180 Pounds of Stink

Earlier this week I talked about five reasons everyone should read poetry.  The Billy Collins’ poem below offers some great advice to poetry readers of all types.  Collins argues that to read a poem rightly requires a particular frame of mind, a certain posture of the heart.


Photo courtesy of kate.gardiner.

Before reading my comments, read Collins’ poem a few times slowly. Let its images form concretely in your mind. Read aloud so you can hear the sounds and feel them tumble on your tongue.  Click on the title to hear me read the poem aloud.

“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 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.

from Sailing Alone Around the Room, 2002

The poem’s final image of torture depicts the way that most people read poetry.  They just want the meaning, and so they batter the poem’s body and bruise its beauty.  This way of reading sees the poem as nothing but a kernel of truth at the center of so much fluff and chaff.  Meaning is master, they say, and the goal of reading is to reduce the poem to a simple proposition, a tidy platitude.

But Collins argues that this is how to misread poetry.  This way of reading is selfish, destructive, violent, and cruel.  It also shows a callousness toward beauty and form.  If this is how you read poetry, then one of the first things poetry can teach you is that beauty and form matter just as much as meaning.  In fact, meaning without form is grotesque, just as a body without a spirit leaves 180 pounds of stink on your hands.

Poems still have meaning, of course, but their meaning can’t be divorced from the rest of the elements of the poem.  Collins urges his students to pay attention to the poem’s color, to the brilliance of its images.  He wants them to hear its sound, the words buzzing like a hive.  He wants them to wrestle with the structure of the poem, like a mouse in a maze, probing their way toward understanding.  This struggle with structure can be confusing, but if we make it through, we see the poem with new eyes–as if someone has turned on the light.

But sometimes the poem stays dark.  Meaning doesn’t materialize, and we keep banging our noses on the maze’s dead ends.  When this happens, Collins tells us not to despair:  we should at the very least “water-ski/across the surface of the poem.”  We may get only a little from the poem’s imagery and sound, but we should still enjoy it with a big, stupid grin.

And if we do this long enough, the boat will slow down, allowing us to gradually sink into the warm, blue waters of the poem’s welcoming waves.

Question:  What’s the greatest difficulty you have when reading poetry?