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.

I took an image of a spider web in the butt of an iron dog statue I've been regarding and made a poem. It's rusty but a start.

I’ve been inspired to be more consistent. I’m concerned because I have many interests and a very full life. I think I can commit to a haiku/day. Love love Billy Collins as a teacher and will listen to the class again.

I am going to go through each lesson taking notes of ways I need to try and improve my poems. I may need to go through the lessons yet again as I absorb all the tiny bits and pieces Billy gave us in these classes.

Still the workbook to be done. Fascinating lessons. Inspiring viewpoints. A turning point for my own writing.


A fellow student

I'm normally a short story writer. I came to this to understand more about the units of words, their economy, their beauty when laid out beside oneanother becoming more beautiful in turn for their similarity and even their disparity. I'm very much enjoying the course. I especially liked his poem, Lanyard ... The relationship with my mother, and what she does and has done for me seems a mirracle. He managed to sum this feeling up. .

Ana Luisa J.

Wow! This is my first class in this website and all I can say is what a great class!

Susan T.

I burst out laughing. It was like something from Seinfeld. Obviously well over my head.

Victoria H.

Wow! I have done what he said in some poems of mine. I love to use objects to find my way on. I really like writing about a scene. I also loved his lesson in turning the poem to the other subject. I have alot of clarity now on that. I also like how he suggest discovering some of your poems theme, while writing it. I enjoyed this video and learned alot.

Marcella N.

You know you’re able to use whatever you like and make a compelling poem when you write about a Lanyard

Tauna S.

A lanyard is something that attaches one thing to another, as an umbilical cord does in the beginning. It might not have been intentional, but surely the subconscious led the way. When it is attached to a sail, another use for a lanyard, it guides how the sail works, as mothers do their children as they raise them. He might not think that the lanyard was comparable to what a mother does, but a mother would. The child actually noticed all she did and acknowledged it. The is a gift in itself.

Simon C.

The development that he is teaching in these classes is a key to write effective poetry. From it's enticing title to an accessible opening, and the introduction of a small detail to signify something deeper or to lead into it. The poem would be highly communicative, already for its own structure, besides the actual content. I think this style is what makes Collins' poems loved by all kinds of readers.

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