At the very beginning of the semester, my literature class read Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.”
Today, 11 weeks into the semester, we were discussing Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost and I reminded them of Collins’ poem. The lines – “or walk inside the poem’s room / and feel the walls for a light switch” – had made an impression on them on the first day.
But all they want to dois tie the poem to a chair with ropeand torture a confession out of it.They begin beating it with a hoseto find out what it really means.
And my sense is, it’s a good thing to get poetry off the shelves and more into public life. Start a meeting with a poem. That would be an idea you might take with you. When you get a poem on a billboard or on the radio or on a cereal box or whatever, it happens to you so suddenly that you don’t have time to deploy your anti-poetry deflector shields that were installed in high school.
What messages about poetry does this guidance give, then? First, we discover that we read a poem in order to “retrieve” exact and correct information from it, and we are supposed to “infer” exact and correct meanings from it.
For example, Rosen cites one of the questions that is asked of the children:
“What would be another good title for the poem?”. There are four possibles and you’re only allowed to pick one. This is a gross distortion of the poetry-game that some of us play, where we do indeed invite children to come up with alternative titles as a way of talking about possible and interesting interpretations, not one correct one out of four.
And once again we’re back to Naomi Shihab Nye’s talk on “The Art of Teaching Poetry.”