Friday, January 3, 2014

I Wish I'd Written This

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.

Billy Collins wrote this in frustration at the way students responded to his attempts (as an English
teacher) to share with them the joy of poetry. I can only suggest that they had already been irrevocably corrupted by previous English teachers who were not poets. I was surprised by his explanation because to me, as a poet, this poem perfectly describes the way poetry is wrecked in schools —by teachers — so that the majority of students learn to hate it, not love it.

Do you remember the first scene in the movie Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams as the teacher puts a diagram on the blackboard and solemnly demonstrates how to analyse a poem in a logical, even mathematical way? What scared me was that I was the only person in the audience killing myself laughing! And of course the Williams character was indeed ridiculing that approach to teaching poetry.

Wherever the travesty originates, this poem is an incisive indictment of it. I can't imagine anyone saying it better. You can hear Billy Collins read it here.

Of course he is a very well-known poet. He was poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and of New York State from 2004 to 2006. He has received a number of other prizes and honours, and is described as a literary poet with popular appeal. (A description which could also apply to another recently featured poet, Mary Oliver.) Someone writing of him in conjunction with his TED Radio Hour appearance, says:

Preferring lyrical simplicity to abstruse intellectualism, Collins combines humility and depth of perception, undercutting light and digestible topics with dark and sometimes biting humor.

You can find more of his poems at (I wish I had written Madmen too). He's a prolific author, as you can see if you check the number of books on his Amazon page (actually three pages).

The link on his name, above, leads to the Wikipedia article about him, and here is one which focuses more on his poetics.

This Google link leads you to lots of examples of him reading his own poetry. And please do not deny yourselves the delight of his aforementioned TED appearance. Animations of poetry (including this poem); whatever next? But oh, how well it works!

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. HaHa! So it is, frustrated English teachers agree.

  2. ALWAYS love me some Billy Collins! Thank you, Rosemary!

  3. This is great, Rosemary. I love the whole idea of dropping a mouse into a poem, or entering and feeling for the light switch. An awesome description of poetry. And I concur with the kids being turned off by dissection of poetry. I still remember my grade nine English teacher because she would recite poems, with excellent rhythm, which let us feel the poems rather than analyze them. It was brilliant. I still remember "The highwayman came riding, riding...." No one had ever read a poem to me before. That was the year I began writing poetry.

    Thank you, kiddo, for all your work, which makes our Fridays so special. I look forward to more of your wonderful offerings as this new year begins.

    1. Oh,Sherry, I was brought up on The Highwayman! My Dad used to read it to me. Thrilling stuff!

  4. one of my fav billy collins poems...i actually have a reading of it by him on CD that i listen to in the car....

  5. love this! spontaneous thuights written as they start from the brain through the heart to the hand is the sincerest and purest way.

  6. I'm off to check out more of his writing! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Enjoyed the TED talk. Had some of my own special people in mind when he was reading the last poem!


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