Wednesday, April 11, 2018

2018 Poem #28 -- Introducing Students to Poetry Through "Introduction to Poetry"

by Will Melvin

Quite often when I “teach” poetry, students want to drive down to the root question: what does it mean? I sometimes struggled to show students that oftentimes poetry doesn’t have to mean anything. That an emotion, an idea, a moment can be just that, and that a poem can scoop up that emotion, idea, or moment and serve it to you in a delightful way without asking anything in return. Students struggle with that—heck, adults struggle with that!—and Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” helps me work through this struggle with them.

I usually begin by asking students to generate subjects about which they care a great deal. I ask them to think about things that people “get wrong” about their subject. I discuss teaching and some of my pet peeves concerning the work we do as educators and how some things that other teachers do can pick at me a bit. The students generate their topics and their small frustrations, and we read “Introduction to Poetry.”

Collins’s poem is delightful in its simplicity. We read it a few times together in class and really discuss the poem’s form: how Collins uses personification and metaphor to talk to us about how he wants us to read poetry. We notice the severe shift in the poem’s finale, how Collins turns the tone through his final use of metaphor:

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.

Those two stanzas provide a touchstone for our work with poetry for the remainder of the year: poetry just is; it needn’t be anything beyond that. And that lesson can be a powerful reminder for students.

Once we have unpacked the form and the use of metaphor, the poem provides an opportunity for us to write alongside Collins. We go back to our opening freewrite, and I sketch out my “Introduction to Teaching” while students compose their own “Introduction to ____” poems.

This exercise is a blast for three reasons. First, students toy with voice, metaphor, and imagery in personal ways. Second, they thematically practice what Collins preached, again in personal ways. And third, I get to know more about my students through this exercise. They introduce me to video games, traveling, important places, “letting go,” growing up, and on and on. Their topics inform me about their lives in ways only poetry can.

And that is always a nice reminder of the power of introducing students to poetry.

Further Reading: 

Will Melvin teaches tenth and eleventh-grade English at CB South High School in Warrington, PA. Follow him on Twitter (@CB_Melvin10).


  1. Great poem to use! I read this the first day of class and talked about it briefly. I will be borrowing this lesson next year for sure. Thank you!

    1. And then you can show off your picture of you meeting Billy Collins!