Analyzing the Poetry of Billy Collins

During my time in college, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a poetry reading by Billy Collins.  I was not familiar with his work prior to this event, but I was immediately drawn to his sarcastic, dry, and playful style.  Fast forward to my first year of teaching American Literature a few years later, and I was excited to discover that Billy Collins was included as a contemporary author in my textbook.  However, as I began to plan my lessons over his poetry, I stumbled across a challenge.  Because Collins has a well known disdain for over-analyzing poetry in classrooms, I wanted to find a way to help provide an authentic experience for students to enjoy and appreciate his poetry, while still providing the support they would need to understand it.  Over the past few years and with a few tweaks, I think I finally designed a lesson that accomplishes both of these goals.

DAY 1:

I have found that the first key to success is providing some context for students to encounter his poetry, because it is so different from the complex, flowery, and serious poetry many students have become accustomed to.  I begin my lesson by showing this clip (below) from an interview with Collins about how to write poetry.  After students watch the video, I ask them to answer the following questions in their Writer’s Notebooks:

  • Based on this interview, what inferences can you make about Billy Collins’ view of poetry?
  • What prediction can you make about what his poetry will be like?

After watching the video, we engage in a brief class discussion for students to share their responses.  They typically (and somewhat incorrectly) infer that Collins is very serious and that his poetry will be very traditional and structured due to the fact that he discusses the importance of studying classical texts and highlights the complexity of writing good poetry.  At this point, as long as they have evidence from his interview to support their inference or prediction, I validate it.

Next, I pass out copies of one of his poems, “Introduction to Poetry” and play this audio recording as they read along.  I ask students to make new inferences about Billy Collins’ view of poetry based on this poem.  As I walk around to listen in to group discussions, I offer the following questions as scaffolding for groups who are having a hard time understanding the poem or getting started in their discussion:

  • Who do you think is the “I” in the poem?
  • Who could be the “they”?
  • How are the “I” and “they” different?

Once groups have had time to discuss, I call on different students to share with the class about their group conversations.  I guide the discussion to help students understand that the speaker (“I”) of this poem could be an author who wants readers to fully experience his or her reader in a sensory way (based on the sensory details in lines 1-11), but that the “they” merely wants to analyze the poem and discover its meaning without ever really enjoying it.  Then I ask students to reflect and share about their experiences with poetry in the past and which view of studying poetry they have encountered most often in school, which for most students is more similar to the approach of the “they.”  I enjoy discussing with students the challenges I face as a teacher who sees that students rarely enjoy poetry if they don’t understand it, and they often times don’t understand the poem unless we analyze it, which is a process they don’t enjoy.  So the question is, how can teachers guide students to enjoy and appreciate poetry without removing the joy from the experience of encountering art?

DAY 2:

The following day, I ask students to recall our conversation from yesterday as they read a few quotes by Billy Collins:

“Children love the ingredients of poetry. And then they go into this tunnel that we call adolescence, and when they come out of it, they hate poetry.”

“Poetry is my cheap means of transportation. By the end of the poem the reader should be in a different place from where he started. I would like him to be slightly disoriented at the end, like I drove him outside of town at night and dropped him off in a cornfield.”

“I’m a great believer in poetry out of the classroom, in public places, on subways, trains, on cocktail napkins. I’d rather have my poems on the subway than around the seminar table at an MFA program.”

Then, I ask them to respond to the following questions in their Writer’s Notebooks:

  • How does he view poetry?
  • Do you agree or disagree?

By this point, students are typically interested to read more of Collins’ poetry, because they can relate to his dislike for the over-analysis of poetry in schools.  Finally, I introduce students to their task.  Rather than dissecting the literary devices and structure and theme of his poetry, our goal is to experience it and reflect on our reaction to it.

I assign each group one of the following poems by Billy Collins (these are my favorites!).  I have ordered them from least challenging to most challenging to allow for differentiation of groups:

  • “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” – Text | Video
  • “The Lanyard” – Text | Video
  • “A Dog on His Master” – Text | Video (first half only)
  • “This Little Piggy Went to the Market” – Text | Video
  • “Forgetfulness” – Text | Video (start at 1:28)
  • “Litany” – Text | Video

I explain to students that their task is simply to read the poem (I provide copies) as they listen to Collins’ reading of each poem on the laptops I have set up beforehand for each group using the links provided above.  At this point, I remind them of Collins’ monotone style of reading and we recall how this technique is intentional and can actually highlight the humor and sarcasm in his poetry (if I fail to help them see this point, they oftentimes just think he is boring).  After reading/listening to the poem, they should discuss the following questions within their group and record their answers:

  • What is your reaction to the poem? Why?
  • What is the tone?
  • What is the point of the poem?

While groups work on this assignment, I walk around the room to help facilitate conversations and help struggling groups.  I also point out parts of the poems that I like to help them view the poetry positively.  Once groups have completed the assignment, then I show each video to the entire class and allow the group assigned that poem to share their thoughts about it.

At the end of the period, I ask students to reflect on the following questions:

  • Which poem did you like the most?  Why?
  • Do you like Billy Collins’ style?  Why or why not? How is it different from other poets we have studied?

For students who don’t like his poetry, I remind them that, as in all forms of art, there are certain styles that some people may like and others don’t.  It doesn’t mean that they are wrong for not liking it or that that the artist is not good.  However, this year, I was excited to hear positive feedback from the majority of students, saying that they thought Collins’ poetry was funny and a cool style that was different from poetry they had read before.  Some even mentioned that they were interested in reading more poetry even though they hadn’t like it in the past, and some said they were even inspired to try to write their own poetry.  And I consider that a success!  My hope is that Billy Collins would agree!

Click below to download the full 2-day lesson plan!

//FEATURED IMAGE BY MARCELO NOAH

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