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 really love Billy Collins and it was great to see his unique take on what poetry is, what it needs to do, and why you should never tie it to a chair and hit it with a hose.

The humility with which he preaches the art and wisdom that Billy Collins imparts, are only two out of the many many reasons why I loved this Masterclass. I have learnt more about the craft of poetry than I thought I would. I can only wish that my own poetic voice could be half as vibrant as that of Billy Collins! :)

Perfect Teacher in Billy Collins. His style, humor, and incredible knowledge as a Subject Matter Expert invaluable. PLEASE offer a follow-up in the near future. -elmo shade (Camas, Washington).

Engaging. Entertaining. Thoughtful and fun. The guests are wonderful. And so many tremendous poems were read and appreciated. Billy Collins is lovely!


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.

Victoria H.

Wow!! No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. I absolutely LOVE this video.

Victoria H.

There is some really valuable info in this video right now I am working on a poem using the structure of poem by another poet. The poems movement and theme helped me to find my own. I prefer to write poems by imagination or only knowing a small percentage of my poem (based on experienced) before I begin it. Some of my mostly loved work, I wrote just coming up with one line of something that really dug into my mind, and captivated me. I then may create a list of random things that get my attention, and then let the leading line to me to a poem using the list of things. I have used structures or partial structure of poems by other poets including Bill Collins 😊 I love this video and plan to take alot of notes of this one, for future reference.

Kaerla F.

Around 1:46, Mr. Collins says "You're not a poet all the time," and that makes me think and feel a couple of things. The first think is how that comment echoes the line "It can't rain all the time," from Brandon Lee's "The Crow", and so I smiled, even as I began to feel a little indignation. The heck I'm not a poet all the time. If Mr. Collins is saying that I - or anyone else - am only a poet when I sit down to write poetry, I'm going to be quite indignant indeed. Let's finish the lesson and see what else is going on here.

Michael Conlon

I understand what he was saying about memory and imagination, but see it differently. I believe that memory poems are still imaginative, since how we see and experience an event is subjective, and also alters from the time something happened to the time we write about it. But obviously there is something concrete to start with, unlike the imaginative poem he talks about. I like the element of including, or at least accepting distractions, almost how people describe meditation. Don't fight a distraction, just note it, incorporate it, and move on. I completely see an imaginative poem as active meditation, especially the flow.