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Discussion With Marie Howe: Emily Dickinson

Billy Collins

Lesson time 8:01 min

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.

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] - 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.


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Mr. Collins' journey is reassuring on so many levels; I know I am a better student of our shared craft for taking this class.

I am a teacher and wanted to hear some tips from Billy Collins and how he teaches poetry. He does mention a few tips that I can share. Thanks.

Billy Collins was so enlightening. He speaks straightforwardly but always with tremendous insight. Would absolutely recommend his masterclass to all!

Inspired me. Wrote a fun poem during the course of watching the class. It was the best writing experience I've had so far. Billy was great!


Don R.

As Marie Howe read the poem, I realized that Emily Dickinson was describing a migraine she was suffering through. (I have a friend who has migraines.) It also seems to me that Emily Dickinson was doing a James Joyce. At the word "then", we are to return to the first line.

Douglas S.

The shared reading and understanding of Emily Dickenson's poem was quite enlightening and instructive in how to approach her poems. I have always forum her difficult too understand and decipher. The comparison of her work to a puzzle was quite informative as was Mary Howe's statement about reading the poem 100 times and only beginning to unravel the full sense of What the poem was about after 30 or so readings. There is something to be said about developing patience in coming to an understanding about what a poem means and also the discipline to focus all your attention on how a poem is constructed with all the tools at the poets disposal to really appreciate the artistry, the sensibility and transformation of a poetic sensibility into writing and shaping words to bring an experience to life.,

Julia B.

My understanding of the ending is that the struggle never ends. 'Finished knowing', she believed she finally got it, ' - then ' the next thing happened, the next experience in her life took place, and she realized she's going to go through a similar process all over again, because we never 'finish knowing' ourselves.

Fred G.

I am always looking to understand Emily Dickinson better. This was very helpful. I also enjoyed the writing exercises. Perhaps Emily will help me launch some more poems outside the constraints I have inadvertently imposed on my writing.

Allan A.

I find it always encouraging to listen to what poets converse about others' understandings and feelings of poets both accomplished and en route.

A fellow student

Emily Dickinson wrote the line in her poem “I dare not stop, for death is waiting for me. “ it is as if she is experiencing death as she lives. It’s as if in death she does not live because she no longer exist. No one knows her. No one can hear her crying. No one feel her heart beating as if no one cares for her because she is mentally ill. They can’t love what they don’t understand.

Samantha M.

This lesson has got me understanding and more interested in Emily Dickens. I've heard she is amazing and now I believe.

Kuya M.

Maybe she means is that she has finished the delusion of "knowing," all conditioned beliefs and views gone, she knows nothing ... and then?????

A fellow student

Something I got from this poem is that maybe she is feeling like the past trauma is like a funeral or death, She slowly realizes and recalls her abuse that was buried. She is alone in her silence, afraid to know. And once she knows it and the plank breaks she falls into the truth/ reality of what happened.

Victoria H.

I think Emily teaches us to say only what is necessary and trust the use of just nouns and feeling words and literary devices.