it, and others, well, as Billy Collins’ poem Introduction to Poetry shows, try to find meaning.

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.

But a poem isn’t about meaning. A poem’s answer is never going to be five. A poem isn’t something that can be solved – a poem is something to bring about contemplation and pleasure.

Next time you go to read a poem, try some of Billy Collins’ tips for enjoying poetry and steer clear of trying to find meaning.

Look at the poem and appreciate the shape. Poems aren’t just meant to be read, but they are meant to be seen. Some poems are specifically constructed not only to read well, but to be visually appealing as well. In fact, some poems are constructed to invoke all of our senses. Sometimes the poet will put references to sound of bees or the feel and smell of water splashing against our faces or the taste of a cold glass of lemonade on a hot summer’s day. These lines invoke our own memories and tie our sensory experiences into the ascetics of the poem, making the poem a multisensory experience.

Listen to the sounds of a poem, because a poem is meant to be read and enjoyed aloud. And as the orator of the poem, you can try different ways of delivering the poem to see if the oral element of the poem shifts or changes your understanding of the lines. Through reading the poem out loud you not only get to enjoy it, but you get to be a contributing creator of meaning to the work through your delivery.

Play with the poem. A lot of poems are set up like logical propositions, like the volta of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Take up the challenge! See if you can find error in his logic and prove Shakespeare wrong. You might bring to light many thoughts and abstractions you once weren’t sure about in poems when you play with the logic in them. This isn’t a way of torturing meaning out of a poem, but rather playing within the rules of the poem as set up by the poet. Poetry isn’t about finding meaning, it’s about finding understanding and enjoying the features of the poem along that path.

When it comes to poetry, there are many questions you can ask the poem, like “What does this poem, line, or word do?” but never, ever, ask a poem what it means, because no matter how much you try to torture an answer out of it, the poem really can’t answer.

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