Resisting Billy Collins: On Teaching “Introduction to Poetry” in Introduction to Poetry
It is especially challenging to teach critical reading skills on the site of Billy Collins’s poetry. His poetry has been lauded by well-known poet-critics and in the popular media as especially seductive. John Updike (“lovely poems”), Edward Hirsch (“an ironist with a funny bone”), and Richard Howard (“funny, moving, brainy”) have all testified to the emotional pleasures of reading Collins’s best-selling verse (Merrin 202). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune considers the poet to be “absolutely charming and irresistible” (Fink 100), and the New York Review of Books declares that “It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins” (Fink 101). The 2001 U.S. Poet Laureate’s own critical essays point us in the direction of reading poetry for pleasure not for critical thinking. In “How Do Poems Travel?,” Collins states, “More interesting to me than what a poem means is how it travels. In the classroom, I like to substitute for the question, ‘What is the meaning of the poem?’ other questions: ‘How does this poem go?’ or ‘How does this poem travel through itself in search of its own ending?’” (396).
Collins’s essay, “Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader,” speaks to his fascination with the seductive elements of poetry. In a section of this essay on the “music of the poem,” Collins notes that rhythm, pacing, and phrasing “cast a modest spell over us” (4). At its most seductive, Collins argues, poetry causes readers to become irrational. Merging with the object of desire—the poem—and projecting themselves onto it as if they were its creator, not its recipient, readers are encouraged to relinquish their critical faculties. They are to surrender to the “pleasure of the page”: “a poem pulls us in through the power of the speaker’s consciousness, which temporarily replaces our own reader-consciousness” (15). Like Alice entering the hallucinatory space of Wonderland’s rabbit hole, readers are “carried off suddenly into a new conceptual zone, to be slipped through a secret passageway and into the extraordinary rooms of the imagination” (20). Describing poetry reading as a form of travel, the exotic destination not a tropical island, but a vacation in the pleasure dome created by the gifted wordsmith, Collins writes, “we gain access to the other consciousness by submitting to the speech-world of the poem” (14). Reading poetry, for Collins, is a deliberate attempt to relinquish control of our critical faculties. Apollonian in orientation, we fail to resist the hedonistic temptation of the poet’s language games. Is it too far-fetched to describe the dynamic at play in Collins’s theory in terms of sexual conquest? Is not the poet imagined as a Don Juan who, metaphorically, drops Alice the pill that will inaugurate her yielding to the lyric’s synaesthetic play?
Collins argues that there is a significant cultural motivation for him to emphasize textual delights over critical interpretation. From his point of view, America has simply become too brainy. To counteract our obsession with thoughtful analysis, the poet must write in a way that encourages us to suppress our cerebral bent. Collins derides the “interpretive fallacy” that underwrites the tendency of teachers to “put the greatest emphasis on finding out what the poem means.” He states that this pedagogy of meaning is merely a symptom of a wider crisis that “reveals the supremacy of reason in our culture, its dominance over the somatic and the sensory” (Collins 29). Given Collins’s pop sensibility, I must admit his comments suggest he does not watch much TV, and that he does not pay attention to our political discourse, which most observers would agree promotes emotional response to candidates instead of reasoned judgment.
In “Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader,” Collins states that he wants to put “meaning into the kind of hedonist perspective [that] might help to remove the shadow of the poetry teacher from the page and allow the reader to indulge more fully in the cluster of poetry’s imaginative and physical pleasures” (29). By contrast, when I teach a course entitled Introduction to Poetry each year at Purdue, I take as my charge the task of sharpening students’ abilities to evaluate poetry beyond saying, in impressionistic fashion, whether or not they “like” a poem on a gut level. I also want them to move beyond saying, as they often do at the start of the semester, that “poetry means something different for each of us.”
