Taste and See

Taste and See

Billy Collins
Photo: The Poetry Foundation

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.


People, not just my students, often tell me that they don’t understand poetry, that they can’t figure out what a poem means.  Billy Collins, in “Introduction to Poetry” gives us directions about how to “get it.” Poems are, more than anything, sensual. Poems don’t, for the most part, tell readers what to think about something. Poems provide ways to feel something.

In this poem, Collins uses the language of the senses in almost every stanza. He asks the reader to see, to hear, to physically experience the poem. He gives us light switches and  water skiing. In the final two stanzas, he turns the poem. He is still giving us physical sensation, but instead of the sensations being those of the reader, the reader is attempting to force something from the poem.

I often use the “dead cat” analogy when teaching poetry.  At the end of dissecting a dead cat in biology, students may have learned something, but they have not brought the cat back to life. At the end of reading and studying a poem, the poem should come more fully to life; we should not end up with a dead cat on the table. If we continue Billy Collins’ analogy, the readers who are torturing the poem, will end up with a dead poem.

The meaning of a poem always lies in the specific language that the poet uses. If we look closely at well-known examples like Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” we can see this clearly. Frost describes exactly, precisely, what his title indicates. The reader sees the snow, hears the harness bells, feels the wind against her cheek. After Frost has built up all this sensual experience, he ends with the famous repeated lines, “I have miles to go before I sleep/ and miles to go before I sleep.”  Of course, anytime a writer, and especially a poet, repeats something, it is important. But this is the only place in the   poem where Frost even hints at metaphor. He develops this perfect little  moment in the woods. The reader is totally engaged in that moment, and then Frost says, “But this can’t last. It’s time to move on.” From that, any reader, even a ten-year old, can understand that these moments of sensual perfection are rare and beautiful.

There is no need to “beat it with a hose” to find out what it really means.  What Frost has done is forced the reader to slow down and appreciate all the sensual experiences of “stopping by woods on a snowy evening.”   The next time you read a poem, look for all the ways the author uses the senses. Approach the poem gently, softly, and slowly. Taste it, see it, feel it.

3 thoughts on “Taste and See

  1. Your words ring so true (If I were a poet I might say they resonate) for me.

    William Stafford, an acclaimed Oregon poet, was an instructor at Lewis and Clark College when I was an 18 year old freshman. I was too intimidated to enroll in his class – with hindsight, a regretful decision.

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