“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.”
-Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”
The real question, in reading poetry (or reading anything, maybe; or living) is why we put a picture frame on a painting. You might think we put the frame on for protection: inside the frame and behind the glass lies art, and art needs to be kept safe. But you’d be wrong. You might think it’s to make sure that we recognize it as art: the picture frame says, “Stand back, this is important. That’s close enough, folks. It’s art. No touching.” And, again, you’d be wrong. We put a painting in a picture frame because every picture is a doorway, it’s a path leading off to somewhere. It’s a beginning, and the doorframe opens into the world. It tells us, step through.
Too often my students want to figure out a poem. They want to know where it’s going. They want to know what it means. When I’m actually reading, I don’t see a poem as an arrow pointing down (Here. Get here), but as a landscape opening up. In reading I’m not a detective closing in on the culprit, but a child walking out into meadows.
Look at the metaphors and the rivers, the trees and the rhymes. Feel the beat and the rough bark. Where should we walk? Where should we look? What do we learn, and where do our thoughts tend, now that we are thinking? What water should we sprinkle on our toes, to remind us to go on growing?
Every poem, every painting, is an open doorway. It’s an invitation to begin.