Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Follow the series all week on Morning Edition and Tuesday on Vermont Edition.

Vermont Reads: Simply Read The Poem

Steven Kovich

Schools and communities around Vermont are reading and discussing “Poetry 180: A Turning Back To Poetry,” – an anthology of contemporary poetry edited by the poet Billy Collins, as part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s Vermont Reads, statewide community reading program.

Collins starts the collection with a poem of his own.

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 rope
and torture a confession out of it.

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

Just Read It

As poet laureate ten years ago, Billy Collins advocated for people to simply read poetry without the pressure to respond, especially in schools.

Collins said the book grew out of his Poetry 180 project, in which he collected one contemporary poem for every day of the school year, with the hope that teachers could resist the urge to “teach” the poems.

“I start the introduction to Poetry 180 by quoting a student who wrote an article on contemporary poetry and her first sentence was the following, she wrote, I think she was like 17-years-old when she wrote this, “Whenever I read a modern poem it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in a swimming pool,” Collins recalled.

“I’m just convinced, because I’m completely guilty of this, having taught college English for many years, that interpretation tends to monopolize discussions of poetry in the classroom, to the exclusion of the other pleasures of poetry, which are many, but most of them don’t require the intervention of teachers,” Collins explained.

This urge to teach may be because people are struggling for a meaning, like the end of a math equation, and are not just willing to let the poem live on its own terms.

“Poetic language tries to resist efforts for readers to just kind of brush the words aside to get to something else besides the words, positing some sort of sub-basement that the basement has and we need to kind of go down these dark stairs and find the hidden meaning. The surface of the poem is very important and that’s why in “Introduction to Poetry,” I have the ideal student trying to water-ski across the surface of the poem, because the surface is where one must start, I think you start water-skiing before you go down on the diving bell to extend that metaphor,” Collins said.  

Collins cites and article he once wrote on the seven pleasures of poetry.

“One was the pleasure of the dance, which is the pleasure of the rhythm; the pleasure of imaginative travel; the pleasure of connecting the dots of the world through metaphor; the pleasure of self-discovery and memorization; and the last pleasure was the pleasure of meaning. And deciphering meaning in difficult poems is a pleasure for me. I mean, I went to graduate school and got a PhD, so obviously I have some taste for that. But it’s the last pleasure I mention. And the trouble with the teaching of poetry is that it’s often the only approach to poetry that’s mentioned in the classroom,” he said.

Collins’ says he also wanted to expose students to contemporary poems.

“Most of the poems taught in the classroom, even though they’re presented as modern poems, are not very new at all. I also wanted to give the students kind of a break from the classroom emphasis on analysis, so I wanted the students to hear a poem every day.”

Humor in Poetry

Billy Collins is known for writing very clear poems, but also very funny ones. So does he consider the enjoyment of the reader when he’s writing poems?

“I’m completely reader conscious because as the poem is giving me pleasure as I compose it, I perceive that as a shared pleasure. I want the reader to be able to follow the poem, even though the poem might lead both of us into some rather murky or ambiguous or speculative areas, but I’m very conscious of getting the reader in car or in the side car, as we travel together through the poem,” he explained.

Collins wants to get poems off the shelf and into everyday life-- billboards, cereal boxes, starting meetings with poems. And he says it’s being done, a group in Miami trails lines of poems behind slow moving airplanes over the beaches.  

“That’s a rather novel approach. Because then it’s unavoidable, you kind of look up into the sky and you read that line of poetry without even knowing it’s a poem, so that you don’t  have time to get your deflector shields out that were installed by high school teachers.”

And he notes when he was Poet Laureate he got a poetry channel installed on Delta airlines, which lasted a year and a half to two years.

Poetry, an endangered species?

Collins doesn’t think so.

“What it has going for it is it’s antiquity for one thing, the novel is a toddler historically, in terms of literary writing. But also, the poem does something that no other genre touches really, and that is that it contains a sort of history of human emotion going back to it’s ancient origins,” he explained.  

Collins is one of the most successful poets of his time. His work has had a lot of financial success. But he resists the idea that he’s the rock star of the poetry world, saying he’s been blown away by the work of some of his contemporaries:  

“I just think I’m one of a group of strong poets who are writing clearly and seriously, and poems that anyone could pick up and be absorbed in. I think I’ve been very lucky.”

“I think poetry gets you right on your hands and knees with the language. Every word really counts in a poem. And that sort of concentration is a great pleasure, and just feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. You might never be great at it, but you’re part of this huge tradition of poetry. And that’s I think thrilling too. And perhaps the other reason is it just opens up one’s imagination and curiosity to see where a poem can be pushed. I like to say that a poem should start in Kansas and end in Oz. It should start at something familiar and end up giving the reader a kind of pleasurable feeling of disorientation and novelty. And that travel from a known thing to a slightly mysterious thing, is also a pleasure that draws me to writing,” Collins said.  

Tomorrow on “Vermont Reads: Poetry 180,” we’ll look at poetry’s role in helping children learn to read.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Latest Stories