From Billy Collins's MasterClass

Working With Form

Billy teaches you how to use form to win the love of your readers, an audience of strangers.

Topics include: The Love of Strangers · Connect with Strangers Through Form · The Shapeliness of Poetry · The Shapeliness of Poetry · The First Few Lines of the Poem · Line and Stanza · Lines and Stanzas in “Elk River Falls”


Billy teaches you how to use form to win the love of your readers, an audience of strangers.

Topics include: The Love of Strangers · Connect with Strangers Through Form · The Shapeliness of Poetry · The Shapeliness of Poetry · The First Few Lines of the Poem · Line and Stanza · Lines and Stanzas in “Elk River Falls”

Billy Collins

Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

Learn More


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Let me start with a little anecdote. One day some years ago, my editor at Random House, Dan Menaker was walking down, let's say, Madison Avenue with the well-known "New Yorker" writer Roger Angell. And a pedestrian recognized Angell somehow and stopped him and went on to praise his writing, and gushing, and just the thing. And then they broke off. Angell caught up with my friend, Menaker And Angell said that's-- that's what it's all about. And Dan said, that's what what's all about? He said that's what writing is all about, the love of strangers. I think a lot of poetry begins as a secret and covert activity. I mean back in the day, as they say, there was the existence of the diary. And the diary was a little book of blank pages. And it was thought that at a certain age, young girls went up to their rooms and had feelings. Boys were too busy throwing stones at squirrels and doing what they do to have these feelings. And one feature of these diaries is that they had little golden-- they had locks on them and a little key. And the lock was usually in the shape of a heart, a little golden heart. Why? Because these were your feelings you were expressing. That's the heart shape. Why the lock? Well, they were private. You didn't want your-- god forbid-- your big brother should look into your diary. You might say, cutting ahead, that poems are the expressions of thoughts and feelings but they're no longer embarrassing. So poetry is sort of a diary without the lock, a diary that you want people to read. But when one is conjuring an audience, one has to admit that it's an audience of strangers. The strangers that, as Angell said, you want to fall in love with you. [MUSIC PLAYING] There's a way to get readers interested. And the way-- and we'll talk about this expansively, I think during this class-- the way is through form. And by form, I mean anything that keeps the poem together. A sonnet, the fact that it's a tight 14 lines, has a certain rhyme scheme, certain meter, also a certain subject. All of those are the glue that's keeping this object of-- language object together. Because the reader comes to your book of poems not because the reader is interested in you, the reader is indifferent to you. The reader comes to the book of poems because the reader loves poetry. Now, in order to make a connection with the reader, what you have to do in your poetry is tell a little white lie. Harmless, but it's a lie. And the lie is that you love poetry more than you love yourself. We know that's not true. But if you can give that impression to the reader as the reader picks up your book and sees that you're giving off evidence that you love poetry through form, then the reader's interest overlaps with yours. The reader's interest of poetry sees someone else interested in poetry and not just in self-expression. Yates said all that is personal will rot if it is not packed in ice and salt. Now ice and salt would be...

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 am not a young prodigy or a middle-aged fumferer. I am an old dude who loves poetry. Now I'm inspired to keep writing. Thanks, Billy.

Red glasses and a messy desk, we will get along well.

The course topics were well sequenced. I particularly enjoyed the discussion with both student poets and Marie Howe.

Poetry has now been brought down to me; I see it more clearly now. This was a great experience.


J. Mauricio C.

Excellent professor , i m actually learning more now than in college. But, then again i didnt finish college.

Kuya M.

Just found the Chekov stories online. Have printed them off and am starting a binder for this course. Also, I found a spiral notebook that I will use for the course. Up up and away!!!!

Kuya M.

The love of strangers. How beautiful! The invitation to a shared moment, standing watching a waterfall and drops of water, "unbuckled from itself" and then "coming back together." One sentence with seven end of line commas and one period. Love the end of line eight in Elk River Falls, love the way the words, a place, stop me for a moment to realize the pool as a place. Love the long vowels re the water's river life, sliding, overgrown, flattens out, slips around, winding course. Then back to the poet, ("camper's guide"), now it is the poet who is finding the sea and feels the sudden sting of salt. Buddha - we are a drop of salt water thrown up on a beach by the ocean. Excellent explanation of value of form.


Some very interesting insights in this lesson, particularly in his thoughts on the title and beginning lines of a poem.

A fellow student

This was a great lesson. I was entranced by his reading of Elk Falls. His comments about how the line, sentence and stanza can together enhance sound and presentation of the poem.

Tauna S.

The lines turning back into the poem instead of the end of the page. That resonates, not for the visual appeal, but because it is the beating heart. I never understood what Algis Budrys meant when he would read my short stories out loud every class and said that "they are poetry meant to be read aloud." They were prose I thought, and they were, but now I realize what he meant. The lines might go to the end of the page, but each turned back on the next. All aside from alliteration, pace and elements of speech. Though I tend to be flowery in a snarky, gallows humor sort of way.

Jonina K.

I really appreciate how accessible his lectures are. He explains complex ideas in simple terms and is so very concise but that should no surprise as he is a poet. Poets really do know how to get to the heart of things and say them in compelling ways.

Lisa R.

No formal training in poetry for me and I'm taking copious notes Several minutes in I realize I've shifted from bullet points To note-taking in verse (kind of like this comment, I can't stop I guess) I wrote down "Start with the setting" He said, "I'm on the porch" I hit pause And this happened: Start With the Setting I'm in Connecticut After driving 27 hours -ish Almost non-stop 1,176 miles From Hot Springs, Arkansas With only intermittent sleep Cramped In the front seat of my Jeep From 4:30 AM To 5:30 AM -ish Which just Positioned me for experiencing A sunrise Made trivial By poetry Or a painting Or most definitely by a photo In the Shenadoah Valley Blue Ridge Mountains Pink sky Dew sparkling in the light The whole shebang Blah blah blah The beginning Of a new day, of course And you know, my life And I have no idea What's on the next page Of this new chapter And it's not even Anxiety-producing Anymore Because somewhere along the road (The literal one And the metaphorical one) My arms and legs Went numb -ish I felt disconnected From my body My past The insecurities That made me diminish a sunrise That moved me And when I reconnected (For the purpose Of not crashing my car) I was delirious -ish But alive In a very different way That was before I got to the part about stanzas, but I think it should all be one. Like the non-stop drive -ish


I am not sure I agree with the common love of poetry is in predictable form....or a title should give access to the first few can also be a theme that brings together the unlikely connections between words or ideas in the poem.

Holley D.

So clearly explained. No mystery or pretense. I love hearing him talking about his process