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.
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- 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.

This was such a great class. Learned a lot about writing in general, not only poetry.

I learned to start poems with descriptions as a way into that poem, without any requirement to hold onto that as the poem unfolds. About the importance of discovering something new through the process of writing. How every word counts.

There was so much rich insight in such a short series...this class was a delight and an inspiration. Thank you, Billy.

My only input is that I wanted more! Absolutely loved this course and will recommend it to others.


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.

Kasy L.

I loved this lesson! I love the idea of "playing a visible game" with readers. Giving them a pattern they can expect is one way to have a formal poem without a strict meter or rhyme.

Sandy B.

Best lesson so far!!! Strong poems used to illustrate what he was addressing.

Sarah Y.

I lost track with the homework at lesson 10--and I know I won't get half as much out of the lessons if I don't do the homework. So I'm setting my messy notebook aside and starting fresh. Not sure whether my half-finished poems will survive the process, but at least they gave me some solid writing practice.

Frances C.

Filled with useful insights about striking a balance between leading the poem to its end and letting the poem find its way to its natural ending.

A fellow student

I'd like to know more about knowing when to end a poem -- although, I suppose broader experience with writing would help develop the expertise there. My students have the most difficulty with starting and ending a draft and I think it's because they're wanting to create the ideal beginning and ending and feel the resulting pressure.

John S.

I enjoyed this lesson greatly; it resonated with me because I have experienced some of the same feelings that Collins has as he tries to discover what his poem is about as well as how he attempts to end it. I also intend to "play a visible game" as I compose some of my future poems.

Sarah L.

So pleased to be taking part in this Master Class. I'm Wile Coyote, Billy's The Roadrunner. As I fall off another poetic cliff, looking at my readers with that pained but resigned look, he speeds by with an easy 'BEEP, BEEP.'

Michael H.

Fantastic. I had never thought of this before although now it seems obvious!