I open my first session of Introduction to Poetry by offering students a cluster of four works that call for different types of reading strategies and foster different kinds of emotional and ethical response. “Introduction to Poetry” (1996), a lyric by longtime Lehman College (CUNY) English teacher Collins, which self-consciously reflects on the project of teaching poetry to undergraduates, is one of them. I don’t tell students this up front, but in truth “Introduction to Poetry” is not my cup of tea. My trouble with Collins is that in spite of his possession of what one critic has called the “generous dollop of regular-guy jokiness” that has made his works into best-sellers (Merrin 205), his “Introduction to Poetry” harks back to the “art for art’s sake” movement that informed the archetypal statement of High Modernist poetics in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” (1926): “A poem should not mean / but be.” In the end I hope my class will join me in resisting the seductive discourse that lays out Collins’s aestheticism, but I want class discussion to center on what is at stake when an author treats the poem as a surreal, thingy object designed for diversionary pleasure, not critical reflection. For that, in essence, is what Collins’s poem is all about.
Discussing “Introduction to Poetry” on day one will also foreground things to come in subsequent classes because it concerns an issue that I will also explore when we turn to the objectivist poetry of William Carlos Williams and its relation to the found art of Marcel Duchamp. In my presentations on Collins, and then on Williams’s “This is Just to Say” and Duchamp’s “Fountain,” I will be thinking about poetry as “framed” within institutions of meaning that affect our reception and even our understanding of what counts as poetry worth teaching and what doesn’t. In Collins’s typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, “Introduction to Poetry” addresses the fact that poetry reading today occurs primarily in the classroom. Institutionalizing poetry in the academic context troubles Collins because he follows in the footsteps of avant-garde movements such as Dadaism that challenged the association of poetry with rational discourse. Collins regards poetry as an inappropriate site to perform meaning-oriented readings that take into account social and biographical contexts. In an interview with Michael Meyer, Collins stated:
One thing to keep in mind is that readers of poetry, students especially, are much more preoccupied with ‘meaning’ than poets are. While I am writing, I am not thinking about the poem’s meaning. I am only trying to write a good poem, which involves securing the form of the poem and getting the poem to hold together so as to stay true to itself. (Meyer 409)
His critique of how poetry is introduced to young people both in the interview with Meyer and in his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” I would argue, is an example of bad faith, or at least an ambivalent one, given his own relationship to academia. Does not symbolic and economic value accrue in Collins’s poetry through its repeated exposure in anthologies and on course syllabi? Would “Introduction to Poetry” make any sense at all if poetry were not represented in college classrooms? A poet and pedagogue, Collins is decidedly ambivalent about placing the poem in the classroom.
In his essay, “The Companionship of a Poem,” Collins reflects on the value of teaching poetry to undergraduates:
I came to realize that to study poetry was to replicate the way we learn and think. When we read a poem, we enter the consciousness of another. It requires that we loosen some of our fixed notions in order to accommodate another point of view — which is a model of the kind of intellectual openness and conceptual sympathy that a liberal education seeks to encourage.
Setting up an adversarial “I versus Them” dynamic in “Introduction to Poetry,” Collins contradicts his stated intent to accommodate another’s point of view by fostering “intellectual openness and conceptual sympathy.” In his poem, Collins imagines himself as an increasingly frustrated instructor whose students resist his aesthetic. In the last two stanzas of the seven-stanza poem, he rages against his students for their desire to read for meaning, as they have been taught to do in high school and as they will need to do to say something coherent in a paper or final exam. In the first stanzas of the poem, the teacher “asks them” politely to experience the poem’s zany, synaesthetic pleasures. Students are instructed to hold a poem up to the light like a color slide and to press an ear to it, as if it were a buzzing hive. In spite of his efforts, he laments in increasingly condescending tones his failure to prevent students from reading for meaning:
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. (lines 12–6)
Collins critiques didacticism, but we notice how the poet has chosen images to stack the deck in a polemical argument that discourages deep reading and promotes surface appreciation. Is connecting a poem to an author’s life, which Collins discourages through his image of the reader as water-skiing “on the surface” of the poem while waving to the author “on the other shore,” comparable to torturing a suspect during an interrogation?
