Poetic Beginnings

My inteoduction to Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” is a little bit funny. I read it for a literary analysis class. When our teacher asked us what meaning we got from the poem, we all said, “well, he wants us not to do what we’ve been doing here.” And our teacher said, “well, not exactly…” What else was she supposed to say? Acknowledge that she’d given us a poem which undermined her entire job? She was doing herself in.

In retrospect, I agree with the class. I also agree with the teacher. I do not think poetic analysis and enjoying poetry are mutually exclusive, and this, in my mind, is the point of Collins’s poem. Poetic analysis (and all literary analysis, for that matter) should not occur in a stale unloving vacuum. It should not be surrounded by dry books approached with no interest. Poetry gives back what it recieves, and poetic analysis should be a byproduct of slow, deep love affair with a poem (or, on occassion, a quick, deep love affair). And the analysis only deepens the love which the reader has for the poem. Poetry is meant to be discovered, not forced upon us.

I think this is a lesson we forget too often. As a society, we complain that kids aren’t reading, that they aren’t interested in literature, so we force literature upon them. We say “read this, it’s a classic.” Many a classic has been ruined for me in this fashion. And I have BA in English. Imagine the hell my science oriented friends went through. We have to stop arranging marriages for children and books. Instead, we need to be the clever friend who casually introduces two friends at a party and watches how things take shape. One way to do this is to stop telling them what to read and what not to read, and just encourage them to read, period, the end. Sure, as kids get older, maybe you can find a way to broaden their literary horizons, but broadening doesn’t mean saying, “okay, now that you’re old enough to read classics, you shouldn’t read anything else.” (Something my 9th grade English teacher said.) There is a wealth of beautiful writing out there, into which children are walking and turning on the light. And if we try to strangle the meaning out of the work while the kids are in there, we strangle the kids too.

Speaking of meaning, I have no idea what this one’s about, aside from music:

Give me alchemists
building children’s kisses
for melancholy diplomats
living near the bus.
Joyous stanzas–kiss and go.
Trumpets near completion of the movement
and grab kite tails.
The meter is made from the sound of toys.
Given one life, the song coasts into the sun.
It is icicles and books in a potion
passing through ten skies
application after application
to ears of passersby.
Sometimes the police adventure
to the first ministry of culture.
Begin marooned laureates!
Prayers of special pages
Where the north prays back,
childhood and pages
will boil down into song.


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