To submit requests for assistance, or provide feedback regarding accessibility, please contact

Arts & Entertainment

Playing a Visible Game

Billy Collins

Lesson time 8:49 min

Billy is a self-proclaimed “terrible rhymer.” Learn one of his techniques for capturing a reader’s attention without relying on rhymed or metered poetry.

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 Started


- OK, so you're writing poems today, and you don't want to be a formal poet, or I would say, like me, you don't have the talent to be a formal poet. I'm a-- I'm a terrible rhymer. My latest book is titled "The Rain in Portugal," which is supposed to be a kind of trigger warning to the reader that there's not much rhyming going on inside there. But there is a way to compensate, I think. And I've come up with a name for it, and I call it playing a visible game. And-- and as a way of compensating for the predictability of rhymes and metered poetry, playing a visible game means just turning over cards in the beginning of the poem, to let the reader in on what's up, what's going to happen in the future. What game are we playing here? What's the pattern? And I'll give you a few examples without reading the whole poems. I mean, one is the famous poem by Wallace Stevens, "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Well, if you haven't read the poem before, you don't know what he's going to say about blackbirds, but you know-- and you can see on the page that the poem comes in those little segments, and you're going to go one from the other and they're all going to concern blackbirds. So there he's turned over a huge card which lets you know what's going to happen without telling you exactly what's going to happen. Another poem that strikes me as a good example, and I think I have it here, is a poem by Charles Simic, one of my favorites. It's called "Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand." Well, you know that this poem is going to come in five parts, right? And he starts-- numbered poem-- he starts with "Thumb, loose tooth of a horse. Rooster to his hens. Horn of a devil. Fat worm they have attached to my flesh at the time of my birth. It takes four to hold him down, bend him in half, until the bone begins to whimper. Cut him off. He can take care of himself. Take root in the earth, or go hunting with wolves." "The second points the way." I won't read the whole poem, but "the middle one has a backache." "The fourth is a mystery." "Something stirs in the fifth," "his touch is gentle. It weighs a tear. It takes the mote out of the eye." So it's a beautiful poem. And again, not just because of some exchanges but the fact that we know something, and we are joyfully led through each finger with expectation and surprise. [GENTLE MUSIC PLAYING] - If you want to practice writing a poem that is a visible game, and I think that gives immediate delight to readers, you can announce it in the title by saying, you know, 5 ways of doing something, or 13 ways of looking at this or that. I have a poem called "Questions About Angels" that I-- that basically is a set of questions about angels. I wouldn't mind reading "Questions About Angels." So this is my poem, "Questions About Angels." Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is how many can dance on the head of a pin. No curiosity about how t...

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.

Loved this! Really made me rethink a lot of things about poetry and a way with words.

It has propelled me to learn more and make more of a commitment to the craft of poetry, thank-you

I am relatively new to poetry --reading and writing. I saw Billy read at The Mount in Lenox, MA. He was inspiring. I encountered William Stafford poems while visiting Portland, OR. Both showed that poetry can be every day; it doesn't have to be stuffy. The Master Class reinforces that. The tips about meter, rhyme, the turn, reading aloud, etc. all very helpful. Thanks.

I learned that I have a voice and something to express through my poetry. I also learned the importance of reading other poets work in order to improve and make good choices as a poet. there was so much good information shared during this Master Class. I truly enjoyed Billy Collins and the guest poet, Marie Howe and his students. Thank you so much!!


Carol R.

Billy Collins was so easy to listen to because his voice has a sonorous quality that is comforting. He made it ok for little old me to want to write poems. While giving clear examples of interesting poetry writing concepts, in poems by some of my favorite poets, what hat I really enjoyed about Billy Collins, was his ability to touch the topics about which I had personal, challenging experience. Very intuitive teaching or do Billy and I think alike...don't know but I do like his poems.

Douglas S.

I am really beginning to understand what distinguishes a Billy Collins poem from others: his casual approach to the structure and cadence of a poem allows the poem to evolve in an organic way from the subject matter at hand whatever it happens to be. This playfulness in his approach keeps the reader on edge since s/he has no idea what direction it will take or what images will drive the poem to its unexpected conclusion. In a nutshell - for me - this encapsulates so much of the rational for a lot of the poetry being written today. The difference is that many poems fall flat in the process; Billy's do not.

Jacinta L.

I really enjoyed this class. It was just beautiful, from the poems being read, the wisdom into the creation and unfoldment of a poem, and the soft expressions of Mr. Collins' face. I also want to mention how humble he is, referencing and reciting so many other poets' works whereas he could've chosen just to use only his own.

Fred G.

Great class. I found the exercises challenging and I'm really glad he is challenging us. I like the idea of the answers being revealed and thus the poem is closing. And I enjoy a last line that calls for silent reflection.

Deborah S.

Mr. Collins has a very specific way of calming the writer and opening up paths for them to seek new material. He leads the writer to reopen their hearts once more. To play with words and experiences that they remember. And perhaps into dreams that were previously hidden with images that continually run like a film in my mind.

Glen G.

At the outset, I was asked what I was hoping to learn in this class. "Finding the poetic moment" is how I answered that ...

Corinne M.

The beauty of a poem is measured by the silence it has created upon its ending...❤️

Nilce S.

This class is a poem. A surprisingly good one. I am surrounded by a wonderful silence.

Kaerla F.

poem about questions regarding angels line line line this and that, hole in the river divine alphabet, and it's late, even for musicians... But where do angels sleep, at night? The End. May we never, ever, run out of questions.


Enjoyed this lesson. Lovedbhus Questions for Angels and his reviewing if how his final angel came about. Ready to try a visible game poem.