It might be self-aggrandizing, but, in the parlance of my generation, whatever: on Friday I wrote about two books about reading, which is a strange sort of down-the-rabbit-hole thing to do. It's especially strange to do it when you're also revisiting the practice of reading-for-a-grade, as I am now—my MFA program requires me to annotate ten books per quarter (just over a book a week), and I'm also reading books that I'm teaching from, so I'm spending all my time reading.
The strange thing about reading a book for school when your schooling involves noticing the craft of writing is that you can't do that Mortimer Adler thing: reading for information. You're actually not reading for information, or at least that's not the main goal. You're reading for craft—reading to see how the sentences work, how the paragraphs fit together, how the themes braid themselves into the whole, how big abstract concepts become concrete examples.
This is an odd but useful thing to do when you're trying to teach first-year students to do the same thing—as I am also doing. This week, as I usually do in the first-semester writing course, I'm throwing them into some poetry for a week. They won't be writing it, but they'll be reading it and, more importantly, experiencing it and then writing about the experience to help figure out what it means.
All of which brings me to what I wanted to say: This Billy Collins poem is great, and it applies to all sorts of reading, not just poetry. And it's especially good for those of us prone to just squeezing books dry for their information and then moving on, and forgetting to delight in the words, the sounds, the mystery.
Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins
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.
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.