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
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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.

It's inspired me to return to poetry after too many vacant years, and has given me some practical advice about ways to incorporate humor. Thanks, Billy Collins!

The simplicity of Billy Collins ability to communicate clearly key components of poetry are very encouraging and inviting. Most importantly, his personal style - confident and humble make for an immediate welcoming into the topic, the class. It was information, inspirational, and insightful. Thank you!

That was a lot deeper than I had expected. The help with writer's block was especially valuable to me.

This is was very interesting. I'm no poet, and probably never will be. But, I think that what has happened by taking Mr Collins' class that my writing will be more poetic. Stories will be fuller, funnier and in some cases really nasty.


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.

Victoria H.

Wow!! I used a poem of her for a structure of a poem I wrote and the poem was accepted for publication and invited to be read at a festival. Emily says poems are physical. That one writing advice improved my poems.

Michael Conlon

Unfortunately, I agree with Mary. This is a wonderful conversation about their takes of this poem. They don't teach us about writing the poem, Dickinson's audience or lack of, her isolation, her intentions of not publishing, let alone her signature punctuation for effect. There is some lesson in reading poetry as well, what we as a reader can and cannot assume. I in their reading I feel they don't consider enough Dickinson's constant imagining of death and the hereafter ("I Heard a Fly Buzz," "Because I Could Not Stop For Death," etc.) She toyed so often with what happens at death and afterwards, and this poem, to me, is another example. (I really don't think she is contemplating being buried alive, or she tends to do it a lot...) Notice how one by one, her senses leave her, then finally "Reason," her sole means of making sense of all this. And what's left after "Reason"? I think Mary Howe read it perfectly, even if she didn't get it--a "then-"...…….something, but it could no longer be conveyed in reason, in words, and for that matter, no longer had to.

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.