Billy Collins at D.G. Wills Books, San Diego, Oct. 2008.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Billy Collins at D.G. Wills Books, San Diego, on Oct. 20, 2008.
(Wikimedia Commons)









Billy Collins was a guest on the Diane Rehm show this week. It was, as always, a pleasure to hear his voice reading his poems and talking about poetry and life. The show also includes a very cute 3 year-old reciting one of Collins’ poems and a great idea for a dinner party.

Collins did say one thing I took exception to. He said he didn’t think you could teach the rhythm of language or metaphor.

Maybe you can’t teach the rhythm of language in an afternoon or even a semester, but what about over the course of many years? I think I learned about rhythm of language from taking my three kids to early childhood music classes over many, many years. I think I learned about the rhythm of language from reading them picture books and poetry over years and years. I also think I learned and relearn it from walking and feeling the rhythm in my body as I walk.

Metaphor too, I think can be taught. Maybe you can’t teach someone to be a genius, but surely you can help a writer move ahead from where they are. I think the first step is to teach writers to be alert to and reject the cliché. Encourage them to push on and find a new, fresh comparison. I find it helpful to make long lists of possible metaphors. The cliché’s seem to fill the beginning of the list, but then once I’ve gotten them out on paper, other ideas seem to come—brighter, fresher ideas.

Here’s a quick example, using perhaps the most clichéd object around.

Possible metaphors for the moon

A cookie
A cake
A bowl of milk
A cracker
A plate
A face
A bunny
A spoon
A medal
A coin
A balloon
A mirror
A marble
A ball
A baseball
A soccer ball
A saucer
A raindrop
A tear
An eye
A belly button
A button

I don’t think my ideas start to get interesting until pretty far down the list.

Here’s a quick draft, using tear.


The moon
slips down
the cheek
of night
the dark.

There’s no time now but I think a second stanza about the sun might work.


What do you think? Can we teach the rhythm of language? Can we teach metaphor?

Would you like to give the list strategy a try and report back?


For more Poetry Friday, visit Irene Latham at Live Your Poem…

(c) Elizabeth Steinglass, 2013, all rights reserved

20 replies
  1. Tamera Wissinger
    Tamera Wissinger says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I have always thought that metaphor and rhythm can be taught and I actually use the list method, too. I wonder if Billy was making some reference to the idea that we humans are already inherently tied to rhythms and using metaphor in our storytelling, so in that regard it can’t be taught…but it can certainly be refined.


    • lsteinglass
      lsteinglass says:


      I didn’t get the sense that he meant it was inherently human. I think he meant some people have it and some don’t. It made me wonder what and how he teaches. He also said something very interesting about some poets “presuming” that the reader will be interested in their emotional experience. He recommends warming up to it, inviting the reader to care. That was definitely a teaching moment in the interview–at least it was for me.


  2. Janet F.
    Janet F. says:

    Hi Liz,
    Several years ago now, someone sent me Solomon’s Youtube video reciting Litany by Billy Collins. Search three year old Litany and it will come up. I was moved and intrigued because it was so much like what my kids do. I searched out and corresponded with his mother to find out how he learned the poem and voila it was the same as how I do it. The comments are intriguing. Much to consider and I haven’t looked lately but it was close to a million views. It, to me, shows potential. Kids can do this if nurtured and what is the possible downside of a young child learning a poem like this along side nursery rhymes? If the child is encouraged, I believe almost every child could learn Litany. Now I am not suggesting we teach them to do it, rather we provide the environment of support where it could happen over time. I am going to email the mom to see if he still knows it after I check out the show (was it a repeat?). Now I since I know Billy’s interpretation of the poem versus Solomon’s, I can see why he is talking not being able to teach metaphor. Those who note the beauty of the poem through Solomon’s recitation, see all those wild metaphors as something beautiful or loving where Collins was trying to use over the top/greeting style overly flowery ones. So I will have to listen to the show soon to see about metaphor and the rhythm of language. I think if we carry poems with us, in our hearts and in our heads, we internalize and fell the rhythm and then recognize it when we hear or read it elsewhere. Recitation has not been done in most schools for a long time. I am against required recitation with personal/solo performance unless it comes from the child’s initiative. My system/approach enables that to happen and kids are eager. I call learning poems by heart Suzuki for literacy. Love your post today as I am off to a conference this weekend! Also on my FB wall I put up something last night. Love this thought-provoking post. It is hard work to be a poet though and to move to something new and fresh, but each person has to start somewhere and move up the ladder. I think it makes for a richer life to love poetry and to try your hand at it.

    • lsteinglass
      lsteinglass says:

      The show included the old clip of Solomon from when he was three. It’s amazing to hear him recite the poem. He seems to get such joy from the language even if he doesn’t understand every word. So Janet, are you working on a book about what you do with kids and poetry and recitation?!

  3. Irene Latham
    Irene Latham says:

    I’m with you: rhythm and language and metaphor ABSOLUTELY can be learned/taught! Each of us has a unique viewpoint… it’s all about learning to tap into it and make it accessible for our writing. That’s the part that takes practice. Looking forward to more of your work, Liz!

  4. Michelle Heidenrich Barnes
    Michelle Heidenrich Barnes says:

    I’m sorry I missed that show, I’ll have to look for it on the internet. I’m relieved I DIDN’T miss your moon poem, though. Brilliant, Liz! I always knew you had a talent for imagery, but this one blows me away. I don’t think it needs a second stanza about the sun. I’d love to see another poem about the sun, maybe in a similar style, but this little gem can definitely hold it’s own.

