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Arts & Entertainment

Finding Your Voice: Influences

Billy Collins

Lesson time 11:33 min

Your voice lies on the shelves of the library and the bookstore. Learn how reading the work of other poets will help develop your unique persona.

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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- The sense is that your voice lies somewhere within you, and the need to interrogate and examine yourself and see what's somewhere down connected with your personal authenticity as a human being. Once you connect with that through introspection, the poems will just fly out of you. That's all wrong. Your voice has an external source. It does not lie within you. It is not in-dwelling. It lies on the shelves of the library and the shelves of the bookstore. Your voice is in the voices of other poets. And you will develop a voice by copying, imitating, lifting from some of these other poets. Personally speaking, I learned intimacy from Whitman. His poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is one of the most intimate examples of that in his work where he puts his art-- you can almost feel his arm on your shoulder. He's pointing to the seagulls and the water. As I was here, you will stand here. It's quite amazing that he has this kind of-- creates this brotherhood with the reader. From Emily Dickinson, you can learn elliptical writing where you can jump a little bit from one think to the other and getting rid of the connectives that kind of clutter up a poem that are best served in prose. From Frost, you can learn how to be gradual in playing out the meaning of the poem and also how to be cagey and leave ambiguities in the poem. From Frost, you can certainly learn the craft of rhyme and meter. And I think if you come up-- if you hear a poet with an original voice-- or let's just say a fresh voice, that poet-- what you're really hearing are the voices of several poets that have been combined in such an ingenious way that you can't trace them back to the sources. [MUSIC PLAYING] You won't be a poet unless you experience literary jealousy. Professors call this literary influence, but it's felt as jealousy. If you are a poet and you're reading a poem for the first time and it's really good, and-- wait a minute, now it's getting even better. This is really good the way this is going. And then suddenly, you're not enjoying it anymore, you're fixated by it. And the ending is a mind-blower and then you say, if I had only done that. If I could just get some white out and get rid of his name and put my name down there, I'd be so happy about my self esteem. One way to just advance behind a state of immobilized jealousy and do something that might have practical application and improvement on your own poetry would be to take the poet you seem to be envying and one of her or his poems and read it over and over again-- kind of looking at how they went about it. If you notice that there's a movement in the poem-- like a surprising change-- that he was talking about one thing, now suddenly he seems to be talking about another thing-- or he was addressing you and starts addressing it as an individual-- some shift, you might look at that shift for what it is and see, what happened there? And can you make a turn like that in your own poetry? Or, let's s...

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.

Gave me structure and confidence that I am good enough to write a peom.

Appreciate poetry and the heart of writing poetry.

A great intro to poetry - maybe not in a specific 'this is a sonnet, this is a haiku' kind of way, but in a way that gets you excited to learn more.

It made me want to get back to reading and writing poetry and taking the steps to submit my poetry somewhere. Wish me luck!


Douglas S.

The whole approach to finding and nurturing your own personal voice is probably the greatest challenge a writer has and as the many examples presented indicate, a wide reading of multiple styles and voices is an essential ingredient

Fred G.

This was chock full of really helpful ideas and I greatly appreciate it. I love the idea of literary jealousy being a useful tool. I also like the allusion to carpe diem as a special gift poetry can do well. I also need to get a copy of Coleridge's Conversation Poems now. Can't wait!

Mark N.

Good lesson. I remember reading the line 'the hard cold knuckle of the year' in B. Crooker's Ordinary Life. It stopped me. It is so good. I love it. I am jealous of it. I reread that poem all the time. I like to listen to the writer's almanac and then try to write something akin to that day's poem.

Jacinta L.

What a fascinating perspective! I'd still like to think that our voice lies within us, but we need to develop our craft through studying others' works.

Joshua A.

I think being "jealous" is huge with finding your voice. When I hear or read something that is powerful and moving, my initial reaction is I wish I had written that FOLLOWED BY, I can do even better. Competing with other poets/artists you forces you to become more innovative and confident in your own work. Ego plays a tremendous role is becoming you are elevating your game.

Corinne M.

I have a different take. Of course we can learn from studying other poets’ works, but to find our own voice, I feel we must, in the end, go inside. Is that not where everything resides? Is that not the place where we can connect to the All...where we can call upon the knowledge of the Masters and be influenced by them? Just my take...

Robert T.

I love the conversation poems of Coleridge too! Learned so much from them recently.

Carolyn C.

I think it was Elizabeth Austen who first introduced me to the idea of POJACKING a poem, taking a poem and making it my own. I have made an index of the poet or person that inspired each of my nearly 5000 poems in the thirty years I have been writing.

Kristine K.

I love the hedgehog poem but I wish he put he or she in the poem instead of it. The animal is not an it.

Joanell S.

It’s refreshing to hear about the jealousy! And I simply love Billy Collins teaching style.