Introduction to Poetry

black and white photo of piles of books

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.

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.

by Billy Collins 

black and white image of an open book

It’s Week 4 already!

Each Friday Sam or I will post a poem and pose some questions to reflect on while eating your lunch.

Today the poem itself is about poetry. Billy Collins has twice been Poet Laureate in the US. His poetry is popular and accessible. seemingly light but often with a kick or a claw which reaches out and grabs you unexpectedly.

What did you think of this poem?

Does it make you want to read more by Billy Collins or not?

Why do you think this is?

Let us know how you approach a poem when reading it for the first time.

Sue Watling

images from


Randall Jarrell Office Hours 10-11

Dear Mr. Jarrell:
It seems that the twenty-fourth floor is complaining of lost students who are hunting you. Could you put your name and office hours on the door?
Thank you.
The English Office
[University of Texas, at Austin]


Mr Jarrell:
Come back and you will find me just the same
Hunters, hunters–but why should I go on?
Learn for yourself (if you are made to learn)
That you must haunt an hourless, nameless door
Before you find–not me, but anything.

Lost Students:
It never seemed to me that I was lost.
You were, perhaps; at least, no one was there.
I missed you; why should I go back?
I am no hunter, I say. I was sent
And asked to find–not you, not anything.

English Office:
Each of them is lost, and neither hunting;
And they stand still around a crazy door
That tells a truth, or lie, that no one learns.
Here is a name, an hour for you to use:
But name, or come, or come not, as you choose.

Randall Jarrell, “Office Hours 10-11” from The Complete Poems. Copyright © 1981 by Randall Jarrell. 

This poem was written by Randall Jarrell in a response to the memo at the top of the piece, which he received from the English Office at the University of Texas, where he taught as a literary critic from 1939 – 1942. It was fixed to his office door and was only ever published in his Complete Poems.


Randall Jarrell: honoured by another sign, this one outside Hume-Fogg High School, Nashville,  where he attended high school (Photo Credit: Michael Rivera).

For me this poem sums up two issues that I encounter in higher education, and which have a negative effect on the teaching staff, the students and ultimately everyone at the institute:

  1. Overzealous bureaucracy
  2. A lack of desire for independent learning

I am sure that anyone who is reading this post and who works in higher education will have fallen foul of these two issues themselves. In relation to overzealous bureaucracy, I think that the incredible number of hoops that have to be jumped through on a daily basis in terms of marking matrices, moodle/blackboard submissions, programme committee meetings, transferral forms etc. can mean that many academics don’t have enough time to actually focus on the development and delivery of effective and inspirational teaching. Given the advent of the Teaching Excellence Framework, it will be interesting to see if this administrative burden is acknowledged and accounted for, or if the new regulations result in an even more Byzantine approach to pedagogic housekeeping.

With regards to the desire for independent learning, given the incredible tuition fees that students in the UK now have to pay for their education, there is occasionally an assumption by the students that after paying these fees, they simply have to turn up and do what they are told, and that at the end of three/four years of spoon-feeding they will leave with a complete education and a top degree. However, unless students put the work in themselves they will not leave with a ‘top degree’, and they will also miss out on an incredible opportunity to learn, research deduce, analyse and question. Independent and autonomous learning, alongside suitable facilitation and support from members of staff, is critical for the development of our students, not just in terms of their education but also in terms of how they are shaped as people by the experience of going to university.

I love the playfulness of Jarrell’s poem, and I respect its message and his commitment to it. However, I also acknowledge that taken out of context and without a liberal amount of tongue in cheek, this might be seen to be stand-offish or even derogatory. That is why I continue to list my office hours at the bottom of my email signature, rather than posting a beautifully crafted piece of satire on my office door; that and the fact that there was a recent memo banning the use of blue-tac on wooden surfaces…

By Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Do you think this is a fair response to the administrative staff? Is it a suitable manner with which to treat the students?

He tells her

Flammarion is a black and white engraved image showing medieval astronomer looking out from the earth's atmosphere

He tells her

He tells her that the Earth is flat—
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.

The planet goes on being round.

by Wendy Cope

  • What do you think this poem is telling us?

I chose it for several reasons. It’s short, written by a female, has rhythm and rhyme and tells us something fundamentally important. Only one of these characteristics is – I think – essential for an effective poem.

  • What is an essential characteristic of a poem for you?

School nearly killed poetry for me. I struggled through Matthew Arnold’s Sorab and Rustum  with Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope and Wordworth’s Michael.  Now I remember them for all the wrong reasons! The curriculum today includes Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Benjamin Zephiniah and I think the best way to approach poetry is through contemporary poems. This isn’t to say the ‘classics’ don’t matter but they’re culturally specific which doesn’t always translate well across the centuries.

I returned to poetry but on my own terms. At the moment I’m reading Homer’s Iliad and am amazed at the power of its words. They date back millennia yet much of it could have been written yesterday.  For me this is what poetry is all about; that tingly kick in the heart which signifies resonance.

  • What is your experience of poetry?

Share your comments. Let’s feed each other poetics.

image from Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888) 

At The California Institute of Technology


I don’t care how God-damn smart
these guys are: I’m bored.

It’s been raining like hell all day long
and there’s nothing to do.


Richard Brautigan, “At the California Institute of Technology” from The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. Copyright © 1968 by Richard Brautigan. 

This short poem was written by Richard Brautigan when he was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in 1967, and it is one of my favourite poems because it completely shatters the illusions of what both science and poetry should be.


Richard Brautigan: Last of the Beats (Photo Credit: Oliver Dalmon).

When I talk to students (especially undergraduates) about poetry and science they have such preconceived notions about what they should and shouldn’t be, that it can be disheartening. Poetry has to rhyme. Science is really difficult. Poets are fops and dandies in tie-dyed T-shirts and berets. Scientists work in laboratories and all have white coats and lab specs.

I am a scientist and I haven’t done any laboratory work for over a decade, since my undergraduate days. Likewise, as a poet I have never owned a tie-dyed T-shirt. Although to be fair I do own a couple of berets…

Berets aside, the preconceptions of what scientists and poets look like and what science and poetry can and cannot do is extremely limiting, especially to those people who are still finding their way in their world. Brautigan’s poem is only four lines long and yet it is so effective; you can really imagine Brautigan sat in the back of a lecture hall or seminar room falling asleep as one of the ‘brilliant’ Caltech scientists holds court on their latest research findings.

To Brautigan science is not the be-all-and-end-all, it is the modern equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and he is not afraid to say so. Not even to the people who are sponsoring his residency. Science can be really exciting, but it can also be utterly tedious. Poetry can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. These four lines read like a two-fingered salute to the establishment, and remind me why I fell in love with both science and poetry in the first instance, and for that reason I will be forever grateful to Caltech’s 1967 poet-in-resident.

Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Could you identify with it? Do you think that my own appreciation of Brautigan is reminiscent of the Emperor’s New Clothes?