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Arts & Entertainment

Humor as a Serious Strategy

Billy Collins

Lesson time 9:56 min

Billy shares how humor is an essential part of his persona and teaches you how to use humor in your poetry for serious reasons.

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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[TITLE MUSIC PLAYING] - One of the key moments or transitions in my development as a poet was when I discovered, in the-- in around the 1950s-- the 1950s, of course, were a very quiet decade. You know, all you had-- the only thing you had to worry about was polio, which is waking up completely paralyzed, or the atomic bomb. Apart from those two worries, everything was pretty much go steady and put on some more rock and roll. But that's when I started writing poetry. And one thing I knew is that I couldn't-- you couldn't be funny in poetry. Poetry was serious, dead serious. I was funny, my father was very funny, most of my friends were funny. But I didn't let that into my poems because that was right-- you couldn't be funny. And it's interesting that, when I look back, it seems that humor is a very, actually, an authentic position. You can always-- what I mean is you can pretend to be serious. I am pretending to be serious right now, quite frankly. If you've ever had a job interview or sat in a classroom, it's easy to pretend to be serious. You just take a clipboard or whatever-- hmm, that's very interesting-- and you look serious. You cannot pretend to be funny. You're either funny or you're not. And if you're not funny, people are standing at you and they're not laughing. You know that very quickly. That's why people who do stand-up say they "died." English poetry found a place for humor right from its beginnings. Many of Chaucer's tales are funny, "The Miller's Tale," particularly. Shakespeare wrote-- I believe they're comedies. When we move into the metaphysical poets, they relied on wit. The Augustine poets that followed them relied on satire. And then we get to the romantic poets, and that's when all-- all of it stopped. The party was over, friends. Wordsworth and Shelley and Coleridge went into a room-- this is what I imagine-- and they drew the blinds and sat around this table with a couple of candles lit. And they said, here's what we're going to do. We're going to eliminate sex and humor from poetry, and we're going to substitute landscape. Now that sounds like a bad deal to me, but it actually occurred. There was very little sex through the 19th century-- well, at least in poetry-- and really no humor until about the 1950s. If you wrote humorous poetry, from the Romantics to about 1950, you would be consigned to a little paddock called light verse, like Ogden Nash. I love Ogden Nash, but as Bill Matthew says, the trouble with light poetry is it wants to be funny all the way through, from the first line to the last line. So I started reading poets like Kenneth Koch, some of the other New York School poets, particularly Philip Larkin, west coast poets like Ron Koertge and others. And Ferlinghetti, to a certain extent, has got a funny-- is funny-boned. And those poets told me, it's OK, you can be funny without being silly, and just clownish, and jokey. You can use humor to serious intents. When you laugh at ...

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've really enjoyed working through this Masterclass while working on my own MA in poetry. Plenty of insightful comments and workshops to reflect on. I particularly enjoyed the sessions with Marie Howe.

It's an excellent class, especially if you have read a broad selection of poetry. Collins' poetry examples tend toward the mainstream, but you will be well-served by his observations and advice in delving into more avant-garde and contemporary poetry scenes.

I am an economist, have almost always been a more technical type, or so I convinced myself. I frawned upon poetry and thought it to be a mere entertainment of mind. Billly Collins showed me what poetry is really about and why it can be so important for our well-being, for the soul. The phrase I will always remember from the masterclass is this "Poetry is the history of human hear".

I learned what a great teacher and balanced person Billy Collins is.


Fred G.

This was fun. The most helpful bit for me was thinking of the psychology of using humor to relax the reader. It's a setup before the serious turn which is all the more jarring for coming after the laugh. Brilliant!

Allan A.

I think this captures what we've come to know as the Joy of poetry. Thanks.

Ashe W.

That line - if you want to know the definition of a poem, it's the poem. - I've never had anyone talk about poetry the way Collins has in this class. Everything (especially the line above) has cracked poetry open for me in ways that no teacher ever has. I'm so grateful.

Bob J.

Fantastic! I especially love the historical contenting, the comment that humor and sex were lost with the romantics. Poignant observation.

Kaerla F.

"...funny to engage." Yes, this is how I like to use humor! (Bennet Cerf was also a humorous poet, among other things.)


Again, would like more additional meat in these videos. Mr. Collins is so knowledgeable. I’d like to pick his brain more deeply.

Tauna S.

Stevie Smith made it a point not to read contemporary poets, because she didn't want them to taint her spirit. I agree. She is wickedly funny and brilliant at mocking society, as one should. Sisely Walked so nicely With footsteps so discreet To see her pass You'd never guess She walked upon the street. Down where the Liffey waters' turgid flood Churns up to greet the ocean-driven mud, A bruiser in fix Murdered her for 6/6.

A fellow student

In this lesson, I would like to see more examples of humor at work -- perhaps a set of poems across time that employ humor for various purposes. Collins' statement that humor in poetry disappeared for decades makes me want to investigate the "why".

Townsend S.

Have you read the British poet Stevie Smith? Her work reads like light verse but is incredibly dark and often dismal. Her humor is incredibly dark.

Townsend S.

"The fun is over quickly." That really sums up the Schwartz poem. I really don't think her poem is humorous at all, unless one considers it gallows humor. The poem made me feel sad when I read it in the class workbook and it made me feel sad listening to Professor Collins read it. (That, of course, is the point.)