Collins casts students as little terrorists because they want to dig beneath the surface of a poem. Ironically, in another of his anthologized poems, “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” (2002), Collins gets his kicks by unveiling the surface appearance of the Belle of Amherst. Critic Tom Fink has described the process of undressing in the poem as, “a male poet’s fantasy implying violation of the reclusive Dickinson’s privacy and her poem’s complex interior life” (102). On the one hand, Collins’s critique of reading poetry to torture a confession out of it can be read as his assertion of a distinctive place in literary tradition by distancing himself from the 1950s and 1960s “confessional movement” led by Lowell, Berryman, Plath, and Sexton. On the other hand, I wonder if Collins’s distaste for probing the relation between the author and text is a defense mechanism that enables the poet to engage in fantasies of abuse—of students in “Introduction to Poetry” and of Dickinson in “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”—without taking responsibility.
I agree with Collins that asking students to write papers about poetry in a graded environment may not foster appreciation of the poem’s “isness.” But it does not follow that Collins should verbally beat up students by parodying their efforts at finding meaning. Shouldn’t a teacher respond with empathetic understanding to students who are merely reacting to opaque texts with the tools of interpretation they have been given? Recalling their own experiences of excessive symbol hunting in high school—the word buoy in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea (1952) read by one teacher as boy; the color of the sky as blue in another poem representing a state of mind—many students find relief in Collins’s privileging of tactile experience over intellectual rumination. Demonstrating his roots in modernism, I pair Collins’s poem with Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” but I also encourage students to resist Collins’s seductive and yet ironically polemical claims by placing his poem beside work by other lyricists for whom “meaning” is something essential to their intent.
To offer a bold contrast to Collins’s New Critical aesthetic, I play a recording of “Talkin’ Union” (1941) by iconic Left Wing folkie Pete Seeger. The overtly political lyric demonstrates that even in the realm of “low”—folk or popular—culture, many songwriters would adamantly disagree with Collins’s focus on poetry as mere respite from worldly concerns. Student responses to Seeger’s lyric vary. One student accused Seeger of writing “propaganda” not “poetry.” This comment leads us to examine what we mean by “propaganda” and whether we could, or should, draw such a distinction between “poetry” and “propaganda.” Could we not argue that Collins’s poem is, ironically, propaganda via its willful dismissal of the social value of art? One student argues that propaganda occurs when an author wants to motivate his audience to “do” something in the world outside the text. Authors write propaganda and protestors paint picket signs when they feel strongly about something: religion, unionization, World War Two, the environment. Focusing on communal values and public controversy, rather than individual meanings and introspection, “Talkin’ Union” is not, the student continued, as in traditional lyric poetry, concerned with generating strong feelings in the listener. But another student disagreed. Wasn’t Seeger’s lyric meant to arouse vehement emotions in members of his intended audience of non-unionized factory workers? Didn’t he want his words to help workers find the courage to dismiss charges of being Un-American—Red—and choose to unionize?
Seeger’s folk lyric resists the ideology of unbridled capitalism, but here again I bring in the concept of “resistant reading” to critique Seeger’s seductive poetics. I encouraged students to read Collins’s “art for art’s sake” aesthetic with both an empathetic understanding and a critical perspective that examines the manipulative nature of Collins’s ironically polemical poem. I also wanted students to resist buying into how Seeger portrayed the “boss” and the unions. I wanted students to notice how Seeger, a Harvard-educated writer, uses images, humor, voice, repetitions, and concrete details to portray the Boss as a heartless and cruel wife-beater and the union as the royal road to the good life for workers and their families. Does Seeger accurately portray unions? Does he deal with the critique of unions as corrupt and overly involved in political campaigns to the point where they have been accused of being another special interest group? One thinks of a classic movie such as Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) in this regard. Did the unionization of the Ford motor plant, celebrated in Seeger’s poem, ironically contribute to how Ford and other American auto makers have struggled to compete in a global context in which many non-American cars are built by non-Union workers in “right to work states”? Is Seeger’s overtly political poem merely a period piece that lacks the enduring significance of great poetry? My main point in playing Seeger off Collins is to demonstrate that Collins’s aestheticism did not account for lyrics such as Seeger’s. Both works were indeed about meaning and values and neither could be neatly separated from the political realms and institutional frames in which they exist. Perhaps the lesson is that we as readers, critics, and students cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.
