This site has received questions such as Two Interpretations of Robert Herrick's “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, Interpretation of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger (literally asking whether there is an "official interpretation) and questions based on multiple-choice questions (e.g. What is the effect of using “silver” to describe the “horn” ...). What these questions have in common is that the assumption that a literary text can have only one correct meaning or interpretation, much like a mathematical equation have only one correct solution.

This reminded me that I once read a poem in which the narrator was presumably someone who taught poetry and who criticises the fact that many readers, presumably students, tend to approach poems like a police interrogation instead of enjoying them. The poem was in English and most likely by an American author. I read it online less than five years ago.

  • 1
    Are you sure that the poem you remember has that meaning? Maybe there's another one… ;) Commented May 23, 2020 at 23:03
  • @FabianRöling Oh, it may very well have a different meaning, but formally, this is just a story-identification question, not an interpretation question ;-)
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 23, 2020 at 23:05

1 Answer 1


This is ‘Introduction to Poetry’ (1988) by Billy Collins, which ends with:

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 don’t know if Collins deliberately intends it, but there seems to be some irony here. Waterskiing is not easy, and waterskiing with one hand (so that you can wave with the other) is very hard. If you want your students to be able to perform a difficult skill (one-handed waterskiing, or interpreting poetry) with grace and ease, you are going to have to teach them, starting with the basics.

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    For a moment I thought Waterski must be the name of a Russian author.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 23, 2020 at 21:53
  • @Tsundoku That's it? Never heard of Billy Collins or his poem. I would have guessed Archibald Macleish's "Ars Poetica". "A poem should not mean / But be."
    – user14111
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 0:51
  • @Randal'Thor Really? With the W and the -ski, looks more like Polish to me.
    – user14111
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 0:55
  • @user14111 "Ars Poetica" does not fit the description very well, does it? "[M]any readers, presumably students, tend to approach poems like a police interrogation instead of enjoying them".
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 1:08
  • @Tsundoku No, it doesn't.
    – user14111
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 1:11

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