Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Poetry for Boys

 Billy Collins, My Kind of Poet

Boys are brave; boys are adventurous; boys are daring; boys are bold. 

My Eleventh grade boys in Williston-Elko High in low country South Carolina were no different.  They fought on the play ground; they snuck cigarettes in defiance of school rules (this was 1964--before marijuana was discovered there); they played tough man football; they cussed, they drank and they spit.  But they shared a universal fear of one thing in my classroom, even the truly brilliant ones--as did all the boys I ever taught.  They were afraid of Poetry. 
Some didn't want to tackle it because they were afraid they couldn't understand it. Others didn't because they were afraid the class would discover they liked it and  they would suffer ridicule. When it was time for the poetry books to open,the boys would be begin to slump, slowing sliding down on to their spines. Their heads would half disappear beneath the desks and  they would will themselves invisible, trusting the eager girls to take up the slack.
I cracked the wall of resistance only once each year with an Emily Dickinson poem. It always worked and I always used it because I am very sneaky as you may have observed from other posts.  The poem is  I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed, (or Inebriated on Air Am I, as my students liked to call it) wherein Emily compares, metaphorically, being gobsmacked  by the beauty 
of   nature to being stinking, staggering drunk. 
They loved it. The imagery was absolutely clear to them, and they fought for the opportunity given to read it out loud to the class  as the dew drunken Emily--complete with staggers, slurs, and retching. It was usually a little too realistic, but what's a teacher to do?

How I wish Billy Collins' poetry had been around then.  All my students would have loved it, fresh faced girls and skeptical boys.  His subtle, understated, humorous poetry is made for young people.  And when he makes a point, touches your heart, shows you what's good in the world, you are so ready to receive it, it rushes right on in.  I have seen classrooms full of kids of all ages, but especially teenagers (yes, girls and boys) unabashedly gush over his poetry. 

Billy Collins is the most popular living poet in America, chosen New York State Poet Laureate and U.S. Poet  Laureate (twice). He writes witty poetry--sometimes controversial--about everyday things, in a really quirky, tender and profound way. Even his titles are odd. Two of my favorites are Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes and Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In the House.  This last is about a neighbor’s dog barking incessantly through the night and Collins’ dark, ominous longings.

My truly favorite Collins’ poem is Litany.  Oh how my Eleventh grade boys would have loved it!  That year we studied the English Romantics—Byron, Shelley, Keats—writing treacly, syrupy elegys, odes and sonnets that they could not abide!!!!! Though this poem is open to many interpretations, Collins sure plays with us as he takes on the love poem, piling on, as the love struck often do.

He “steals” a bit of someone else’s romantic poem:

You are the Bread and the Knife
—then runs with it, tongue in cheek.  Listen as the poet reads aloud in his understated fashion:

For a great treat watch a three year old recite Billy Collins' poem Litany from memory.

  I wonder if he will still like poetry when he is an Eleventh grader?


  1. That was marvelous! I'd seen the video of the toddler's recitation, but I'd never heard Collins deliver the poem.

    A toothsome post. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  2. Ju-Ju,you are priceless in your analogy to get through to a bunch of hardheaded guys (myself included). I for one liked poetry,art,& music as a child and young man. It's really a travesty that alot of little boys have to grow up in a stereotype enviorment where men don't cry.... and they have to always appear tough!!!!John Holmes

  3. John,

    I never would have thought you were a poetry loving sissy!

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  5. Got to admit poetry and me have never worked well together. I did have a couple of teachers down in Georgetown that could at times crack my hard head and teach me something about it.

    Mrs. Rogerson in grade school and Mrs. Hutto in high school, the rest just ran off screaming into the night figuring I was a hopeless cause.

    I still think of them often.

  6. Mom, you are the best...thanks for always introducing me to the greats, as well as just anything printed anywhere! How have I never heard of Billy Collins?

  7. Jeny,

    I didn't know who Billy Collins was either. Judy did an interesting and humorous job of explaining differing viewpoints about poetry of boys v girls from a teacher's perspective. The three year old's recitation stole the show. Do Davis and Elliot enjoy poetry?


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