Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Being Against Poetry Torture

This poem has become such a commonplace piece, that I hate to seem, as my students would say, a cliche, and publish it, but it's on my mind as I get ready for the last couple of weeks of my Intro. to Poetry class here at Lane Community College. I'd like to reflect a little bit upon it.

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 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 a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

Who started torturing poems? Who started torturing them nearly out of existence? Who decided that reading poetry was a matter of tying "the poem to a chair with a rope/amd tortur[ing] a confession out of it"?

Who came up with the idea that poetry had to be deciphered?

Who came up with the concept that poetry's meaning is found between the lines?

Who came up with the idea that understanding a poem means finding its hidden meaning?

Who started reading poems for their message?

I guess you could call me a Billy Collins guy. He worked hard as our Poet Laureate from 2001-03 to urge a public enjoyment of poetry, work started by Robert Pinsky and being continued by our current Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.

Do we think poems have to be deciphered because that's how we think about metaphors? Do we think metaphors are words written in a code that needs to be deciphered?

If we do, we are mistaken. Metaphors are everyday words employed to convey things that we do not exactly have everyday words for. If I say, "In his famous punt return on Nov. 25, 1971, Johnny Rodgers ran as swift as a deer", I use the metaphor deer to embody his swiftness because there really isn't a word that gives us this kind of a picture of his speed. Therefore, I make it concrete through a comparison that allows me to think of Johnny Rodgers as a deer.

If I were to ever operate a Ford Mustang, I'd be driving a metaphor. I'd be behind the wheel of an unbridled, wild, young pony with restless speed and graceful power. The makers of the Mustang knew the metaphorical power of its car's name when they named it. It's good poetry. But nobody tries to figure out the hidden meaning of a Mustang. We just enjoy its power.

By the way, I especially enjoyed the power of my brother-in-law's Mustang the day we went out to Taco Bell after a few drinks at home and ordered about $50 dollars worth of flour and seasoned beef products with AC/DC blasting through his Kenwood auto stereo. David wanted to show me a little bit of what his wild, barely tamed pony could do, and found a vacant street and I could feel my face going flat as he went gear to gear, picking up speed, and letting me enjoy the power of his four-wheeled metaphor.

Well, on that note, I'm going back to work. It's time to write a handout to guide my poetry students in their last essay for the course.

I'll build the assignment upon the idea of poetry that Billy Collins puts forth. I don't want to know what fancy meanings my students can beat out of poetry.

I want to know if they learned how to let the poem work on them. Did they learn how to quit working on poems? Did they find what was alive in themselves living in poetry? I hope so. Look at all that lives in poems: love, awe, wonder, grief, joy, humor, anger, disillusionment, dreams, in short, everything that makes us human. Surely, surely, some degree of that human experience that is eternally alive in poetry, lives in my students, too.

I know it does.

I hope they know.


Dubya said...

Hey, if any of yer students wind up beatin' on some poetry an manglin' it, lets me know, kay. I think I can use them kindsa students.

Unknown said...

Actually it's a Ford Mustang COBRA. So I guess it's dangerous too, or poisonous. If memory serves, we were a little poisoned, and probably a little dangerous as well. Anyway, that was a fun ride, glad you remembered it.