From Billy Collins's MasterClass

Discovering the Subject

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.

Topics include: Write What You Want to Write · The Subject You Start With and the Subject You Discover · Don’t Think About the Theme · Know When to Be Clear and When to Be Mysterious


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.

Topics include: Write What You Want to Write · The Subject You Start With and the Subject You Discover · Don’t Think About the Theme · Know When to Be Clear and When to Be Mysterious

Billy Collins

Teaches 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.

I will continue to re-read & re-listen to this class...just now scouring the used book stores for Billy's Books....Thanks for this Master Class

First chapter of Billy Collins' was insightful and helpful on a practical level, just what I am looking for.

Red glasses and a messy desk, we will get along well.

Reinforced that I stay true to myself in writing in my own unique style and voice. And to get with it, read more, and write more!


Norene S.

I liked how Mr. C’s assurance that anything can be the subject of a poem, that the barriers about what’s appropriate are mostly self- imposed. When we talked about moving from an everyday scene or object to a greater, deeper world, I discovered that I was practicing that movement in a kind of parallel dialog. That was exciting!

David H.

I become frustrated because I do not know how to stop the Sections from continuing--so that I can go to the larger Community to interact. It's quite annoying when I am looking at others' comments & behind the screen, as it were, I hear Billy Collins begin the next lesson. Argh!!!

Josepha M.

I spend my (working) life convincing art students that scientific knowledge making is inductive -- you start on the ground and in the details and then work your way up toward grandiose assertions and even theories, and ... here went Billy Collins saying, "hey, hey, poems work the same way." Mind. Blown. Also: spectacular reading of "The Lanyard." TY, JM

Warren D.

The process is well described with examples that pinpoint key problems and possible breaks in execution. Billy Collins gives essential information for ones own writing of poetry or short stories. And his "The Lanyard" is wonderful.

A fellow student

I've shared "The Lanyard" with classes over the years and I love how students quickly see the humor in the piece. I've had students use the poem for pastiche, thinking of objects they've crafted for parents such as egg-carton Christmas tree ornaments, tile mosaic coasters, or ceramic ashtrays. It's a great poem for helping students to see how the simple becomes the complex.

A fellow student

The idea of the poem being a living entity that needs to find its own way is a useful guide for high school students, who often think that a poem is born from a moment of genius. I like the analogy of "turning the cards over" and Collins' example of the young woman who was reluctant to discuss the topic that lent itself to a poem. This points to the need to develop trust in the classroom so that students feel comfortable taking risks with topics.

John S.

What resonated with me personally in this episode was Collins' notion of a poem having both a starting subject and a discovery subject. I have felt this happening to me several times on some poems I have written, but I have never articulated this insight as well as he has. Also, I intend to follow his practical suggestion: to move from a "small thing" to a "large thing" as I construct my poem, to proceed from "the clear" to "the mysterious."

Frances C.

It was profound, especially in the way that the simplicity morphs into the meaningful through specific examples - very much like the "lanyard" in the dictionary morphed into the moving tribute to his mother.


Superb! And a deeply moving anecdote at the end. I cried when I heard BC's suggestion for changing the title...

Jack C.

He has such a kind and thoughtful way of introducing simple, yet profound, ideas.