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The Monday Poem > Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins (29th April 2014)

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message 1: by Shirley (new)

Shirley | 4177 comments 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.

Billy Collins

(also available on poemhunter.com)


message 2: by Shirley (new)

Shirley | 4177 comments Ok, ok, I know it's Tuesday, but here is my contribution to the Monday Poem. I chose it because it sums up how I feel about poetry at the moment.


message 3: by Dhanaraj (new)

Dhanaraj Rajan | 2962 comments I loved the poem and I agree completely with Billy Collins. And AAB members too are with B. Collins. For many times I have witnessed in this thread a poem getting multiple voices. That is the Right due to a poem. Thanks Shirley.

@ Jenny: I remember we talking about this fact during the GR Meet and now Shirley has come up with a fantastic poem.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

This is a great poem! I feel I am often somebody who wants to beat the poem- I want to know what the poet meant but I guess I should enjoy the literature more and not worry about meaning!


message 5: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 15985 comments Great choice Shirley!! I am glad to get "permission" to waterski across the surface of a poem as I often feel guilty about doing it! :)


message 6: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) What an interesting poem, Shirley! It makes me wonder if I tie the novels I read to a chair and torture them. Hmmm.

Do you know, when I first saw this thread, I thought it was going to be exactly what it says. I didn't connect it with the Monday Poem at all! :D


message 7: by Shirley (new)

Shirley | 4177 comments It certainly made me think about my approach to poetry.

Jean, yes I see what you mean! Perhaps we should have a discussion thread about how we "tackle" poems. Maybe we can help each other out?


message 8: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) I'm all in favour of a thread to do with different ways of approaching poetry. But I fear noone can cure my analytical bent. It's too ingrained! All I can do is keep it under wraps when necessary :D


message 9: by LauraT (last edited Apr 30, 2014 12:07AM) (new)

LauraT (laurata) | 13216 comments Mod
Really really GREAT!
This is exactly what we do with poems in schools Italy, but I suppose more or less all over the world
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.

While it would be much better to ... see how a mouse can come out of it!!!!

On the other Hand maybe Jean is right: we are so used to our way of reading things that it would be difficoult to change ...


message 10: by Shirley (new)

Shirley | 4177 comments LauraT wrote: "Really really GREAT!
This is exactly what we do with poems in schools Italy, but I suppose more or less all over the world
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a..."


Yes - if you are by nature analytical, then you can't help yourself!

I was thinking of comparing it to watching a film - sometimes you are happy to watch a film with all sorts of twists and turns, but you have to really concentrate to understand what's happening - however, when you come to the end of it, you think to yourself, "what a great film!" Or - you just watch a light-hearted comedy which makes you laugh and feel good. Both have a value - just like analysing poems (not beating them to death) also has value - but so does reading things through and letting your mind mull over what you have read, but not puzzling too much about it...


message 11: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) That's a good analogy, Shirley! For a crime serial on TV I'm always saying who? why? what?... and trying to sort it out. But then sometimes if it's a period drama I tend to just soak up the cinematography of it all - the nostalgia, the setting, the period details - and the "crime" becomes less important!

And there are of course, pieces of writing where it would be a "crime" to over-analyse. Beautiful lyrical poetry you have to let seep into your consciousness...

Like both you and Laura, I think being analytical is probably more a personality trait. I do remember once going for a job, where the school was completely wild and failing on every conceivable level. The dithery head teacher was quite embarrassed, and said to me "I think you just have to let it wash over you..." But if I had gone for that job, I'd have pitched straight in to analyse the problems and (hopefully) found ways to tackle them.

It's the same with most things in my life. Others may be more... laissez-faire? manana? There doesn't seem to be an English equivalent.

But I hope this is not the sum total of the way Literature is taught. I only ever studied it until I was 18, so can't blame any formal Education for my tendency to "tie the written word to a chair and torture it" as I do. Does your husband teach English Shirley? Maybe he could comment?


message 12: by Diane S ☔ (new)

Diane S ☔ Love this Shirley. Wonderful choice.


message 13: by Gill (new)

Gill | 5720 comments Here's another poem by Billy Collins that I came across recently:

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/forget...

Funny and sad, and very appropriate when you reach a certain age!


message 14: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) I love that one, Gill :) It always seems a mystery to me that we only ever use a fraction of our brains, yet still we lose the "hardwiring" - the pathways through them. I'm pleased to read that I'm not unique in getting up in the middle of the night to look something up... LOL


message 15: by LauraT (new)

LauraT (laurata) | 13216 comments Mod
Oh Gill So nice!!!!


message 16: by Helen (new)

Helen | 47 comments Great poem - agree entirely with the sentiment


message 17: by Helen (new)

Helen | 47 comments Gill thanks for the link - Collins really appeals to me, shall be heading to Amazon in search of more :)


message 18: by Jenny (new)

Jenny (jeoblivion) | 4869 comments I want to offer the poem a hug, because I so agree with the sentiment expressed. And yes Dhanaraj, that's exactly what we've talked about!

I agree with it being due to the type of person you are, but I think it also has to do with your expectations towards art. I think the difference is not that people who can marvel at what they don't understand rationally, don't ever analyse. You can analyze a poem also for atmosphere, for emotional impact and colour but there's no point at getting mad at or looking down at art just because it doesn't reveal itself to you on first or even on second sight.

