Arts & Entertainment, Writing

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.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

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


[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 ...

About the Instructor

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.

Featured MasterClass Instructor

Billy Collins

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.

Explore the Class
Sign Up