In week one, I also bring to class a poem called “in loving memory,” published on the seventh anniversary of the death of a young woman named Trisha Gochenour (11/19/1978-01/09/2003) in the Lafayette, Indiana Journal and Courier. A poem one would never find in an anthology such as Norton or Heath—unless it were framed as a negative example—“in loving memory” was written by the unskilled hands of her parents and friends—it is signed, “Love, Mom, Dad, Sequoya, Julie, Troy, Seth, Zach, Jacob, Michael, Tony & Matt.” It was published as a paid advertisement and accompanied by a color mug shot of Trisha in the obituary section of our town’s local paper on January 9, 2010.
Like Collins’s and Seeger’s, “in loving memory” caused us to ask questions about aesthetic criticism, evaluative criticism, and the purposes of poetry. Written in a traditional iambic measure and with rhyme, the poem lacks the funky imagism, contemporaneity, and creative surprises of Collins’s poem. But it is clear the authors went to considerable time and expense to self-publish their commemorative words in a recognizably poetic form. Somehow they believed that poetry was the proper medium to communicate their grief to readers, many of whom may have known Trisha. The authors are not skilled wordsmiths, and they are certainly not up on modernist movements such as Surrealism or Objectivism, but they paid to see their lyric in print because it expressed in public their continuing memory of a lost loved one. The poem is also a statement of religious faith that the family would come together again in the next world through the will of God, when, they wrote, the “chain” that had been “broken” with Trisha’s death would be refastened in God’s hands. I mention in class how this poem’s expression of religious faith stands in contrast to the iconic critique of Christianity’s emphasis on the next world’s pleasures in “Sunday Morning” (1915) by Wallace Stevens.
Many students felt the poem was corny, sentimental, and generic in its statements. It was too much like a Hallmark Card to qualify as serious poetry worthy of class discussion. One student said you could place a picture of any other deceased person, or even of a beloved pet, beside Trisha’s elegy, and the poem’s sentiments would apply to those other persons or animal. In creative writing workshop parlance, the poem told us how the authors felt about the deceased person. It didn’t show or enact, through imagery and anecdote, who Trisha was or why readers should feel for her or those who knew and loved her. Some students, however, didn’t mind the discursive, even generic, quality of the poem. Lyric poetry, they argued, was supposed to be universal. Even as Keats wrote “When I have fears that I shall cease to be” in 1818 to come to terms with his own fading health, the impending death of his brother Tom, and his affection for Fanny Brawne, each reader should be able to step into his shoes and empathetically identify with his knowledge of death. I take up the issue of the privilege of the universal “I” unselfconsciously adopted by Keats when we discuss Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” (1951), but the student has a point. Some students felt the lack of specific information about Trisha was actually a good thing. Readers, especially those who knew Trisha prior to reading the poem in the local paper, could apply their memorable images and anecdotes to the poem’s general sentiment that Trisha was a kind and loving person who remains deeply missed. I added that it was possible to critique the poem’s lack of concrete details about the subject’s life because it was as if the poem was not registering the life of the subject but instead rehearsing how readers are supposed to feel about her. The poem, I argued, offers readers the after-effect of having read a powerful poem, rather than the poem itself being an experience about which we should have strong feelings. (I was offering students a definition of kitsch.) I wondered why the poem doesn’t offer a more complex analysis of the subject’s life. Was the subject really all sweetness and light? Wouldn’t representing some of her quirks have made the subject that much more memorable? Maybe not. At least according to some students, we want to remember the deceased in the best light. We don’t need to go over the darker, upsetting, ambivalent feelings.
