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.

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] - 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...

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 is a clear, fun, and engaging class. Billy is a great teacher. I learned a lot, including new ways to think about the writing and craft as well as appreciation of poetry. My love for poetry has deepened and my inspiration and desire to hone my own craft has been fueled.

I learned so much about voice, pace and imagery -among other valuable things. I truely loved BC's insight and knowledge!

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

I really loved that Billy Collins was able to use great examples to showcase what he said in his lessons.


Allan A.

I think every poet in his or her work must repeat often the assertion most frequently attributed to the Roman playwright Terence: "nothing human is alien to me." I like to think also that "nothing playful is alien to me."

A fellow student

The selection of poems in this section is superb! The intertwining of the couple, the erotic PDA (public display of affection) and the baloney are lovely little twists on the societal adage about not "playing with your food", there is much underlying meaning excluding the childhood condiments. Children are obsessed with cannibalism says Margaret Atwood in her Master Class, this poem reminds us that our childhood savagery may be more easily evoked than we care to admit/acknowledge.

Victoria H.

I have two poems I am working on in which I am writing from looking into a window. So basically I can go window hopping and see what I see through it. 😆 I hope the breathing of my ghost isnt heard. It's really hot right now that it would be hard on a ghost. My mentor told me the same thing about the window.

Tauna S.

So the new definition of a poet, is someone who writes prose, but calls it poetry. A hole in a baloney sandwich is no less sensuous just more 'hit you over the head' blatant in a way young boys like potty humor. Like him saying, if you miss I was talking sex, here is something you will understand, you simpleton. Prose. He just lost the train of thought that would have made it a story at the next station.

Victoria H.

Moving to a different time is something I did, in a few poems, one in which made the short list for a poetry contest. I often prefer to use random selected images I preselected, before writing the poem and then choosing at some point to leap in one of the way you mentioned. Your lesson reminds me of being able to do that. Turning is something I have been practicing alot. I have enjoyed this lesson

Kaerla F.

A surprise within the surprise: Thanks to this lesson, I've finally read my first Bukowski poem and found I have more in common with him than I ever would have thought - at least, stylistically.

Maureen W.

I don't know if even Bily C has the magic to turn me into a poet. He gets credit, however, for at least saving my dignity when the neighbors, cleaning out my house after my funeral, discover my work. They'll nod, cluck their tongues, say, "Not too horrible. Where'd she learn her craft?" Notice? They'll not say, "Art". Not even Billy C has the magic to make me brilliant.


Wonderful examples of surprise endings chosen. I’d like even more specific advising on the turn and surprise endings. I see them. Love them. But have a hard time producing them. Anyone else?

Kasy L.

Another great lesson with beautiful examples! I love poems that have surprising swerves and twists.

Thomas S.

I think I need to learn to trust my own associations in making "turns" in poetry. I am just a beginner. I am appreciating how Billy does this in his own poetry.