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.
Get All-Access


[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.

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!

He was a great teacher. He was devoid of the cliches of pretension. He discussed poetry with a clear intent that encouraged me to write poetry.

I loved this course! I always said poetry is not my thing, but Billy Collins caught my attention since the first lesson and now I´ve started to read more poetry.

This is a clear, fun, and engaging class. Billy is a great teacher. I learned a lot, including new ways to think about the writing and craft as well as appreciation of poetry. My love for poetry has deepened and my inspiration and desire to hone my own craft has been fueled.


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


The example of the poem, "The Lanyard" really helped clarify how to move through a poem from scene and "token object" to the discovery. I can't wait to try to apply this strategy in 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