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Arts & Entertainment

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.

Thank you, Billy Collins, for sharing your insights. By watching the class, I have learned what I need to do next in my poetic life--read more, write more--and I have learned some specific techniques to try in my poems.

I wrote a poem about Mr. Collins' learning sessions, and posted it on the community page. I enjoyed each "class". Charma

Billy, you make poetry delicious. You make poetry relevant and relatable. I wish everyone could taste this dish.

Collins' humorous and loose way of describing his process demystifies many of the expectations I had from this well renowned poet.


Nikoleta K.

I loved the story of his father going to buy the hats for the joke. It was such a sweet memory.

Fred G.

Fun seeing two great poets talk shop. I like the various places poems can "flip" and I liked the ways Billy discovers what the poem is about as he goes. The advice to be willing to be tender, be human, and to use humor and grief was helpful to me. The homework was fun.

Douglas S.

Amazing how such a simple every day object can be transformed into something so profound, sad and moving. The images are superb and the build up to the contrast at the end is quite powerful in its simplicity, especially such simple words to convey a profound emotion.

Jacinta L.

This has moved me to tears. Such a wonderful class on such a beautiful poem.

Joanna V.

You finished reading the poem that hurt caused me to think again about loss what it means to each of us but you sipped your tea as if that mundane act would soften the sense of sadness for you or maybe just me.

Bevin M.

Collins reads his line as "You noticed a man in a crowd without a hat" which (though not grammatically) is an aural improvement, reinforcing the usefulness of reading aloud.

Marjorie B.

I like the way this poem takes the personal (ones own father) and assimilates it with something so very recognizable as the 40-50s working man (post war yet made from war) . Time melts into the snow ,yet is forever solid in our memory. Very inspiring.


She says here, "a poem isn't about something" and I suppose one could argue that even though the writer might have one intention, the reader might take something else away from it. In this sense, it not "about" anything in particular. I'm curious what others think about it. What does it mean, in your opinion, that a poem isn't about something.

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.