Discussion With Marie Howe: Writing Poetry

Billy Collins

Lesson time 11:10 min

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.

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.
Get All-Access


[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.

I'm not a poetry writer (yet) but the best thing I learned was how to read poems. I love the idea of writing my interpretations of the poems in the margins. I discovered I know much more than I imagined and am excited to learn more! Thanks

Like the comments about knowing when a poem is about to wind itself up.

Billy Collin's Masterclass was excellent. In equal parts, it was entertaining and educational; I enjoyed listening to excellent poetry (and their interpretations), and I picked up a few valuable tips to consider when approaching the writing of poetry. I could listen to 10 more hours of Billy Collins reading and interpreting poems :) I highly recommend this Masterclass to poets and aspiring poets.

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


Allan A.

I'm reminded of the title of a significant poetry textbook in my educational life: John Ciardi's "How Does a Poem Mean?" Collins and Howe are filling us with glimpses of how a poem comes to be. Thank you both.

Kate C.

I loved this lesson. I love Billy Collins's poetry but had never heard of Marie Howe. I just ordered two of her books after listening to Marie's and Billy's different writing approaches. I love the say Billy Collins has invited other poets to share the stage, so to speak.

LuAnne H.

I loved listening to the different approaches to poetry writing that these two use. My approach is more like Marie Howe's; I have a folder on my computer of drafts of poems that date back to 2016. When I am feeling dull or dried up for ideas, I go back to those old drafts and can usually find something that sparks my interest again. These drafts usually emerge from daily journaling. The idea that a poem is not a recording of a past event but a discovery from that event is an inspirational concept for me. I have a draft of a poem about a tragic accident and as it stands now, it is just a recording. I want to revisit that draft to see what I can discover, not just for the poem but for my own reconciliation of the event and its effect on me and others.

Kaerla F.

"You can measure its beauty by the depth of the silence that follows it." I think this was less a lesson and more a couple of friends sitting around talking shop. This isn't a bad thing; I just need to adjust my expectations.

Graeme R.

I love Billy Collins and Marie Howe talking together. They are my Irish cousins.

Michael Conlon

This lesson is golden. Two successful poets, two styles, bouncing off each other. Choose a way, make your own. Great stuff.

Jordan R.

I'm actually watching this series as a songwriter. The practical advice is fantastic.

Subramanian K.

the advice on freewriting rather than deliberate planning was valuable for me

Tauna S.

I so HATE that Haiku is not, just NOT what is written in English. In 1973, the Haiku Society of America noted that the norm for writers of haiku in English was to use 17 syllables, but they also noted a trend toward shorter haiku. Shorter haiku are very much more common in 21st century English haiku writing. Translators of Japanese poetry infer that about 12 syllables in English approximate the duration of 17 Japanese on. And always was Nature. However, what most people think of as Haiku is the opening stanza of an orthodox collaborative linked poem, or renga, and of its later derivative, renku (or haikai no renga). This is where love came in. And thankfully a form returning in popularity in Japan. It is the older true form not bastardized by court favorites.

A fellow student

I just bought the one year access to Masterclass, and I was just exploring different courses, when I came upon  lesson 20  (not knowing anything about Marie Howe or Billy Collins - as I do not live in USA)  -   when I heard the words "it does not care"  this poem came to me all at one...   not sure if it is finished or if I will like it tomorrow.. or if you will like it - but   here it is   Poetry does not care  If you like it or not  Rhymes may care What you write How you write  But true  poetry doesn't care  About the words you use  It only cares About the silence you sing The pauses  The stillness  That breathes into your voice  The invisible wind  That carries each letter Each sound on to the page   Into the space ..   Time and space  Weaved together  Till the All sings  In you - in me... It sings without boundaries  Without limits  In the heart of a flower In the heart of a child  that reaches for the stars In the heart of the Silence  That fills the universe In the One heart   That beats in everyOne Yes  Poetry  Does not care  About the words you use  Only that you breathe Truth  Into the  Word  Into Life Rosa Bellino  Written Time 21:12 - June 27 2019