But then I played for them a song by Lucinda Williams—daughter of acclaimed Arkansas poet Miller Williams—called “Little Angel, Little Brother” (1992). The song didn’t paper over the problems in Little Brother’s life. It discussed how the singer, the subject’s sister, would find him passed out in the back seat of his car in the parking lot of a bar with an empty bottle on the floor. Williams doesn’t shy away from representing his alcoholism, but she also describes him as a quirky, creative spirit who loves Shakespeare, chess, Ray Charles, and wisecracks. Was Lucinda Williams’s lyric in bad taste? Would her brother be upset when he heard the song? Would it be a wake-up call for him to get clean and sober? Should that even matter? Could Lucinda be accused of muddying the reputation of a loved one? Or do we appreciate what some students called “the realism” of the Williams song? Do we honor Williams’s courage to be honest about the brother, who exists in a gray zone that contrasts with the black and white world painted by Seeger in “Talkin’ Union” or the authors of the elegy for Trisha? Was poetry not at its best when it expressed ambivalence, another word for seeing the gray, rather than the black and the white?
Placing Collins beside Lucinda Williams, Seeger, and the authors of Trisha’s elegy only complicated our class discussion, thus allowing us to improvise as new melodies entered the composition of class discussion. By “new melodies” I mean that we were then able to ask different questions about how we value poetry, and especially how we distinguish quality via the criteria of originality and complexity. Comparing and contrasting “Little Angel, Little Brother” with “in loving memory” brought us into the area of aesthetic judgment. Why were some of us so uncomfortable with the unvarnished “sentimental” statements of love, loss, faith, family, and care that were put forward so directly in the poem published in the Journal and Courier? Why did we think originality was such an important value of uphold in poetry? Was it always that way? I mentioned how lyric poetry came out of the ancient idea of the traveling bard, who strummed a harp-like lyre while reciting folk memories around the fire as he sang for his supper. The ability to remember set pieces of narrative, myth, and folk history and then to combine these well-known elements in compelling ways was much more important to the success of the ancient singing bard than originality in topic or perspective. Was the focus on newness and innovation a sign that we live in a commodity culture in which the economy depends on convincing buyers that they need to purchase the new model of the same old automobile to remain in fashion?
My decision to move in week one between a poem by Collins grappling with its place in official poetry culture, a union song, an amateur elegy in the local paper, and a well-crafted piece of contemporary country music speaks to how I bring a “jazz aesthetic” into my choice of texts. By “jazz aesthetic,” I am saying that I put forward the basic melody or “riff” that I wanted to achieve in the first week of class by playing Collins and MacLeish off of Guthrie, Lucinda Williams, and the semi-anonymous elegy that appeared in the local paper. But I had no way to predict how the other soloists, the students in the class, would react to this basic melody. And I didn’t know for sure how their reactions would set off my own memories, cultural contexts, thoughts, beliefs, and reflections. All of this happened together in the real time of the classroom. It was a one-off experience, and I am sure it will be different when I teach the course next year.
Collins, Billy. “How Do Poems Travel?” Poetry: An Introduction. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford Books, 2013.
—. “Introduction to Poetry.” The Apple That Astonished Paris. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
—. “Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader.” The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry. Ed. David Citino. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2000. 1-33.
—. “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. New York: Random House, 2002.
—. “The Companionship of a Poem.” Chronicle of Higher Education 48.13 (2001): B5.
Fink, Thomas. “Poetry, Charm, and More: Billy Collins and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, vol. 27, Winter 2003. 100-
MacLeish, Archibald. “Ars Poetica.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Edited by Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 331.
Merrin, Jeredith. “Art over Easy.” Southern Review 38.1 (2002): 202-14.
Murray, Joan. “Taking Off Billy Collins’s Clothes.” Poetry: An Introduction. Ed. Michael Meyer Boston: Bedford, 2013.
Meyer, Michael. “On ‘Building with Its Face Blown Off’: Michael Meyer Interviews Billy Collins.” Poetry: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford, 2013.
Mom, Dad, et al. “In loving memory.” Lafayette Journal and Courier. 9 January 2010.
Seeger, Pete. “Talkin’ Union.” Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits. Columbia Records, 2002.
Williams, Lucinda. “Little Angel, Little Brother.” Sweet Old World. Chameleon, 1992.