From Billy Collins's MasterClass

Reading: Connecting With Poetry

A poem is not a cookbook. Learn how embracing nuance and ambiguity can be your greatest ally when reading poetry.

Topics include: Ambiguity in “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost · Interpretive Pressure · Leave Your Footprints in the Margin · A Cautionary Tale Against Interpretation


A poem is not a cookbook. Learn how embracing nuance and ambiguity can be your greatest ally when reading poetry.

Topics include: Ambiguity in “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost · Interpretive Pressure · Leave Your Footprints in the Margin · A Cautionary Tale Against Interpretation

Billy Collins

Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

Learn More


[MUSIC PLAYING] - If poetry makes you tense, and I know it makes a lot of people tense, and one reason it does is that there's a frustrating way to look at it. That is that you know you read English well. And you speak English. That's your native language. And you know this poem is in English. And yet you have no idea what it means. Poetry asks for more participation on the part of readers than any other form of writing, I think. And you could arrange all of writing on a scale. And on this side of the scale, you would have writing that's always totally clear. There's no instability. And then you would move over to the other side where you would have writing where the meaning is very unstable and ambiguous. So over on the far, clear side, you might have a cookbook. And so when it says in a cookbook add 1 cup of sugar, you don't stop and say, well, what's she getting at there? I mean, sugar in what sense of the word? You just add the sugar. But if you move over through, well, journalism is interesting. The writing the law is interesting. People who write law try to make it as clear and as free of ambiguity as possible. Eventually, you'd get to literature. You'd get to the novel, and the drama, and everything. If you kept going all the way down to the end, you'd find poetry on the opposite end of the cookbook, where meaning is often double or the entendres are double. Someone said, poets are people who can't say one thing at a time. They are incapable of doing that. And that's one of the joys of poetry, I think. When you're young, and taking poetry in school, the fact that a poem can mean more than one thing is frustrating for a lot of students. They want an answer. And they want to get onto the next poem or get out of the class entirely. But I think a more mature reading of poetry or reader of poetry sees that ambiguity is a richening of the poem. It gives the poem more texture and more interest if a poem can support two or three readings. And usually, if there are alternate readings of a poem in a classroom, almost always those meanings are complementary, in other words, the poem can support both of them, rather than competitive, one has to be right. [MUSIC PLAYING] I'd like to read a poem by Robert Frost. And many people know this. It's one of his most famous poems. And it's considered to be a poem about making major decisions in your life. But it seems to mean that on the first reading. But I'll try to show you how it means something else on the second reading. Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken." "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth. Then took the other, just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear. Though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same. And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step ...

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.

It's inspired me to do a live class in 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.

I liked the lessons which are about finding the nuances and quirks in the stories inside the poem, and the resonances in modern life.

First chapter of Billy Collins' was insightful and helpful on a practical level, just what I am looking for.


Warren D.

Writing in the margins has long been my way of reading anything. I have books that I have read many years ago and find in interesting to read what I wrote in the margins of those books. In some cases, my opinions have changed and in others, they have grown more adamant. I enjoyed this lecture and the reading and analysis of poems.

A fellow student

I love the idea of a scale showing a cookbook on one end and a volume of poems on the other. It's a reminder to teachers to scaffold text readings to build students' confidence with interpreting language. Lack of scaffolding might explain why, as Collins says, reading poetry makes people tense.

Ann P.

Brilliant loved Billy Collins from the moment I met him about 8 years ago. Late start poet. This course is brilliant!

Townsend S.

Hart Crane is one of those writers I really want to like, but haven't quite managed it yet. I'm always so relieved when other people describe his work as "difficult." (I have similar problems with Wallace Stevens as well.) "Introduction to Poetry" might be one of my new favorite poems, by the way. (It's too bad that some of the English instructors I've had have actually wanted us to torture the meaning out of poems and stories.)

Alonna S.

"Poets are people who can't say one thing at a time."—This is a wonderful thing about poetry!

Mary Julia K.

I enjoyed listening to him talk about ambiguity, made me think about that aspect of poetry.

Diana H.

love the image of tying a poem to a chair and beating a confession out of it to find out what it really means. I see people standing around, not willing to open their own hearts to what the poem evokes in them, but trying in a very linear fashion to 'get' the point. Reducing the poem to something like ashes. Refusing to let it live inside them for fear they might feel or know something, for fear they might grow. Our educational system!

Maureen O.

It seems kind of a casual way to teach people how to read a poem. I did this for years, and I'm a Reading professional, so I looked to share specific strategies. Read like you're waterskiing first, as Billy Cillins suggests. If puzzled, try to figure out who the Speaker is, like a first person storyteller, a visionary, a third person narrator. Notice details about the Speaker. Then look at the images. Images of light? heat? blood? animals? How do they change during the poem? Then ski over it again.

Sarah L.

No.6 - another good one. Is there a poetic cook book or a cook book of poems I wonder? Also, I notice I'm Googling Charles Bukowski and not Hart Crane.....

Jody L.

I liked the discussion about ambiguity in poetry. Sometimes I need to read a poem three or four times before I even begin to get it---at least mentally. Often for me there is an emotional impact even though I am not yet understanding. Example: "Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark" by Rosebud Ben-Oni.