Some thoughts on surfing poetry late at night and a poem by Billy Collins

I tell myself I’m not an insomniac, it’s just my mind is more restless than my body. I mean, it’s not insomnia if you’re not tired, is it?

These days, people sleep so badly that there are dozens of podcasts telling them how to do it better. One of the things you’re supposed to do is abandon screens and books. It’s supposed to clear your mind and let sleep invade it.

It doesn’t work for me. Clearing my mind makes it hungry and I have to find something to feed it with and I can’t sleep until that’s done.

So tonight, instead of lying in bed waiting for boredom to make sleep look like a better option, I was standing in front of my computer, surfing poetry.

Should poetry be surfed? Does it disrespect the poet and their words to sample them rapidly, the way I used to pass my fingers over the sleeves of vinyl albums until I found one I wanted to listen to? I don’t think so. I don’t see poems as sacred texts to be revered and handled with care. Poems are like songs on the radio, to be scanned through until you find the one that connects with you and won’t be ignored.

Sometimes, I surf a particular type of poetry or poems about a common theme. Tonight, I didn’t know what I was looking for but I knew I’d recognise it when I saw it.

The poem that finally gave me a wave to ride on was by a poet I didn’t know. His name is Billy Collins. He served as the U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003 but I didn’t know that.

Anyway, he wrote a poem called, ‘Introduction To Poetry’ that grabbed my attention, surprised me and made me smile.

Here it is:

‘Introduction To Poetry’ by 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.

I love the idea of this poet standing in front of students eager to keep up their grade average and trying to get them to understand that reading a poem is an experience, an interaction, like the one between spark and kindling, not a Rubik’s Cube to be solved or a text to be interrogated and then turning his frustration into a poem.

So now my surfing is over for tonight. My mind has been well fed, I’ve found a new poet to explore and it feels like a good time to get some sleep.

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