From Billy Collins's MasterClass

Discussion With Marie Howe: Emily Dickinson

Billy invites acclaimed poet and friend Marie Howe to read and discuss Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Learn how Dickinson’s creative use of capitalization builds an entire world out of a state of mind.

Topics include: Discussion With Marie Howe: Emily Dickinson


Billy invites acclaimed poet and friend Marie Howe to read and discuss Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Learn how Dickinson’s creative use of capitalization builds an entire world out of a state of mind.

Topics include: Discussion With Marie Howe: Emily Dickinson

Billy Collins

Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

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[MUSIC PLAYING] - As part of my master class, I've invited another poet to have a conversation with me. And I'm very happy that Marie Howe, one of my dear friends and a poet I deeply admire, agreed to be part of the master class to see what kind of perspectives we have on teaching poetry, the craft of poetry, and how to look at a poem, how to talk about a poem. So I'm happy to welcome Marie Howe. Marie, would you mind reading the poem we're going to look at. And that's by Emily Dickinson, who never titled her poems. So we know them by their first lines. And her first line in this case is, "I felt a funeral in my brain." - I'm happy to read this poem. This poem means the world to me. "I felt a funeral, in my brain, and mourners to and fro kept treading-- treading-- till it seemed that sense was breaking through-- And when they all were seated, a service, like a drum-- kept beating-- beating-- till I thought my mind was going numb-- And then I heard them lift a box and creak across my soul with those same boots of lead, again, then space-- began to toll, As all the heavens were a bell, and being, but an ear, And I, and silence, some strange race, wrecked, solitary, here-- And then a plank in reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down-- and hit a world, at every plunge, and finished knowing-- then--" You ever felt like this, Billy? - Not quite this extreme. Emily Dickinson is-- I mean, one of the things to say about her is she is a poet of a real delicacy and decorum. She sings her little song in the same way every time, pretty much four beats and then three beats. And she doesn't know what she's going to say every time, but she always has that common meter waiting for her. - It's the hymn meter. - Yes, the meter of hymns or nursery rhymes. Old King Cole was a merry old soul. It's the-- Amazing Grace is four beats, three beats. These quatrains are waiting for her. The box is there, pre-prepared for her. There's such civility in so many of her poems, like "death kindly stopped for me." At the same time, she is dealing with extreme states-- live burial. And in this case-- - A breakdown. - A complete nervous breakdown. So that's the beautiful tension I find in-- one of the tensions anyway, between her decorous, mannerly language, and these frightening extremities that she is dealing with. - Yeah, and her capitalization of nouns, and her commas, and her dashes. I've read this poem over 100 times. And for the first 30, I still couldn't quite understand that penultimate stanza. She's is a surrealist in this poem, really. I mean, this is fantastic, right? "I felt a funeral in my brain." And then, not only is it a funeral. But she feels the people walking back and forth, treading, treading, treading, until it seemed not that they were breaking through, but that sense was going to break through. As if there's a floor that's got-- which later, that plank is going to give way. - And there are...

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.

Billy Collins is funny and accessible and knows what he's talking about. I trust him.

This Masterclass has equipped me with alot of new techniques and methods that are really useful when writing poetry. It has also given me more ways of approaching and reading the poetry of others.

It is a great class. I learned so much from it.

Amazing! It has really helped me understand the process and, more importantly, it has been an inspiration. The writing tips, exercises, student discussions were wonderful! Thank you!


Kaerla F.

plunging down and down" reminds me of Anne Bishop's world building in her Black Jewels series, when Janelle plunges down beyond the Black.


The pattern /quartrain / Emily D used for much of her poetry lifted one of the constraints of writing a poem. She could then concentrate on other parts of writing a poem.


Lessons should be a minimum of 15-20 minutes. Not really sure what these two poets were trying to extract for our benefit.

Tauna S.

Never knew about the punctuation. I love the use of capitalization to bring emphasis. Very good idea to have two people discuss a well known poem.

Christie J.

I just learned that Emily Dickenson did NOT use punctuation in her original poems. Family members introduced it. In 1956 her poems were refreshed to their original state without punctuation. Is this accurate?

Kasy L.

I loved this lesson! Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet, so I especially enjoyed the lesson. I enjoyed this dialogue between the two poets about one poet we are all very familiar with. Their insights made me ponder new ideas about Dickinson's poetry. Emily was definitely a unique poet of her time and no one has really come close to replicating what she wrote.

Michele H.

Makes me realize I need to find some Emily Dickinson and re-explore her work! Not sure if my background in medicine or as migraine sufferer influenced my perceptions of the poem, but I saw an amazingly vivid description of the prodrome and onset of a migraine or an atypical seizure. (Doesn't really matter, we all bring our own experiences to a poem.) It also brought to mind Virginia Woolf and her "headaches" that caused her so much suffering. Very powerful poem.

Sue S.

I do love this class! This discussion between Billy and Marie Howe, though, is what turned me off to poetry when I was a young girl. They are dissecting Emily Dickinson's poem as if they were in her head and telling us what it all meant. I used to argue with my teachers in school who did this because I wanted my own interpretation to be valid, or at least considered.

Norene S.

The dialog between poets of differing temperaments was fabulous! I was glad that they worked with this particular poem because it is so emotionally terrifying. I identify w/ D’s experience and do feel “less alone” because she survived both the experience and writing about it. I happen to love Aaron Copland’s treatment of this poem in his extraordinary art songs “Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson,” too. Thank you thank you for this session.

A fellow student

Very practical, humorous. Now I just have to unlearn everything I was ever taught about poetry. I adore Billy Collins. He's the whole reason I signed up for MasterClass.