How to Read a Poem












I want to share my current favorite poem with you. It’s “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. I’m sure it will be familiar to many of you, but I enjoy reading it over and over again. I hope you will too.


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.


The rest of the poem tells what actually happens. It isn’t pretty. Here’s the link to the whole poem where you can read the end.

As a former high school English teacher and the mother of a high school English student, this poem really speaks to me. The question that I return to again and again is how do we teach our students to read poetry “like a color slide” or to “walk inside the poem’s room?” How do we avoid teaching them to torture it? I hear so many kids say they don’t like poetry and I think what they mean is I don’t like the grisly effects of beating a poem to death.

For more Poetry Friday, visit Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference.

18 replies
  1. Heidi
    Heidi says:

    My favorite suggestion here is to walk in and “feel the walls for a light switch.” So often the way to “get” a poem is not to turn the bright light of interrogation on it, but to stare into its perceived dark and reach out sideways to FEEL what it’s bringing. The issue, of course, is that teachers are expected to somehow grade response to a poem, usually in numbers–as though the outcome of that feeling around for the glow of a poem can be correct or true or right (or not).

    Poetry is art and I think we do a better job of evaluating response to visual art, while treating poetry like “text.” I didn’t have a problem with Common Core until I realized that for K, at least, there seems to be no indicators for developing personal response to literature.

    Thanks for this post, Liz.

  2. Janet F.
    Janet F. says:

    Thank you so much, Liz and especially, Heidi. I love what you both wrote. Ok, now me and beating dead horses here, sorry…..what is wrong with developing a LOVE of the genre or art-form or sport or activity. Hmmmmm, let’s see. Think of a soccer player who is talented or a painter, a pianist or a dancer. IF they did not love the activity, they probably would not pursue it relentlessly and along the way probe it from the inside out in order to become “one” with the techniques/skills needed to succeed. When kids can love poetry for how it simply “is” and continue walking inside of poems because they hear new ones, read poetry collections, learn to recite poems by heart in a happy, easy, fun way, then and probably only then, might someone say to a kid: what do you notice about this poem? are you seeing any ideas or patterns here that interest you, what parts of the poem do you like? If kids come to say 11th or 12th grade, maybe then you can talk about some of the history of certain poems, share the genre at higher levels. But, ripping poetry apart to find the supposed symbolism, author’s meaning, metaphors….well, unless that is taught well and supported, it should not be graded IMHO (and Dana Gioia poet and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts agrees with this idea.) So back to the Common Core and poetry. I would, as a teacher, want to do poetry for the joy of it and slip in the educational bits as I go. And I can guarantee you will end up with poets and poetry lovers by year’s end. (Not to mention kids who can write poems without a lot of instruction on form either, here I am talking young kids, I have no problem with teaching forms, but see that as a pitfall.) HOWEVER, if that approach does not continue in future grades, who knows what will happen. Hopefully that love will find a beautiful room to sit and wait in. And maybe a grown kid will say someday, “I had a teacher once who loved poetry and words and what a blessing that was. I love poetry and know X and Y and Z by heart and they have comforted and entertained me all my life.”

    • lsteinglass
      lsteinglass says:

      I completely agree about the importance of love. If kids love something they will dive in and swim around happily for hours and hours. I also love the idea of starting with what do you notice? What interests you? Or what surprises you?

  3. bjleepoet
    bjleepoet says:

    This is a wonderful poem by BIlly Collins, Liz. I didn’t know you were a former HS English teacher! How interesting. I remember different approaches my teachers took in college. One of them simply read the poetry with no comment; another dissected ad nauseum. Hopefully the answer lies somewhere in between. But, I have to say, I’d go back and listen to it all again.

  4. Laura Shovan
    Laura Shovan says:

    The lines that resonate with me the most are: and hold it up to the light/ like a color slide. I love the notion that a poem preserves a moment, much like a photograph, but requires the reader — to live again in his or her point of view.

    • lsteinglass
      lsteinglass says:

      I love your reading of these lines and the the relationship between reader and poem. I wonder if kids will know what slides are? I tried to find some around my house and came up empty handed.

  5. Michelle Heidenrich Barnes
    Michelle Heidenrich Barnes says:

    One of my favorites as well! I never quite know what to say to people who refuse poetry because it’s something they just don’t “get.” That’s why introducing poetry at a young age as something fun and pleasurable is so important. Lots of interesting discussion in your comments here, Liz!

    • lsteinglass
      lsteinglass says:

      I also think we need to give ourselves and others the freedom to like some poems but not others. When I walk through a museum, I stop when something catches my attention. I linger there a long time. Other paintings don’t speak to me at that moment, and I don’t spend as much time looking at them. And that’s okay. It’s odd to me that people will say, “I don’t like poetry,” but I don’t think you hear them saying, “I don’t like painting,” or “I don’t like sculpture.” Instead I think they would say “I don’t like this painting,” or “I don’t like this artist.”

  6. Tabatha
    Tabatha says:

    I tutor. When folks ask me about tutoring their kids, if I can tell they want their kids to be drilled and not develop any love of language, I am not interested. How much stronger their mastery is of the language if they love it! (And how sad that some parents don’t get that at all. They are afraid of their kids enjoying themselves while they are learning. Ugh.)


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