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Writing

Poet Billy Collins’s 3 Tips for Reading Poetry

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 2 min read

Billy Collins has produced twelve collections of poetry, including Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, Ballistics, and Nine Horses. From 2001 to 2003, Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States. In addition to his remarkable success as a poet, Collins is also a professor who has taught the art of reading poetry to untold numbers of college students.

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Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing PoetryBilly Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.

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How to Read Poems With Poet Billy Collins

Here Billy shares some essential tips for poetry reading, including reading poetry out loud and considering the historical context of the poem:

  1. Read poetry aloud. If you discover an intriguing poem, take a little time to read that poem aloud. Mark where the rhythms change. Where should you slow down? Where should you pause? Where should your pacing gain momentum? Reading poems aloud helps reveal the figurative language and poetic devices that the poet uses. It exposes the natural rhythms created by line breaks. Yes, you can see these on the page, but there’s no real equivalent to hearing it aloud.
  2. Think of the poem you’re reading as an expression of worldview. In Billy’s view, poetry is not only a written activity; it’s a way of seeing life and establishing a connection to the world. Poetry, perhaps even a single poem, has the ability to make us dance even if we remain in our seats, make us sing even when we’re silent. Poetry, in this sense, is a way for readers and writers to experience a different sort of timeline: one that experiences histories not in terms of boundary disputes, inventions, truces, and wars, but through the way such events have made us feel. Poetry is a living history of the human heart: a testament to the romance, rather than linearity, of time.
  3. Learn about poetry from other forms of writing. There are two major things poets can learn from, say, the short stories of Anton Chekhov. One is the use of very specific detail—the particulars of experience—to keep the story anchored to external reality. So too can poets use detail to anchor a poem. The other is the use of inconclusive or “soft” endings. Authors like Chekhov do not solve problems for the characters. Similarly, the endings of poems do not need to resolve things. A soft ending—when a poem just ends on an image—can work.

Want to Learn More About Poetry?

Whether you’re just starting to put pen to paper or dream of being published, writing poetry demands time, effort, and meticulous attention to detail. No one knows this better than former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. In Billy Collins’s MasterClass on the art of poetry writing, the beloved contemporary poet shares his approach to exploring different subjects, incorporating humor, and finding a voice.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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