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Arts & Entertainment

Discovering the Subject

Billy Collins

Lesson time 14:07 min

In poetry, you can do anything and go anywhere. Learn how to embrace the freedom of poetry to embark on explorations of subject, progression, and the balance of clarity and mystery.

Billy 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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[MUSIC PLAYING] - If you're thinking about what's permissible in poetry and what's allowed into it, well, you don't want to think too much about that because you don't want to be someone who adheres to the rules so much that you're afraid to write what you really want to write about. Many poets have moved into territories that were previously thought to be forbidden in poetry. And they have opened up new ground. One example is a poem by Walt Whitman called "To a Locomotive in Winter." And it's a beautiful description in about 30 lines of the power of this locomotive. And this is 1850, '55 maybe when the railroads were just coming to America. And to see a railroad train coming through a woods was really a very stirring sight. And he really captures the smoke and the wheels turning and the pendants and the clanging and all that, all that business. But he stops in the middle because he becomes self-conscious. He realizes he's writing about a machine. And he says to the Muse, oh, Muse, "For once--" for once, for the first time-- "come serve in verse this thing." You know, I'm not supposed to be writing about locomotives, I'm supposed to be writing about nature. You know, I'm an American poet in the 19th century. I'm not supposed to be writing about equipment. And he's very self-conscious. But now, of course, that-- I'd say another poet who goes into uncharted territories is Sharon Olds who writes in her early books wrote about her parents in ways that were more critical than you had seen in poetry, not overly critical, but taking the measure of her parents and letting a lot of anger in there. I read a poem in high school by the English poet Thom Gunn and it was a poem about Elvis Presley. I was in high school and Elvis Presley just stepped onto the world stage. And I didn't think he could write about Elvis. Poetry was here. And Elvis was way over here or way down there. And I thought, well, if he can write about Elvis, I can write about-- I don't know-- Fats Domino. And Galway Kinnell has a poem called "Oatmeal" in which he says it's very depressing to eat oatmeal every morning alone. So I have an imaginary breakfast companion every morning. Now, this morning I had John Keats was here for breakfast, or porridge, as he would call it. And we talked about the difficulty of the fourth stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale." But then you could say you could go for a boat ride with Joan of Arc, you know? So that wonderful imaginative openness of poetry, I think that's when you, as a student maybe or as a young poet, will have this explosive gradual, but maybe explosive in the end, sense of the imaginary, imagistic opportunities that poetry gives you. There's no chronology involved in poetry. You can go anywhere. You can be anywhere. You can fly. You can do all sorts of things. I'm always struck by some poems that say I wish I could fly. Well, actually you can. Just start flying in the poem and tell us what you're looking a...

Let imagination lead the way

Known for his wit and wisdom, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets. In his MasterClass, Billy teaches you to appreciate the emotional pull of poetry. Learn his approach to exploring subjects, incorporating humor, and finding your voice. Discover the profound in the everyday, and let poetry lead you to the unexpected.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Have started to write poetry but can certainly enjoy poetry more

I was so sad to know this was the last class. I enjoyed this Masterclass and learned a great deal. I enjoyed listening Billy and the other poets sharing their poetry. It was beautiful. Lots a great tools and insight. Thank you!

Attending a class this rich always seemed out of reach, but today the taste was very satisfying. Thank you for the experience. -Marla

This has definitely helped my appreciation and understanding of poetry. I particularly enjoyed the discussions.


Liz L.

I teach English for high school students with learning challenges. I am going to try your approach to teaching poetry by how it acts not what it means. Thank you for this.


I'm also a painter, so form in poetry really resonates with me. Form with words vs. form with visual. different terms but same effect.

Jacinta L.

I'm starting to realise that writing a poem is really a form of self-discovery and self-healing. Thank you for sharing the story about the girl's drunk mother reading bedtime stories. I had tears in my eyes. Poetry has such power to transform, both the writer and the reader.

Douglas S.

I appreciated the concept of moving to a "discovery" of what the deeper meaning of a poem could be. It is definitely true that a poem quite often reaches a destination different from what was envisioned at the beginning. For me the struggle is in allowing the poem to grow organically from its internal logic, form and feeling and not devolve into something contrived or incongruent with the poem itself. That ability tohave all the elements of a poem be congruent is one of the attractions of a Billy Collins poem.

Tricia J.

It is reassuring to know how this thought process (my thought process) from mundane to a bigger revelation or a deeper, more involved introspection, isn’t a foreign concept entirely, isn’t an entirely chaotic, undisciplined way of explaining events through poetry

Sharice H.

To me a great writing teacher will always have the courage because it's not easy to bring forth heart. I am truly enjoying this class because it's the first class where I can actually feel the Love behind writing and even how it can through pain heal. Thank you Billy and Masterclass. Finally, a class which touched my heart´s note. I really hope Masterclass will continue to bring writing teachers like this who are not scared to touch the heart because our world needs this right now. I know I will be a lifelong student Masterclass because I Love the way you all present art. This class from the very beginning started off simply through the intro by dissolving the boundaries of gender and race just through the production. BRAVO. I am in LOVE with this class and SO THANKFUL Masterclass that your team has the heart to bring forth more unique writing teachers because it's easy to be popular and sensational but it takes beauty, strength and courage to admit how writing and writers can actually heal the heart. I also have to give Billy and his student a BIG BRAVO for sharing the real life story of that girl's mom whom came home drunk and read her stories late at night. Billy you are a beautiful teacher for keeping it authentic. This class is like water for my soul. FINALLY.

Fred G.

I found it difficult to think of a topic outside of today's "literary decorum." Eventually I picked boredom and was surprised that a poem created itself easily and became interesting and fun on the topic of boredom. The nearby object exercise was helpful and led to a poem about grandparents. The flash cards exercise produced three very different poems. I am really appreciating Billy's advice, and in this lesson I was glad to get so many good references. I ordered them and look forward to reading The Triggering Town and How Does a Poem Mean. I am liking my friends' reactions to the fact I am in this class and the discussions that ensue as they share favorite poems.

Glen G.

One of my favorite poems that starts with a simple object is The Unwritten by WS Merwin ...

A fellow student

I appreciate Billy's conversational approach and his inclusion of referenced texts. The lessons move quickly.

Solachi R.

Hi I am unable to view from the third lesson. I get the following error message : Video Player is loading.This is a modal window. Could not download the video Error Code: PLAYER_ERR_TIMEOUT Session ID: 2019-12-30:3d421267d4f7cd3e373af2f Player Element ID:vjs_video_3 Kindly advice Solachi