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.

This class has heartened me. Billy has a wonderful, warm manner that encourages you and practical suggestions well explained. I didn't learn anything new but he reminded me of methods I hadn't used on a while and gave me hope.

I'm far from finished. I LOVE Billy Collins' poetry.. his voice calls to me... so far I enjoy him talking to 'ME" had to 'break for awhile'... but .

Perfect Teacher in Billy Collins. His style, humor, and incredible knowledge as a Subject Matter Expert invaluable. PLEASE offer a follow-up in the near future. -elmo shade (Camas, Washington).

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


A fellow student

It's so interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation about a poem. I like that Collins and Howe discuss the aspects of the piece that captures their attention without explicating the entire text, leaving room for the lesson participant to dig in make his/her own discoveries.

Doug Shields

Untitled for Emily Dickinson // If I could write like Emily / I’d sell some Nursery Rhymes. / You’d have to gather what I meant / By reading several Times. / Each Time your Finger scanned my Book / And put it back to Shelf, / Your Mind would creep a little more / To murdering Yourself.

John S.

Most times I find little trouble in coming up with a poem's title. Often, in fact, my titles come first, then the poem follows. And then, as I discover what the poem is really about, I change the title. But every so often, rarely, I use the first line as a title, and then I feel relief. I have never capitalized improper nouns in my poems, as far as I can recall. I will, however, consider doing so in the future. I see it as a form of personification.

Jack C.

Not particularly interesting. Pretty obvious interpretation of an uninspiring poem. I think they missed the boring "plank" metaphor, which seems to come from "walking the plank," since it's followed by a plunge. They could have spent time on much more delightful work by this fine, old-fashioned poet.

A fellow student

Why isn't this 45min long?… at the very least?.. This felt more like a trailer for a conversation... Lol I want more!

Robert H.

Its always a treat to hear two poets talk to each other. They are so open and polite to the other person. Artists should do all political negotiations for any country. The world would be a better place.

Townsend S.

It's only been in the past couple of years that I've really come to appreciate Dickinson. (I recently finished reading William Luce's The Belle of Amherst.) As a teenager, I found her work jarring--and now I think that could be the whole point. I forget where I read this, but someone said that the thing to keep in mind with Dickinson was that she was probably depressed. I read her work in that light and it made a huge difference for me. My favorite Dickinson poem is that one Frances Farmer used for her autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?

Maureen O.

I learned that the poets pay attention to the form of the poem, and the music (4 beats, 3 beats, quatrain) as well as the intense imagery. She contains the experience within a decorous form.

Jody L.

I have always liked Emily Dickinson, but I realize after this lesson that I have been missing a lot. I had never encountered this poem before, and it's amazing---especially hearing the commentary.