Reading: Connecting With Poetry

Billy Collins

Lesson time 14:29 min

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

I loved Billy Collins' MasterClass. I thought all of the topics were really interesting and I loved that he brought it Marie Howe and student poets. I do wish that there were "assignments" or challenges/prompts of some sort. I think this could have been a great way to engage with the content Billy was sharing, and even to share work with other students in the community forum.

I have been writing poems for over twenty years. That being said, what Mr. Collins has done for me is confirm that I am on the right track. This alone has been worth the price of admission.

The simplicity of Billy Collins ability to communicate clearly key components of poetry are very encouraging and inviting. Most importantly, his personal style - confident and humble make for an immediate welcoming into the topic, the class. It was information, inspirational, and insightful. Thank you!

I have never written a poem and not sure that I ever will, but this class has given me a new appreciation for the art of writing poetry.


Fred G.

I like the idea of marking things up and using margins more often to leave my footprints. I enjoyed doing so with the assignment with Billy's poem. I also found the exercise in which I omitted words in a poem of mine to be a useful new window on my writing. The assignment to build a poem from a sentence with two meanings was helpful. I do find that my poems for assignments are not inspired as my poems usually are. But I think that's just because it's homework. I do feel that when I am inspired to write a poem I will be able to use these ideas more easily having done the homework here.

Corinne M.

Enjoyed the discussion—focus on interp & breakdown of the spectrum. I’m seeing where I fit in & that brings a smile...

A fellow student

I've read "Introduction to Poetry" a hundred times and have a new appreciation and understanding now. I however, do not think that Bukowski is as simple as Billy suggests. Not all the time any way.

Allan A.

Thank you for giving me an understanding of what's going on in my journals: "embracing nuance and ambiguity." I might add "embracing mystery."

A fellow student

My take on the poem, “The Road not Taken” meant the choice you have is to be different by doing it your way , create your style unique to you.

Ana Luisa J.

I take a lot of notes and what is great about these classes is that I can go back and review it as often as needed. It is very helpful for my english as well.

Kaerla F.

I want to write and be the easier poet in part because that's just who I am - no deep and brooding rhymester, I - and in part because, tell me true, who really wants to be beaten with that rubber hose? I am what I am, take me for all in all.

Michael Conlon

I very much appreciate his supporting multiple interpretations of a poem, as long as they are supported by the text. I also appreciate his explanation of the shifting meaning of Frost's poem. However, in his enthusiasm to promote Frost new-gained determinism at the end, to me he forgets the title of the poem. It is not "The Road Taken" but "The Road Not Taken." For me, this poem has always been a "what if" message, and how you could go crazy with "what if's" since way "leads on to way," fork in the road to another fork. So the question becomes, how do you deal with all the choices you didn't make. After all, each one could be said to "make all the difference"...

Simon C.

One of the purposes of poetry may be that exact dialogue with the reader that comes from the ambiguity? And the continuation of this dialogue can be represented by the notes at the margin. From this class I've suddenly thought of this aspect as one of the biggest differences between poetry and other kinds of texts. By the way, reading poetry it's a skill that needs to be acquired with practice, or it may be difficult for a reader who is not accustomed to it to easily perceive all the communicational layers of it.

Tauna S.

I learned to read with a married pair of Brit x-pats. The books were Shakespeare, Sir Conan Doyle, and by the time I was ten, Ian Fleming became one of their new favorites. I spoke very strange English as a result of the earliest books and even after I learned a more modern way of speaking, my writing tended to be Iambic pentameter and rhymed...yes even prose. It is still very hard to get out of the pattern when I write, especially when I am tired. I am also an artist, and a workbook for drawing mentioned free flowing for art ideas. I applied it to writing. Took one word, and free wrote for ten minutes without any punctuation, anything that came to mind. It was the loosed I ever managed to write and I was able to get two separate poems out of it. Same subject, but totally different. This has reminded me to let go once in a while.