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Feeling for the Light Switch

July 19, 2009

I am a biologist by education, an agnostic theist by choice, a math-enthusiast by heredity, an avid reader by predilection, and a writer by compulsion.

This being the case, writing has been the constant variable in the mad experiment that is my life. I can’t remember not having a journal- it would be a disaster, as scribble-laden post-it notes, backs of receipts, unfolded cigarette packets, and bar napkins galore would have to be collected. Not to mention the backs of parking tickets; it’s the best occasion to vent in verse.

Reading Billy Collins this weekend and encountering the poem below has reminded me of my Intro to Poetry class at uni. I still remember the giddy anticipation of each writing class, scant as they were in my science-driven curriculum.

Introduction to Poetry

-Billy Collins

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.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

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.


Awesome poem. Right on the money too- my class, for example, was made up of ComArts majors and a smattering of first years from different disciplines, like myself. Some were broody goth-types who came equipped with black notebooks already full of their equally dark poetry, eager to read them out loud to a literally captive audience. There were many mentions of blood and Jim Morrison.

The thing that stuck in my head all these years was my professor’s simple assertion that, “Poetry is basically indirection.” A poem can “mean” a number of different things in a number of different ways, but always in a way above and beyond banal expression. Definitely a waterski exercise with words. Each poet with his or her own style on the water.

I have to say I’m still endlessly enthralled with this ‘feeling for the light switch’ preoccupation. And with any luck, it will be my primary one for years to come.

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