Note: By day, through most of the year, All Nine contributor Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.
Pressing His Ear Against the Hive: Reflections on Billy Collins’ Introduction to Poetry
Ahhh…summer break. For a teacher, this steamy season of blissful rest and recuperation promises so much more than it can ever deliver—no alarms, no complaints, no Sisyphean and self-replenishing piles of papers. In their place, I draw a contented breath, relishing glorious hours of reading my way down the tower of books by my bedside. Last week I shamelessly indulged in the luxury of pushing everything else aside in favor of a long, captivating book. I didn’t even eat until afternoon, so swiftly did the pages flip before my eyes. And when I was done, I found I’d forgotten about that curious hangover, a kind of stupor that settles over me for a day or two after I’ve submitted to a long book that will not let me go till I’d given it full due.
Summer also affords me the chance to browse lazily through those books I’ve bought not to read right away, but to keep on some shelf in the other room for those insomniac hours that the T’ang Dynasty poet Chang Chiu-Ling calls “the long thoughtfulness of night.”
Do you know such books? Products of casual rambles through a used book store, drifting to the poetry section, or past an author I vaguely remember someone raving on about. I’ll often slip the book off the shelf, roam around inside its covers, check to see if the pages have room for some penciled notes and an almost creamy quality.
And if the random paragraphs or first few stanzas leave me with a little grin broad enough to begin to feel a little self-conscience about visibly enjoying the book in front of others, I buy it. Such a shameless kind of public courtship often enough leads me to hours of delighted engagement once I’ve got such books safely home and into my dark and sometimes sleepless rooms.
So one night this week after pushing the little paper boat of another school year out into the pond, I did a little late-night browsing of my shelves. The results kept me up long past my now non-existent bedtime, and brought me delighted to former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I must confess a fairly new but rapidly-growing obsession with his poetry, which I plan to indulge until I own every one of his works.
One poem in particular quite literally helped me survive more than one day of cajoling my teenage charges to read and enjoy poetry. In talking about teaching poetry to his own reluctant students, Collins begins his “Introduction to Poetry”
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.
And he ends it saying:
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.
As if anyone, even poets themselves, knows what a poem “really means.”
In general, rather than trying to trap some neat and easily-defined “meaning,” I invite my students to explore instead a poem’s ambivalence, its arresting images, and its particular and powerful sounds. I do whatever I can to see that at least once in their lives they’ve read a real poem in an authentic way that might speak to them. I’m happy to report some success, if their end-of-the-year journals are to be believed.
Collins’ poem has helped me to understand why I go to all this effort, for myself deep in long nights and for my students early on bright mornings. It’s all right there in line five. That one line in the poem stands by itself as if holding up its hand and waving it about in the middle of the classroom. Collins asks his students (who by now surely include me, and hopefully you too) to take a poem and “press an ear against its hive.”
Now there’s an image to ponder or to conjure with. Let’s just say for a second that a poem isa hive, and we press our ears against it. What might we hear?
First of all, it implies that, when pressing an ear to a poem, I’ll likely hear only indistinctly what happens inside of it. I find some comfort in the fact that I quite often come away from even the best of poems with only some vague notion about the import of all the activity happening inside it.
Next, it hints that in that hive of the poem, I may well discover that praiseworthy situation where a lot of males scurry busily about, attending to and providing for one female. This refreshing reversal of gender roles and pay equity, this way of turning of things upside down—don’t these alone suggest excellent reasons for visiting and revisting such a poem?
What else do I find by examining the inside of a poem? The structure of beeswax, of course, as deliberately made as it is fragile. Precise and repeated order, all made out of stuff that will easily melt away even as we might make candlelight out of it. Delicate and carefully-constructed containers of a rich and slow liquor—this too gives me an excellent way of thinking about poetry.
And these precise hexagons of course hold a thick, sweet, and golden goodness that will likely get all over me unless I wash it off well. Treasure, and a treasure increasingly rare as something is happening to the honeybees in the world. It occurs to me that poets may be disappearing at a similar rate to bees, much to my distress. Listening to a poem might just make honey drip out into my ears, and slowly sweeten the things inside my head.
I think I like this summer break. I think I like making a little space and time to wander through the pages of a book, as a bee ambles through a drowsy summer meadow.
And so I suggest that you find some new poems, and press your ear against them, especially if some time opens up before you during these swarthy months. And if you do, perhaps you’ll let me know and share some of the rich goodness you happen to find. And maybe that’s what the poem “really means.”