Writing, Arts & Entertainment

Turning a Poem

Billy Collins

Lesson time 12:37 min

Billy teaches you how to harness the imaginative flexibility of a poem, turning it in new directions to be playful with your reader.

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Topics include: The Turn in “Baloney” by Louis Jenkins · The Turn in “Monday” · Being Playful With Your Reader


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Something to think about when a poem is underway is where-- is whether you're going to allow the poem to just continue on one line of reasoning or one set of images, or do you want the poem to turn, swerve, bend in some unexpected direction? And I think John Ashbury said that-- something to the effect that many poems, in the course of their composition, go off in some unexpected direction, and that's really what we talk about when we talk about poetry. It's that swerving away that is the ability and the flex-- the imaginative flexibility of poetry. There are all kinds of turns that you can make. They can be chronological turns, you can turn to a different time. You can, kind of-- meanwhile, back at the ranch kind of thing. You can change your addressee, you can suddenly start talking to someone. You haven't-- you've been talking to the reader, but then you can say, but George, and you can-- Wordsworth does that to his sister Dorothy and his intern Abby. Suddenly, she's there. She wasn't there before, but then he starts talking to her. [MUSIC PLAYING] So I'd like to read an example of a poem with a rather radical turn to it, and it's a poem by Lewis Jenkins and it's called "Baloney." "There's a young couple in the parking lot, kissing. Not just kissing, they look as though they might eat each other up, kissing, nibbling, biting, mouths wide open, play fighting like young dogs, wrapped around each other like snakes. I remember that, sort of, that hunger, that passionate intensity. And I get a kind of nostalgic craving for it, in the way that I get a craving, occasionally, for the food of my childhood. Baloney on white bread, for instance: one slice of white bread with mustard or Miracle Whip or ketchup-- not ketchup, one has to draw the line somewhere-- and one slice of baloney. It had a nice symmetry to it, the circle of baloney on the rectangle of bread. Then you folded the bread and baloney in the middle and took a bite out of the very center of the folded side. When you unfolded the sandwich you had a hole, a circle in the center of the bread and baloney frame, a window, a porthole from which you could get a new view of the world." So that's-- you have to really hold on to your seat belt when you take that corner, which takes him from this scene of erotic intensity to the transitional where it's kind of passion. I remember that kind of like the passion of the food of my childhood. But then he goes into this very boyhood description of how to play with your food, basically. And then at the end of it, it becomes a porthole, a window or frame, a lens, in a way-- he doesn't say that, but-- and then it becomes a way of looking at the world. So it's a kind of poem that rises to a level of epistemology. This is a way of a boy looks through the world of this new baloney lens. So I suppose it's a poem where he retreats somehow, or at least this would be the psychoanalysis of the poem, that he retreats so...

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.

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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.

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