Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Discovering the Subject

Billy Collins

Lesson time 14:06 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.

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

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


[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...

About the Instructor

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.

Featured MasterClass Instructor

Billy Collins

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.

Explore the Class
Sign Up