#Poetry Friday: Situational Irony and Apology to Billy Collins

January 30, 2015 — 9 Comments

Situational Irony

It was situational irony…staring me in the face.

In looking for lessons for poetry month, I came upon a worksheet that asked students to analyze a poem. The poem on the worksheet was “Introduction to Poetry” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

Below the poem on the worksheet were two columns: “Examples of figurative language” go in the left hand column; “Types of Figurative Language” go into the right hand column.

When I came upon this worksheet in a curriculum guide, I was, at first, amused by the situational irony of this assignment.

But I became bothered once I considered that if this worksheet exists, there probably are others just like it in countless number of curriculum guides across the country.

In the poem’s 16 lines, Collins captures the kind of encounter that language arts teachers too often promote. He is able to highlight the absurdity of “worksheet”  analysis used to prepare students to discuss the elements of poetry without regard for the beauty of the poem itself.

Collins’s opening line sets up this poem as a gift, one worthy of wonder and imaginative speculation for the reader:

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.

But Collins is familiar with how literature is “taught” to students. His  attitude towards literary analysis is in the last two lines of the poem. You can hear his speaker’s …what is it….frustration? exasperation? resignation?  in knowing what will happen to his gift of a poem:

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.

So here is the situational irony. The poem that tries to make a case for admiring the beauty of a poem rather than reducing it to its elements to find out what it means is reduced to a worksheet in order to beat a confession out of the poem to find out what it means.

I really like this poem. In his typical gentle melancholy fashion, Collins makes a solid case against “teaching” a poem. I would like to think I could honor that purpose and not use a worksheet to teach Introduction to Poetry.

Accept this apology, Billy Collins.

Paul at These 4 Corners is the Poetry Friday round-up host.

9 responses to #Poetry Friday: Situational Irony and Apology to Billy Collins


    I’m a retired high school English teacher who never once used a worksheet to examine a poem. The approach worked for me.


    You gave me such a chuckle this evening! I would never have dreamed that this poem, of all poems, would have a work sheet to go with it. But there you go…there are teachers of poetry who actually make these things up, and others who pass them out. Poor kids, who get the irony, I’m sure.


    Wow, is all I can manage here. But I know this happens. I love this book for its ideas on exploring poetry with students. It taught me how to unpack a poem. A Surge of Language, Teaching Poetry Day by Day by Baron Wormser and David Cappella


      Thank you for sharing that title by Wormser and Cappella. I am all for fewer worksheets …. they limit student responses and are just one more thing to acknowledge/review or grade! Thank you for taking time to comment.


    Perhaps not teachers realize how easily students can complete a worksheet. In the past, it was “hurry and get to school to copy someone else’s answers.” Now it’s much simpler. Students can simply assign friends one question each, and they share the answers via text, email, etc. So, if a teacher wants to check all those worksheets, well, I would consider it a waste of my time.


    I always share this poem with my group of teacher-students and they always get a laugh out of it. I don’t know if I can ever ‘teach’ poetry for this very reason. 🙂


    I take a break from PF comments for one week and look what I miss!

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