Billy Collins
Poet; Former U.S. Poet Laureate
03:08

How should poetry be taught?

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Asking, what does the poem mean? kills the poem, Collins says.

Billy Collins

One of the most popular living poets in the United States, Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. Collins is the author of nine books of poetry, including She Was Just Seventeen (2006), The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005), Nine Horses (2002), and Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001). His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Harper's Magazine, and has been featured in various textbooks and anthologies, including those for the Pushcart Prize and the annual Best American Poetry series. Between 2001 and 2004, Collins served two terms at the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States. In his home state, Collins has been recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004. Other honors include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and the first annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where has taught for over thirty years. Ideas recorded at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival on: 7/4/07
Transcript

Billy Collins: Well the way poetry is taught is with great emphasis on the interpretation.  So we have this thing, the poem, and we want to create this other thing called the interpretation of the poem which then almost begins to compete with the poem – and in the worst cases replaces the poem.  So once we have the interpretation, we can actually discard the poem.  That’s the worst case scenario.  The question, “What does a poem mean?” is a deadening question.  

It it makes people nervous.  It makes students nervous to have to respond to a poem not by pleasurably feeling its intake, but by being put on the spot and having to come up with some answer that the teacher knows and is not telling you.  It’s the worst kind of teaching where you play a game called “Guess What the Teacher’s Thinking?”  And lots of teachers like to do that because it’s a cheap kind of power.  A better question, I think, than “What does a poem mean?” is how does a poem get where it’s going?  So instead of seeing it as something to be reduced to some other text . . . to see the poem as a . . . as a journey, as moving sort of point-by-point navigation through itself to some ending.

Students are much more willing to follow the progress of a poem, and to notice where it turns and how it expands or contracts or becomes funny or serious – how it moves around through itself – than to be put on the spot and try to come up with an answer about interpretation.


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