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.

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

Loved it. Conversational, yet practical. Intimate & intricate. Oozes insight. Will go through it again to pick up bits & pieces that I may have missed. Thank you, Billy, thank you.

Billy has inspired me in a new way. I've taken several poetry classes but none were as down to earth as this one. "Don't censor yourself". "Know when to be clear and when to be mysterious" . "Write a poem in your natural speaking voice". I enjoyed his dry wit and his tone, so nice to listen to.

It is a great class. I learned so much from it.


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.)

John S.

"A lot of poems are an expression of an emotion you can't find in the dictionary." What a great line. Trying to use humor with serious intent, as Collins suggests, is a tall mountain to climb, but one worth climbing, in my view.

Jody L.

Ruth Schwartz's poem is wonderful in that she starts out with this rather depressing, crummy scene that she is describing in a humorous way (rather than, for example, maudlin). But it gives us a sense of where we are. No pretty pond here. Then she moves into an extended simile that takes us into another depressing, crummy scene but without much humor. And connects it at the end back to the original scene!


The Swan....Gifted me with a new emotion "Smilin' Goose Pimples".....StanleydelGozo