Study Guide

Introduction to Poetry Introduction

By Billy Collins

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Introduction to Poetry Introduction

Wait, stop! Don't click away from this. It's not the Introduction to Poetry class. You know, the one you took last semester, and every day you thought you were either going to slip into a coma-like sleep or, if you'd had too much caffeine to actually snooze, die from a lethal cocktail of boredom and frustration?

In fact, this is a poem titled "Introduction to Poetry," and it may well be the antidote that you've been searching for—possibly even giving you the superpower needed to change "boring and frustrating" into "interesting and exciting."

And who better to jazz up poetry for you than one of America's foremost poets? Billy Collins was born in 1941 (you can do the math) in New York City. This former U.S. Poet Laureate is well known for his straightforward, insightful, often chuckle-inducing verse. Billy has been a busy boy, publishing more than ten books of poetry and organizing the Poetry 180 project to help promote poetry education in schools.

Which makes a whole lot of sense, when you think about it. In addition to being a famous writer and poet, Collins is also a teacher, and he knows a little something of the value of verse in the classroom. So who better to receive an intro to poetry from?

In this 1988 poem, Collins draws on his experiences as a teacher. What experiences, exactly? Specifically, he's talking about trying to get his students to approach poems as art rather than, you know, assignments. As the poem's narrative unfolds, we see that this is often a losing battle in Collins' eyes—but he gives us some pointers nonetheless.

What is Introduction to Poetry About and Why Should I Care?

Look, Shmoop isn't going to sugarcoat this (although we do like sugar and would be happy to accept donations of cookies, candy, cake or JOLT cola, which is tragically no longer in stores, but we digress). You are going to have some teachers that want you to approach poems like literary word puzzles—things to be figured out rather than enjoyed and experienced.

Where these "word puzzle" teachers might ask you to identify whether the lines of a poem written in trochaic or iambic pentameter and to analyze how that meter corresponds to the overriding themes in the poem (did your eyes just close a little bit?), Collins might ask you how the sounds in the poem make you feel or what they bring to mind—do you see horses or hear a locomotive?

The great thing about "Introduction to Poetry" is that the tips it offers for how to approach a poem will help you find the answers that the "word puzzle" teachers are looking for, but in a much simpler, more natural, and much more enjoyable way.

You won't be trying to pry answers out of the poems, the answers will kind of rise to the surface naturally just like the sweet, fizzy bubbles in a nice tall bottle of that JOLT cola we wish you'd send us.

Introduction to Poetry Resources


Billy's Home Page
Home to all things Billy.

Billy Collins at the Poetry Foundation
An excellent biography and much more. These folks know what they're doing.
Billy's page on this site has a few more biographical tidbits, and even a few audio recordings.

Billy's Poetry Project
Teachers, take note! Organized by Collins during his time as U.S. Poet Laureate, Poetry 180 helps teachers and students to incorporate poetry into the school day.


Animated Poem
Someone alert Pixar. This short, animated film set to Billy Collins reading his poem, "Forgetfulness," has got serious game.

"The Dead"
Same poet, different animator, very different poem.


"Introduction to Poetry"
Hear Billy read it himself, with some undeservedly tepid applause at the end. Come on, folks, show some enthusiasm.

"The Teacher"
Like what you heard in "Intro"? Then try this version of "The Teacher."

Billy Collins Lecture
Collins giving a talk titled, "Dear Reader" at the Key West literary seminar—he's talking to you!


Billy at the Beach
It's not an albino Bengal tiger or a blue whale, but it is a picture of something almost as rare… a rich poet.

Articles and Interviews

Paris Review Interview
Billy answers some tough questions (and some easy ones, too).


The Trouble with Poetry
Oh poetry. Must you make such mischief?

The Apple that Astonished Paris
See "Introduction to Poetry" in the wild, a.k.a. in the book in which it was originally published.

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