I often think of poetry as music. Very often the beauty of it does not lie in rationally understanding what 'it wants', I for one have no way of rationally explaining why I adore 'Die Kunst der Fuge' by Bach, or what it is trying to say (if anything, I think it started out as being exercises) but it has profound impact on me.
Looking at poetry the same way is tricky obviously because language always triggeres that part of our brain that starts to decode and rationalize, but I wonder whether we can allow for language to come close to the kind of abstraction that people like Picasso taught us to allow with figurative art.


message 19: by Shirley (new)

Shirley | 4177 comments Jean wrote: "That's a good analogy, Shirley! For a crime serial on TV I'm always saying who? why? what?... and trying to sort it out. But then sometimes if it's a period drama I tend to just soak up the cinemat..."

Ha ha Jean, yes he is an English teacher, and I don't think he would like the analogy of "tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it" very much! It is a great shame if that is one's only experience with poetry.

When I went to night school, the best way to look at it was in a group setting, because I found it amazing how different interpretations added to the enjoyment of a poem. And it doesn't have to be hard work. I think if a poem is that much hard work, then I would rather leave it alone.


message 20: by Shirley (new)

Shirley | 4177 comments Jenny wrote: "I want to offer the poem a hug, because I so agree with the sentiment expressed. And yes Dhanaraj, that's exactly what we've talked about!

I agree with it being due to the type of person you are, ..."


I think that's a lovely way to look at poetry, Jenny.


message 21: by Bionic Jean (last edited May 02, 2014 06:27AM) (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) I'm really enjoying the slant Dhanaraj and Jenny have on this; about it being multiple voices and multiple point of view. It reminds me a bit of Bertrand Russell's table analogy... LOL

But that makes a lot of sense to me, thinking of Picasso, who famously went through so many "periods" or movements and styles. When he was in his Cubist period, he said he wanted to show objects as they really were, from all points of view, and I can remember thinking that is logically impossible. But different viewpoints, different layers, different types of perception certainly.

I just wondered if the poem's criticism could be of how poetry is taught in schools and colleges now. Or at least, of that point of view. Hopefully it isn't, from what you say, Shirley :) I think the analogy is deliberately exaggerated anyway.

But I did notice a few years ago the move from "analysing" to "deconstructing" in teachers' jargon, and I feel there is a difference of emphasis here. Analysing is what I'm drawn to, decoding and rationalising too as Jenny says, but I feel analysing leaves room for an emotional response too. That is included in the analysis. But to me "deconstructing" has a more clinical feel, as if you are metaphorically tearing the poem apart into little pieces to see what makes it work.

Or is that my personal interpretation? Is there no difference really?


message 22: by Dhanaraj (new)

Dhanaraj Rajan | 2962 comments The words are the keys: Analysis, Deconstruction and Enjoyment. A poem or any literary piece is to be enjoyed or analysed or deconstructed. There is nothing wrong with any of this. The problem arise only when a person limits himself to his/her own understanding of it and is aggressive enough to make it as the final result. No poem or an art/literary piece is to be limited. Its scope for the infinity is its achievement and beauty.

"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."

Each of us is a mouse and each will have its own way of finding out the way out. Also each one might find a switch and the switch need not necessarily be found in the same corner by everyone.


message 23: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) Yes! Emotional response = enjoyment! In this particular poem anyway :)

Lovely analogies.


message 24: by Jenny (last edited May 02, 2014 07:03AM) (new)

Jenny (jeoblivion) | 4869 comments Jean, I agree with what you say about the connotation the word 'deconstruction' has.
I remember reading a line by Erich Fromm once, who's analogy for 'deconstruction' gone wrong is a scientist who's trying to figure out 'life' by disecting an organism so thoroughly that he kills all evidence of it.
I think Dhanaraj said very beautifully what the 'gone wrong' aspect of deconstruction may be.

I think my memory of treating any kind of art in school, particularly the written word, to resemble that analogy or at least it's effects on me. We were always too occupied trying to find out what the writer/artist intended and way too little occupied by the effect the poem/painting/piece of music had on us.
I think art in general has at least two creators: the artist him or herself and the observer/reader. What we read into something, the images something creates in us I believe are no less valid then the intentions of the artist, who - judging by experience - half of the time doesn't entirely rationally understand what his piece of art 'wants' either.


message 25: by Shirley (new)

Shirley | 4177 comments Dhanaraj wrote: "The words are the keys: Analysis, Deconstruction and Enjoyment. A poem or any literary piece is to be enjoyed or analysed or deconstructed. There is nothing wrong with any of this. The problem ari..."

Very well said, Dhanaraj.


message 26: by Alannah (new)

Alannah Clarke (alannahclarke) | 11717 comments Mod
Loved this poem. Thanks for sharing.


message 27: by Catherine (new)

Catherine (catjackson) Dhanaraj wrote: "The words are the keys: Analysis, Deconstruction and Enjoyment. A poem or any literary piece is to be enjoyed or analysed or deconstructed. There is nothing wrong with any of this. The problem ari..."

Thank you for your comments. I agree that too often we insist that there is only one way to look at a poem and here Billy Collins is suggesting multiple ways to look at and read a poem. I usually start the poetry unit in my intro to lit. class with this poem. Many of my students absolutely love this poem. They find that they have always been asked just to "tie" the poem to a chair and here they find a poet telling them it's ok to waterski over top of the poem or to roam around inside the poem like a mouse in a maze. We get lots of good conversation out of this poem.


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