From Billy Collins's MasterClass

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

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.

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


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.

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

Billy Collins

Teaches 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.

I enjoyed this class. I've always liked Billy Collins' poetry reading on the Prairie Home Companion. Among my favorites are: The Lanyard, The Revenant and another that I forget the name of but it has Buddha helping to shovel the driveway and serving hot chocolate at the end. Love that one!

Red glasses and a messy desk, we will get along well.

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.

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).


John S.

The point that hit home most for me in this lesson had to do with trying to create poems that not only contain "turns," but also contain a mixture of emotions: grief, humor, love, tenderness, and so on.

Townsend S.

My father would also wear a hat from time to time (he was born in 1932), but I don't recall him doing it everyday. This lesson made me think of him, and I wondered if I could ever write an elegy for him. (I somehow doubt it, because we were not close.) It is, however, somehow comforting to think about it. The story at the end--about switching the hats about--is priceless.

Martina N.

tenderness and grief, but yes! Love. And the conventions of the 1950s, but also a feel of whimsy and remembering mice almost like Stuart Little, with their hats, the world of our childhood. And elegy which is very gentle and elegant and light. That wind at the end, the sky...

A fellow student

such a poignant poem -- it also brought back memories of my father -- love the poem and this lesson -- actually, this course is so wonderful -- I am enjoying it so much -- also purchased the collection of essays Billy refers to in the accompanying workbook (The Eye of the Poet) -- brilliant as well.

Jody L.

I don't think I ever saw my father wearing a hat like that---the suit-and-tie hat. He worked as a mechanic and wore overalls to work. Even when he was dressed up to go out, he didn't wear a hat; but this was out West. I loved this poem and the analysis, and especially the shift into the natural settings after those ashen newsreels.

Kate C.

My father wore a hard hat and heavy work gloves and carried a chainsaw; thank you for evoking that long-ago memory! I loved the story at the end of the lesson--I'm still laughing.

June S.

I would love to see this poem in it's various edited phases. I just wonder how much rewriting has to go on to reach this level of poetic perfection.

Michael D.

I enjoyed your poem very much. I can still see my dad in his fedora as he came through the doorway off the stage door at his burlesque theater and spoiled my opportunity to catch a strippers clothes. I was twelve at the time. The hat was part of his persona and added to his command of ‘beat it son.’. I never wrote a poem about it but I did make mention of his fedora in my memoir.