From Billy Collins's MasterClass

Discussion With Marie Howe: Writing Poetry

According to Marie, “so much of writing is getting beyond the will.” Billy and Marie share practical exercises they use to get out of their heads and into their writing.

Topics include: Discussion With Marie Howe: Writing Poetry


According to Marie, “so much of writing is getting beyond the will.” Billy and Marie share practical exercises they use to get out of their heads and into their writing.

Topics include: Discussion With Marie Howe: Writing Poetry

Billy Collins

Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

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[MUSIC PLAYING] - One of the things we share, besides writing poetry, is we both teach poetry. I think you've been teaching longer than I have, because I didn't start doing workshops till late in life. But I always have a feeling that there are aspects of poetry or types of maneuvers in poetry that I can convey clearly and are transferable. And I think, also, there are parts of poetry that can't be taught. And I wonder if you have any feelings about-- there's something that you and I have, you might say, that we can't quite transfer by touching someone's forehead or even talking to them for 100 hours. - I feel, well, as if I-- I don't know that I have it. That's an important thing to say. Writing is a mystery to me. So the first thing I start off by suggesting is that people free write-- just write, write, write, write, write. Because for me, so much of writing is getting beyond the will. I want to present myself in a certain way. - Right. - I want to seem like a certain kind of person. I want to write a poem that reflects well on me, and I have to give that up. - Right. - And that, depending on the amount of investment one has in that, takes a short or a very long time. For me, often I have to write a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot-- write into a poem, if you will-- until all things that I thought I wanted to say finally get said and become exhausted, and then something begins to occur that has never happened before. - So I know, at one point, you said that you wanted to-- your ambition was to get beyond writing "poetry"-- - Yeah. - --in the, kind of, I guess, the older sense of the word. But what does that mean, you don't want to write "poetry"? - I think of the poets I love, and their voice is what's so compelling. right? John Donne-- you know, when he says to a woman he's trying to seduce, "Oh, my America, my new-found-land." I mean, it's funny, it's seductive. Nobody sounds like John Donne but John Donne. There's a voice where you feel as if-- I feel spoken to. A living voice that feels contemporary no matter how old, how long ago it was written. There's a real encounter with another voice and person there, a presence. I've written a lot of poems that I had to throw out because everything I wrote, I already knew. - No discovery. - This was a thing I tried to say to my students again and again. The writing of the poem is an experience. It's not the record of an experience. - Right. - You know? Even if you're writing about something that happened before, it has to be a new experience in writing about it. There has to be a discovery in recalling it. Why do we-- do you want to recall it? What occurs at this minute, recalling it? And then, of course, what happens in language. It's not just the experience, but the experience and the telling of it have to so combine, that it's been said in a way that it couldn't be said any other way. - I think what you're talking about relates to...

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.

Reinforced that I stay true to myself in writing in my own unique style and voice. And to get with it, read more, and write more!

First chapter of Billy Collins' was insightful and helpful on a practical level, just what I am looking for.

This class is thoughtful, informative, and supportive of poetry, of writing practice, and of poets.

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).


Martina N.

I want what I say to be breathtakingly beautiful, insightful. The lyrical lines matter, but also the whole content, is it like music?

Alonna S.

About discovery: "The writing of a poem is an experience. It is not the record of an experience."

Jody L.

It's good to see the different ways poets work. I tend to write out many drafts longhand, like Sarah Iqbal of the earlier lesson, before I type a version into the computer. Sometimes I have to take a poem back out and start writing it in longhand again. I always correct in longhand, though---not on the computer. I don't want any changes to be unseen or lost. There is really no wrong way to approach it---although I suppose writing to a plan would make for a dull and rigid poem.

Richard M.

Especially good for clarifying that poets have different working methods (and what they might be: Billy's a one-seating composition session, Marie's a draft and later review approach) and the value of reading one's poetry aloud (to oneself or others). Also helpful: Billy's suggestion of exercises like the haiku (what others might he recommend, I wonder?).