'Introduction to Poetry' by Billy Collins is a detailed description of what we overlook in a poem when reading one. As expressed throughout the poem we must see, listen and feel our way through it, gaining our unique experience of the text, rather than attempting to “torture a confession out of it”.
This poem is made up of images which help us to explore our experience of reading a poem. The first image which helps us to 'see' the poem is “like a coloured slide” where the slide is small and dark until you hold it to the light. This simile suggests that a poem needs to be revealed to the reader not just looked at. As we hold it (both the poem and the slide) to the light, an entire world in colour is revealed. A colour slide is also a small object giving the image of a poem being small, yet both objects hold a lot of meaning.
The image in the second stanza asks us to 'listen' to the poem, “... press an ear against its hive.” There is an ever present danger when listening to hive because you are likely to get stung; it is also unfamiliar territory and can be misunderstood. As with a poem, there is an unfamiliar territory and many can misunderstand it. A hive is also like a community, a city, a civilisation. We don't speak their language but we are able to understand the community etc. Poems are a city of words that beg to be understood and respected. Listened to. Suggesting that we 'press an ear' invites us when reading a poem, it is not a have to but an encouragement to try something different.
An image that suggests we feel the poem is described in the next quote. “Drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,” the 'mouse' being a rat and the 'poem' a maze, we must feel our way through the poem. Though we may get lost and it is unfamiliar, with a poem it is best to persevere and find a way out. We may all be given the same poem, but as in a maze, we do not take the same path and many may get disorientated. The possibility of getting lost and the confusion it may evoke in us is all part of the journey we must take to understand a poem and what it means, what it is trying to tell us.
As we see, listen and feel the poem, we begin to understand it and are welcomed into the vocabulary that is used. At the end of this poem the tone changes drastically. It begins to talk about the actions that are taken against it by those who do not understand. This unfamiliarity causes 'them' to feel afraid and threatened, in turn becoming aggressive and so “They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” The words 'begin' and 'beating' emphasise a booming sound, confirming the harshness people use to try and gain an understanding of the poem, and the use of the word 'begin' also suggests that the torture is ongoing, that it is just the beginning.
Throughout the poem, Collins uses narrative position to add emphasis to the meaning of the poem. 'Introduction to Poetry' is written in first person in the first five stanzas suggesting that the author is having a conversation with us. At the end of the poem, where the tone changes, the narrative position becomes third person, using words like 'they' and 'them' to describe that we could be different when it comes to understanding the poem. The author has not associated us with the cruel people who 'beat' a poem, flattering us with the idea that we have the potential to become familiarised with poetry.
This poem is beautifully written. It gives the reader a chance to connect to poetry, explaining the difference between understanding and misunderstanding it. To help the reader, Collins used words that would be familiar to us like “mouse” and “hive”, and the narrative position Collins used was one of inclusion not exclusion, this means that the reader is able to relate to the writer and what is being said. The poet asks us to view poetry as a thing of beauty, something to be understood and learnt. He shows that even though poetry can be unfamiliar and could have a certain danger to it (“press and ear against its hive.”), it is something not to be feared.
The structure Collins has used throughout the poem is friendly and welcoming. It is not a long poem and most of the words are familiar meaning we will be able to understand what is being said. The change of tone at the end of the poem is very clear for us to understand. The difference in narrative position, as I suggested before, confirms that the poet, Billy Collins, is willing to show us how the read and understand poetry, as we are not like “them”, we do not do what “they”.
In conclusion the determined poet friendly welcomes us into the world of poetry using words that are familiar to us ie: hive and mouse. He has invited us into a literal world where we need to take our time to see, listen and feel our way through. His openness to invite us into this poem is expressed using narrative position where a conversation is held between the reader and the poet. We are encouraged to “find out what it really means.”
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