Working With Form

Billy Collins

Lesson time 16:29 min

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

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] - 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.

Billy Collins is such a warm, generous teacher. I found the techniques he shared to be very helpful for my craft, and took simple pleasure in listening in on his conversations with other poets.

Provides lessons on what to read, how to read and how to listen. Prompts for inspiration, and an accessible person who knows their stuff.

Billy, you make poetry delicious. You make poetry relevant and relatable. I wish everyone could taste this dish.

I have learnt another possible approach to poetry. I did find it difficult to have feedback on my poems. And of course, I will read more poetry. Though a list by Billy would have helped immensely.


Fred G.

I am enjoying these lessons. I particularly liked the idea of the poem going to the brink of the unsayable where language does not serve any more. I did two experiments with the walking assignment, the first being in the dark when I was cold, tired, and aware that a train was about to interrupt. That one was more difficult. The second flowed more easily after a walk in the morning in snow. As I do these I am becoming more actively aware of both enjambment and punctuation, plus the idea of the stanzas as rooms. I seem to like longer sentences with the outdoors stroll. In the assignment to write about the stanzas of a poem of mine I actually picked out four randomly each a decade apart. It's funny that as a teen in 1979 I had a well constructed poem that seems a fairly good tour of the rooms/stanzas. And only recently in 2019 does a more recent poem seem to do that. The disappointment I am glad to face is the poems I picked in the other decades. They didn't really work and now I can see why, at least in part. So the exercise has been super-valuable for me in really looking at how I am writing. In the reading assignment I thoroughly enjoyed taking my time with the Chekhov stories. I am trying to experiment with description, and especially descriptions of pauses and private moments. In the final writing assignment I got overly involved in describing a setting, so my twist came later than originally intended. I felt happy with the outcome and look forward to more future awareness of twists in poems and when and how to make them.

Juli R.

I just finished the assignments from the course book and already it helped me getting a better sense of what I am actually doing as a writer and sparked a ton of new ideas. The information in this lecture are so valuable, I'm looking forward to the rest of the course!!

Sarah C.

It was worth listening through twice on different days. I enjoy the way Mr.Collins presents the subject, in a conversational manner that in some ways belies the depth of the subject without losing the importance of poetry and human connection. Elk River Falls is beautiful in its' deceptive simplicity, set against a stunning landscape.

Carlos R.

I love this poem, and I think it is a great example of the line that reflects the meaning of the sentence that's being written. Also it is very interesting to me the fact that Mr. Collins read the end of the line fourteen as "and slips behind a bend" while the text book and the poem transcription in the video lesson says "and slips around a bend". It makes me think about the different versions the writer creates from a given poem and the variations that comes after a certain time in the creative work.


I've been unsure about line breaks, so the guidelines are helpful. Elk River Falls is a lovely piece.

Noah B.

I like Mr. Collins' insights about connecting with readers and drawing people into a poem. Reading poetry is such a particular experience and when we write we need to recognize our power to welcome the reader in, to give an access point, a warm welcome -- a welcome mat, as said in the lesson. Thank you, Mr. Collins! I'm enjoying the course so far.

Susannah C.

I'm just redoing this lesson. It's so rich with information. Ice and Salt is a great guideline. And I love the idea that a poem is a set of lines guided by a principle other than the width of the page. That is so focused and yet so liberating. We can each determine what that principle is in a given poem - it can be different with each poem. But I like the idea that we should decide what it might be.


Fantastic lesson, so rich in valuable information for aspiring poets, so eloquently explained. I'd never read the poem 'Elk River Falls' before, but listening to Mr Collins reading it, it was so moving I actually teared up, what a beautiful poem!

Joseph P.

Billy, for me you have pulled poetry from the nether and laid it out in earthly terms. I have been reading your (accessible) poems for a long time. I am pleased that your teaching style is as accessible as your poetry.

Morgan N.

Holy heavens, I needed this so badly. I've written four books of poetry and writing was starting to become a drudgery. Something I did because I've always done it, not something I did because I loved it. Thank you, Billy for this creative shot in the arm, and for making us fall in love with this art all over again!