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.
The imagery in this poem makes it vivid -- and funny. I see this poem not as words, but a series of pictures. Collins uses common images so that he doesn't have to spend a great amount to time describing: the image and feeling are already there. He makes his argument concrete by presenting it in pictures.
Looking at the structure of the poem, it is clearly divided into images. The stanzas are not defined by the number of lines or perhaps even a sentences. They are defined by images. The first stanza is a color slide; the second, a hive; the third a mouse, and so on until the end where the reader sees a poor "poem" tied to a chair a bunch of students beating it with a hose. The contrast between that and, say, stanza four is laughable. And, perhaps, that is the point. Collins uses wondrous, intriguing images in the first five stanzas to describe how poetry should be approached. His images are all a little childlike and enjoyable. Watching a mouse, waterskiing, studying light -- all those are interesting things to do and quite unpredictable. But Collins directly contrasts those happy images with those of a courtroom confession in his last two stanzas. And in his last stanza he throws in a hose to prove just how ridiculous such methods are.
Collins isn't just condemning his students' (or, at least, I'm assuming they are students) approach to poetry, he's condemning their entire outlook. They expect poetry to have one answer, one "confession," one things that "it really means." They expect the poem to behave like math or science where there is only one right answer and no grey. But poetry isn't like that. It speaks differently to every person and has various meanings. Collins is trying to teach them how to experience poetry, but all they want is to get an answer. He shows their reluctance to step into the childlike world of possibilities as they demand "the answer." He is trying to tell them just how easy poetry is, but they refuse to see easiness or fun. They want to concrete and the "right." Possibilities are weaknesses to them.
So Collins wrote a wonderful poem with vivid imagery and a simple message -- knowing full well that many students are going to beat it with a hose, looking for that "deeper meaning."