Waterskiing across the surface of a poem
Right now, I think we’re all looking for ways to either escape or make sense of what’s going on in the world. Poetry can accommodate both impulses (and, perhaps, both impulses are alive simultaneously in the best poems). But I wouldn’t blame anyone if their first instinct when seeking either distraction or knowledge was to reach for a novel, or watch something on TV or a streaming platform.
But why is this? Why isn’t poetry a more frequent accompaniment to our everyday lives? Every April libraries, bookstores, radio shows, and other institutions pay lip-service to poetry, and while it’s nice that National Poetry Month exists at all, once May 1 rolls around, most of us quietly tuck poetry away, back to its dusty, neglected little corner.
I think a big reason for poetry’s second-class status is the way it is taught in schools. Too often poetry is presented to students as a secret code. Poetry is the enigma machine and students are asked to be Alan Turing.
Needless to say, this is a terrible way to teach, or experience, poetry. Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, seems to agree with me. His “Introduction to Poetry” celebrates poetry’s marvelous potential and excoriates those who would reduce poetry to meaning alone.
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.
It’s impossible for me not to smile when I read this poem (and if you'd like to listen to me reading the poem, click here or scroll down). Every line is imbued with wonder, whimsy, or humor – and sometimes all three at once.
The first five stanzas offer up the speaker’s vision for what the experience of poetry can, and should, be.
We should appreciate poetry the way we would a “color slide,” marveling at its reflections and refractions, its glow and shade.
We should listen to poetry the way we would a buzzing hive.
We should embrace or look for the absurd; just imagine “drop[ping] a mouse into a poem / and watch[ing] him probe his way out.” It’s a thought so whimsical and fantastic it hearkens back to the things we imagine in childhood – not to mention the kinds of things we might encounter in children’s poetry, before we grow older and are taught that literature is a serious business, intolerant of frivolity.
The last two stanzas turn toward the ambiguous “they.” “They” don’t see a poem as a thing of delight. “They” just want to know “what it really means,” and “they” will go to some lengths, including torture, to uncover the secrets poems are hiding beneath their flowery, enigmatic language.
Who is “they?” The high school teachers who had you memorize Shakespeare’s sonnets but didn’t illuminate and allow you to feel their wit and music and humanity. The students who think poetry is an equation with only one correct answer. The critics whose nearsightedness forces them to wear the lenses of theory, which distort poems so they fit within a prescribed ideology. Perhaps even poets themselves, especially those who cloak their poems in all manner of esoteric clothing, under the pretense of being innovative or avante-garde.
The speaker of “Introduction to Poetry” – and, we can assume, Collins himself – has no patience for such people. Neither do I.
There are certainly poems that reward diligence, scholarship, and patience; sometimes you do have to work to apprehend what a poem is saying. But poems are more than just their themes, allusions, symbols and metaphors. Instead of thinking you need to “torture a confession” out of a poem, try simply listening. Focus on the words, the pictures they paint, the sounds they make you hear, the tastes and sensations they evoke. A poem is an experience.
During times like these, the experience of a poem can offer a momentary reprieve, a smile or a laugh; or poem can make us feel more connected, more aware of how wondrous, precious and precarious life is. I for one could use all of the above these days.
Anythink has literally thousands of online poetry resources accessible with your library card. You can also head over to the Anythink YouTube page to watch Brent and Jason give readings from some of their favorite poems. And to read and hear more about the poems that inspire us, enjoy these previous National Poetry Month posts on Anythink’s blog.