Discussion With Marie Howe: "The Death of the Hat"

Billy Collins

Lesson time 11:02 min

Billy and Marie unpack how Billy’s poem “The Death of the Hat” moves from being a poem about a hat to an elegy for his father.

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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[GENTLE MUSIC] - So Billy, what I love about your poems is that they often don't immediately announce what they're about. - Mm-hm. - Not about, forgive me. A poem's not about something. But "Death of a Hat," for example, I would love you to read because this poem moves me so much. - OK. Thank you. Well, let me read it then. "The Death of the Hat." Once, every man wore a hat. In the ashen newsreels, the avenues of cities are broad rivers flowing with hats. The ballparks swelled with thousands of straw hats, brims and bands, rows of men smoking and cheering in shirtsleeves. Hats were the law. They went without saying. You noticed a man in a crowd without a hat. You bought them from Adams or Dobbs, who branded your initials in gold on the inside band. Trolleys crisscrossed the city. Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor. Men with hats gathered on the docks. There was a person to block your hat and a hatcheck girl to mind it while you had a drink or a steak with peas and a baked potato. In your office stood a hat rack. The day war was declared everyone in the street was wearing a hat. And they were wearing hats when a ship loaded with men and women sank in the icy sea. My father wore one to work every day and returned home carrying the evening paper, the winter chill radiating from his overcoat. But today we go bareheaded into the winter streets, stand hatless on frozen platforms. Today the mailboxes on the roadside and the spruce trees behind the house wear cold white hats of snow. Mice scurry from the stone walls at night in their thin fur hats to eat the birdseed that has spilled. And now my father, after a life of work, wears a hat of earth, and on top of that, a lighter one of cloud and sky-- a hat of wind. - So moving. - Well, thank you. - So-- you know. - Well he-- he'd-- my father came in later. He-- I did-- I was provoked by watching old movies or whatever, and-- to talk about this fashion, that men was required to wear a hat, really. And it really lasted until Kennedy was president, and he didn't wear a hat. With that hair, why would you want to wear a hat? - And that was it. - And that pretty much killed the hat business. But I think it ends up being an elegy for my father. - Mm. - But it was really started out to be just a poem, playing with the idea of wearing hats and how that was the fashion. - But-- - And? - "In the ashen newsreels--" - Yeah, that's-- that's early there. - I mean, there it is. - Yeah, instead of black and white-- - Right. Ashen. - --ashen. - "The ashen newsreels" struck me right away. It was such a great word for describing black and white, and it also brings up all those wars and the men going and returning. - Right. - Our fathers, with their hats-- - And there's the ship sinking, and there's the Second World War. - Absolutely. And even "The ballparks swelled"-- I mean, ...

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 was Billy. Cool wit meets sting and humor. Surprising, his screen time with Marie Howe felt ultra-uncomfortable, which explains the four stars.

Collins shows that poetry is more than you think, and that there's so much more to a poem then just artistic descriptive words.

I learned to start poems with descriptions as a way into that poem, without any requirement to hold onto that as the poem unfolds. About the importance of discovering something new through the process of writing. How every word counts.

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.


Neil M.

I absolutely love this poem. Having grown up in the 1950s, all of our home movies and family photos depict the adults, men and women, donning hats. Amazing what Mr. Collins was able to do with what now seems like a relic from another era.

Allan A.

How can I not love this poem? I am a collector of hats. I once thought l should buy every professional baseball cap that represents a team that begins with the letter of my name, A. But I quickly discovered that I couldn't bear to wear a hat signifying any team I held to be an "enemy" of my favored Dodgers. Arizona, Atlanta, Angels, etc., Ugh! Ah, but there's even an A in LA! I think there's a poem building in my love of Dodger hats. Thanks.

A fellow student

Love the dissection of the poetry writing process. Marie Howe adds interesting perspective and the conversation between the two gives us a peek through the "balony sandwich" hole...a new way of thinking about old favorite poems.

A fellow student

I'm enjoying having Marie Howe as guest poet occasionally and getting a window into their friendship and appreciation for each other and each other's poetry, their working with and choosing words and phrases, open to another's reflection. I love how The Death of the Hat begins by weaving through a common historical period, taking us with it, and ends on a deeply personal note.

Tanya H.

This is a great poem talking in a different way about his father in talking of hats.

Kaerla F.

The days of men wearing hats. I love this poem, what it captures, and what it shows us.

Kasy L.

This was a great discussion. I loved Billy's poem. It is such a moving poem. I love how the poem begins by discussing the "law of wearing hats" and then how that practice eventually died. The gentle way Billy introduced his father into the poem is so moving.

Raquel A.

I love it, Bill is so calm you feel like he’s holding your hand and guiding to this magic world of writing poetry!


Wonderful poem. Wonderful discussion. What did I have reiterated? Write and write some more. The muse is there.

Channah D.

Wonderful discussion, what a story at the end...I wish the poem, or another of his poems, could have captured his father's humor too. I'm also finding that when Billy reads he seems to continue to revise poems with his readings, changing the order of words or adding words...whether intentionally or not, I'm liking his out-loud versions more than the written ones!