Do you write poetry? Are you struggling to understand it? In this post, our blogger explains how Billy Collins’s 6 elements of a poem helped him ‘get’ poetry.
You’re likely here because you’re a writer looking to level up your craft. At the very least, you’re a reader looking to deepen your appreciation of literature.
Whatever the case, I bet you’ve struggled with poetry.
But why is that? Isn’t poetry the world’s oldest literary tradition?
Well, from the time we’re first exposed to poetry, we are taught to “interpret” poetry—as if it needed translating. Odd, huh? The poem is in English, and you’re fluent in English—so why can’t you just get it? This idea of “interpreting,” of figuring out “what a poem means,” intimidates readers, leading them to avoid it.
If any of that resonates with you, I get it. It wasn’t until I came across the poet Billy Collins that I got poetry.
If you don’t know, Billy Collins was poet laureate of New York and then the United States! He’s goes on tours where he reads to venues packed with hundreds of people. Heck, his buddy Bill Murray has even performed stand up as his opener!
Collins helped me enjoy poetry through his approach of focusing on–not what a poem means, but how it means. He uses a simple metaphor I call “The Allegory of the Museum.”
Collins treats a poem as a museum housing a history of the human heart. It’s a museum filled with artefacts and open diaries from the poet’s life for readers to peruse.
Keep reading, and I’ll show you how this metaphor works.
If you still think poetry isn’t your thing, there may not be any point in reading further. I worry you’ll miss out on its many pleasures.
But, if you’re a lover of letters, always on the lookout for new ways of seeing literature, this may be your ticket to poetry. It might even inspire you to write your own poems!
Billy Collins’s 6 Elements Of A Poem
1. Shape Of The Poem/Building
Let’s start with the first thing we notice about a poem: its shape. A poem occupies a discrete place on the page, just like a building does in a city block. Just as the shape, size, and style of a building effects your expectation of what’s inside it, so too does the look of a poem on the page affect a reader’s expectations for the poem.
The poem’s title is the sign on the front of the museum; it entices readers to explore the exhibits inside. A long, explanatory title risks deflating any anticipation. Instead, the most effective titles are simple: “Monday”, or “Snow on Pine Trees”. They open access to the first lines. The title introduces an expectation in the reader about what they’ll find inside
Ask yourself, by the poem’s end, has it delivered on the title’s promise? Has it explored your expectations in an unexpected way, one that adds layers of meaning to the title?
3. First Lines/Welcome-mat
A poem’s first lines are the mat on the poem’s threshold, welcoming readers in. These lines should be something readers can accept to help get them into the poem. A little image, scene, or idea anyone could get.
Collins often starts with a description of something tangible —where he is at the time of writing. The first lines ought to pique your curiosity, pulling you in so you’ll wander inside and look around. If the poet makes too many demands right away, they might scare readers off. The demands should come later, after the readers are ensconced within the poem.
Once readers close the door behind them, then things can get weird. They’ll feel comfortable enough to tour the full poem.
Stanza means “room” in Italian. Each stanza is a room with exhibits to be explored. Poets take readers on a tour of their poem/museum room by room, exhibit by exhibit. And each room reveals something more about its subject. Imagine each stanza as a room full of art and artefacts. It has its own role, but it still contributes to the effect of a greater whole museum.
5. Turning Toward The Abstract: The Discovered Subject
When we explore a museum, we move from one exhibit to the next based on what catches our fancy. The same is true of a poem’s composition. A poet chases their associations–following them wherever they may lead, tugging readers along. A poem is like one tour path through an infinite museum of the poet’s thoughts, feelings and associations with the poet playing the guide. If they do the hard work of building an attractive museum with interesting exhibits, you’ll follow her anywhere.
Think of it this way: there is one exhibit we are most excited to see in a museum. But it’s almost always the exhibit we weren’t expecting that captivates us, which we remember always. So, keep following those associations throughout the poem until you stumble across something shocking, whether an image, memory, or epiphany. This is the poem’s Discovered Subject.
6. The Final Exhibit
The poem’s turns from stanza to stanza get increasingly imaginative until the final turn. Here, the poet turns back to reality or reflects on everything so far. They combine the Starting subject with the Discovered subject.
A great poem waits till the end to reveal its crown jewel, its flagship exhibit. The poet may even use the final exhibit to extrapolate some insight they discovered while writing. The poet chooses the final exhibit based on what they want to linger longest with readers.
And now that you’re better attuned to how a poem means (rather than worrying about what it means), I hope you have a blast touring a poem soon!
Source for photograph: Marcelo Noah
by Oliver Fox
Oliver earned his BFA from the University of Memphis (2015). After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch (’16). Currently, he works as a manuscript analyst and is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans.
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