Introduction to Poetry

by Matthew Koslowski on July 7, 2010
in Essays

I often wonder why people think reading a poem is different than reading other works of fiction. When you pick up Tinkers by Paul Harding or Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, you just start reading. You do not aim to discover the meaning of the work until you have worked through the story.

But with a poem people start trying to figure the meaning from the minute they read the title. If you are trying to determine the meaning of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” from the moment you begin reading it, you will miss the horror of picturing a raven flying into your house and speaking to you. If you are trying to discover the meaning of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” you will miss the woods, lovely, dark, and deep.

My friend lent me Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins.

I sat in a Dunkin’ Donuts reading through it and I nearly spat out my coffee in surprise. (I am sure she’s glad that I didn’t: she lent me an autographed copy.) One of his poems echoes what I wrote in Diving into Poetry two weeks ago.

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 a poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
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

A poem, like any work of writing, is an attempt to share an experience. Some poems, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost, share complex experiences and draw on outside sources of theology and philosophy. And some poems are straightforward, sensate experiences.

Water-ski across their surfaces before wondering if there is life beneath the surface.

Comments

One Response to “Introduction to Poetry”
  1. Jess says:

    I like this post. Missed it when it first came out somehow.
    I think this is my problem with poetry, I get lost in trying to find meaning in poems instead of just reading to absorb the experiences shared.
    Keep up the good work!