The trouble with poetry

Adam Roberts begins a five-part manifesto on why you should be reading poetry:

“I remember, as a young person, being posed the question, ‘what kind of music do you like?,’ and coolly, sensibly replying, ‘everything but classical!’ Now, as a graduate student and adjunct professor, when I ask my students what they like to read, I generally hear the following:

‘Oh, pretty much anything.’

They pause.

‘…except poetry. I really don’t like reading poetry.’

Why? What had poetry ever done to them?

And yet, as a teacher and poet, I often find myself strangely identifying with their answer. Yeah, poetry sucks! It’s confusing, it’s pretentious, it’s precious, it’s frivolous and disconnected and has nothing to do with my life. Right on.

It is to and from this perspective—that of the absolute, and righteous, skeptic—that I would like to address this series on poetry—a series in which I will actually appeal to you to read the stuff.”

This puts me in mind of two of my favorite Billy Collins poems, excerpts of which I’ll share with you. The first is from “The Trouble with Poetry,” included in the collection of the same name:

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

The second comes from “Introduction to Poetry,” in his collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. It’s written from the perspective of a teacher leading a college poetry workshop:

I want them to water-ski
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.


  1. Winston

    I’ve been brushing up on Collins lately because he’s coming to Nashville to give a lecture in a few weeks. What a wonderful collection Sailing Alone Around the Room is.

    I’ll never forget my Intro to Lit class (just 4 years ago) when my professor (the lovely Dr. Impson) introduced us to poetry and helped me see into it. I fell in love with poetry and short stories that year (I already loved most other forms of literature as I grew up homeschooled in a family that loved reading) and now they are often what I turn to when I find myself overburdened.

    There is truly nothing more restful to me than pouring myself a good drink and diving into some verse. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. David Andersen

    That second poem is excellent! I am guilty, guilty, guilty of trying to torture a confession out of them. I love the imagery of water-skiing across the poem.

    I wonder what he means by that?

  3. Random Thoughts

    Oh, I love this for all its painful accuracy!

    “I want them to water-ski
    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.”

    David, perhaps the water skiing imagery is meant to indicate active enjoyment of the poem without damaging it? I’ve never water skied (I’m a very poor swimmer), but it looks like mad fun, and when you’re done the lake is as beautiful as when you began, plus you have a greater appreciation of it. I wish teaching poetry could be like this!

    When my students are done with poetry analysis, it often feels like the poems were tied up and tortured. And sometimes I feel like I was too!

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  5. David Andersen

    @Random Thoughts:

    I’ve dismembered that poem in the last 24 hours and I think it’s a metaphor for the contrast between so-called ‘Western’ politics as practiced in the United States vs. the variety of ‘Western’ politics practiced in Europe. I think, though I’m still applying the hose, that there is also a subliminal message in there about the ironic superiority of communist-block politics with respect to simplifying the supply-chain of soft goods.

    Going out on a limb, I think Collins is also expressing his fondness for cats.


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