    • lsteinglass
      lsteinglass says:

      Thanks, Michelle! If you press on Billy Collins’ name, it will take you to the show. (The highlight color is too subtle. I’ll have to fix that one of these days.)

  5. Tara Smith
    Tara Smith says:

    I listened to this, too – and was a bit diasppointed by the tone of some of Collins’ answers. Perhaps he’s getting weary of the same questions that are asked time and time again? I hope one can teach the rhythm of language or metaphor – or at least plant an awareness and an appreciation of it!

  6. bjleepoet
    bjleepoet says:

    Wonderful post and discussion, Liz. I love your fresh take on a metaphor for the moon.I struggle to find new metaphors rather than cliches, and it’s getting harder and harder because so many poets have come before with their fresh metaphors, but I’m glad for the challenge.

    I love Janet Fong’s comment about suzuki poetry. As a former piano teacher, I tried to teach suzuki piano, but mired in a very classical training, it did not come at all naturally to me. Still I was glad to have tried.

    • Janet F.
      Janet F. says:

      Hi BJ and Liz,

      Thank you for your kind comments and also to Tabatha. The book is coming! I have studied Suzuki’s rationale and history and it is all about immersion and sharing the masters with the student at a young age. Then they get a memory trace of the qualities you can’t always name for them, but they just get the sense of the beauty or strength or whatever quality of the virtuoso’s performance. Then they imitate and have the big idea in mind, then learn the craft. Not everyone can rise to virtuoso status, and I agree with Jama, not everyone can come up with delightfully new metaphors, for instance, like Liz’s moon as a tear drop. That said, immersion in rich language and sophisticated structure and exposure to this when kids are young, sets them on the path to discover their own style. The better communicator you are the wider your opportunities may be. Just like we read poetry to young children who may not understand the entire thing but can get the gist. Also I am in agreement with Irene and others who think we can teach this, we just can’t get everyone to the virtuoso stage. And that brings me to some of the current modern poets who win prizes for things I read which I am clueless as to what the poet is getting at.

      So the idea of constantly having to strive to create something original, that then becomes almost a hidden code which only those in the ivory tower of poetry elite or academia can “get”, moves poetry into an arena removed from the common culture. I am with Dana Gioia about wanting poetry to be a bigger part of daily life! Poetry can matter and should. But I also know quality poetry is a craft that takes practice and time for most. BTW I am Janet Fagal and on FB Janet Clare. I began posting as Janet F. when I was teaching to keep a modicum of anonymity. I live and teach in a small town……which is a great thing in many respects, but a fishbowl life in other ways. Though I love it!

  7. Buffy Silverman
    Buffy Silverman says:

    Hi Liz,
    I listened to the Diane Rehm show’s Billy Collins segment and had the same reaction as you–loved the discussion and the poems, but disagreed with his remark about metaphor and the rhythm of language not being something you can teach (and am glad you wrote a thoughtful post about it–it would not have occurred to me to do that!) I think the more immersed you are in rich language, the more you pick it up (e.g. kids who are read to come to school with much greater language skills/vocab than kids who are not.) Certainly some people have a natural gift for poetic writing; but just as immersion in language enriches a child’s vocabulary, immersion in poetry can enrich a writer’s ability and ear for language.

  8. Linda Baie
    Linda Baie says:

    Music, listening too, and reading aloud poetry and poetic picture books to children can give them the background to forge ahead in rhythm, and there are a number of ways I’ve taught/enabled students to look for new connections/metaphor, like looking at different things in nature with a magnifying glass or loupe. Especially children find new ideas; they don’t have all the words we’ve read in their heads yet. I love that you did find a new way to look at the moon, Liz-it’s beautiful.

  9. maryleehahn
    maryleehahn says:

    You had me at “Billy Collins,” but you kept me with your counter to his assertion and your WOW lovely moon poem. I’ll try this exercise with my students!

  10. haitiruth
    haitiruth says:

    Thinking in metaphor is a habit you can get into, I think. I definitely think you can get better at it. Love your moon poem!

  11. Heidi
    Heidi says:

    Hi, Liz–

    I know, as I meet each new class of kids or each new set of workshop attendees, that some people are “born poets.” They come into the world with metaphorical thinking built in, and they play with language for the fun of it, and as they get intrinsic pleasure from that their skill grows without any teaching and perhaps only the smallest encouragement. Maybe this is true also for “born mathematcians,” though I wouldn’t know. Billy is so much a born poet that perhaps he doesn’t realize that most everyone can learn the habits of mind that underlie metaphorical thinking: flexibility, fluency, persistence, looking sideways out of the corner of your eye. : ) Your poem is lovely as it is, and your list technique is one that we can use to teach minds, not just subjects.

  12. Myra GB
    Myra GB says:

    Ah, that’s always a contentious issue, isn’t it? Same with creativity – the notion that it can’t be taught. I personally feel that if rhythm, rhyme, metaphors can’t be taught, then we educators would be out of a job right now. I could see though where Billy Collins is coming from. You can only teach so much – perhaps the basics, the fundamentals, the mechanics of what a metaphor is like, or how rhythm/rhyme/musicality appears like on print. But ultimately, it’s a lived experience. And a lot of it has to do with how much one is willing to risk exposing one’s being through one’s articulated sentiments captured in rhythm, rhyme, or even free verse – those are things that can’t be taught. 🙂


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