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Arts & Entertainment

Writing the Poem

Billy Collins

Lesson time 8:43 min

Billy teaches practical exercises that will galvanize your writing process.

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] - There's an expression, when you sit down to write, you know what happens. And that kind of assumes that poets do that-- that there is a desk and there's some-- a blank notebook or a blank paper. And then I say, I'm going to sit down and write. I'm going to commit an act of literature, and I'm going to get a poem out of it by 10 o'clock or something. I've never sat down to write in that way. I've always had something in my mind that I sat down with. And therefore, the writing began rather quickly. So how do you-- how do you get something to bring to the page or bring to the desk? Well, the idea is to carry a notebook. Carry a little notebook and something to write with. One time, I was walking around New York City, and I was caught out. I did have a little inkling of a poem that might develop, but I had nothing to write on, and I had nothing to write with. And so I went into a bank, and I went over to a counter where they had these pens that are on little chains, and I got a deposit slip and started writing a poem on the back of three or four deposit slips. And when I walked out, the guard was kind of looking at me a little suspiciously-- that I was just using the bank as a place to write. You're not a poet all the time, but you can be a poet when you're not writing poetry. That is to say, in walking around looking at what's around you during the day, you might find an image. And that relieves the anxiety of the blank page, too, because when you sit down to write, you're kind of coming to the table with a beginning. It's an interesting question about how to get a poem going and how to start writing one and-- when you really don't have anything to say or whatever. Wordsworth's sense was-- he talked about a wise passivity-- that you kind of open yourself up and kind of settle your mind down, almost in a kind of meditative way, and things will come in. Well, that might not work, or not all the time anyway. So there's another more active way to go about jump-starting or triggering your writing. One is to take a poem that you like-- a short poem of someone else's-- and just try to write an imitation of it. And-- or you could just use the first line of a poem that you know-- someone else's first line, and-- or write five different first lines on different pages, and see which one leads to a second and third line. So that might get you going. There's another little exercise you can do that I think could be helpful. And that is at the end of the day, or-- or the morning of the following day, just take a piece of paper and write down 20 things you did the day before, or that day. And use a very simple form-- I did this, I did that. I washed the dishes, I ate an avocado, I read the newspaper, I got a phone call telling me my uncle died. The main thing is don't go chronologically. Don't say, I woke up, I brushed my teeth, I put on my hat. Just go as the order in which things come up in your head. Then you'll have...

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 just want to thank you for the this collection of lessons. I learned so much from this and really enjoyed each lesson. I am sorry it is over, Billy Collins is an American treasure and I know I will be watching this again again. THANK YOU!!!

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

I'm a poet since 2012. My name is Adam Prockstem Smith. I'm self published. Looked to improve my craft, and that's what this course exactly did.

Late in life, I drifted from memoirs to poetry using a phrase or question, to which i added a punch line so I could see how I might connect the two and share the irony with others.


Tricia J.

Make a list of twenty things. Revelation of one concrete element in the poem. These really connected.


I was mildly interested coming into this course and I chose it entirely guided by curiosity for a form I know little about. I started with the first lesson and moved onto other classes until I decided to trust my instinct and go back to this class and see where it leads me. I'm glad I did, so far I'm finding this class so wonderful in terms of writing using imagination, letting go and just explore. It's very refreshing and warming at the same time, especially for someone who studied literature a while ago and then was in academia and couldn't write a single sentence for years.

J. W.

Wonderful. Insightful. Beautifully filmed. Great lighting. And...some useful tips by a master poet.

Marty F.

Billy your course is magic, Truly like Christmas morning, Thank you for your words of wisdom, Rabbit in the headlights You got me learning!

Corinne M.

I enjoyed this lesson for the suggestion of the list to jumpstart writing...a simple act filled with possibilities. I am feeling how Billy “does what he does”. He adds his distractions to his work embracing freedom to surprise. He completes a poem in one sitting not breaking from the now of the initial creation. I can identify...

Fred G.

He is so wise. I keep reviewing my notes from the class. I carry a little notebook, so it was reaffirming to hear that. I am certain to use the four ideas for jump-starting poems. Great stuff. I need more practice jumping away from the topic for the side roads. I found the exercise difficult because it was a noisy area and I find it easier to write in a peaceful space. But it felt worthwhile and I will return to the poem that appeared to rework in the future. The idea of using distractions just rings of mindfulness and something I want to incorporate more into my writing.


Great suggestions: jump-starting -- rewriting first lines and imitating poems I love and jotting down the day's activities to trigger ideas. And using imagination process to give unpredictability and surprise in a poem.

Ajay B.

Your chair More than the flowy nature of words Aside from the seeds of intuitiveness That you have sown on us so strong That'll someday grow out as a poet tree What makes me wonder Is your grounded chair Its flow, its care and it's act of obedience I think it's too made out of a poet tree Which has Incan or Roman roots!

Ana Luisa J.

In the process of finishing a new poem after taking the first three lessons. (Ana Luisa Johnson KA a very excited student)

Kuya M.

Start at the beginning and go until the end." Last poem I wrote -" Hierarchies of Understanding" (renamed to "I Can" and being set to a reggae beat by my musician zen master I did this up until the second last stanza and realized I had no ending. I left the desk, went for a dawn canoe ride in our local wetlands, took my pen and notebook and simply recorded images that became the ending. I never left the poem, but I did leave my desk.