From Billy Collins's MasterClass

Writing the Poem

Billy teaches practical exercises that will galvanize your writing process.

Topics include: Carry a Little Notebook · Jump-Start Your Writing · Start at the Beginning · Let the Poem Guide You


Billy teaches practical exercises that will galvanize your writing process.

Topics include: Carry a Little Notebook · Jump-Start Your Writing · Start at the Beginning · Let the Poem Guide You

Billy Collins

Teaches 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 am a teacher and wanted to hear some tips from Billy Collins and how he teaches poetry. He does mention a few tips that I can share. Thanks.

I'm far from finished. I LOVE Billy Collins' poetry.. his voice calls to me... so far I enjoy him talking to 'ME" had to 'break for awhile'... but .

Now I have a better understanding how to read poetry, what to look for in it and what not.

This Masterclass has equipped me with alot of new techniques and methods that are really useful when writing poetry. It has also given me more ways of approaching and reading the poetry of others.


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.

Simon C.

I think it's all up to why we're writing, or why we're sitting down to do it. Sure, what a writer does is writing, and it's almost essential to get ideas from the world, note them down a notebook and possibly elaborate some good one into a nice poem. But sometimes, I think we should allow ourselves to just sit and try writing on purpose, for practice. It may be crap in the end but it was good practice, we don't need to make it public or we don't even need to keep it in the notebook itself, but a constant practice may be useful to train our poetic voice and skills. He has great ideas on stimulating the writing, I especially used often the first lines of poems I like, and continued them in some way.

Tauna S.

I like the part about poems of memory and poems of imagination. I also like that these are short and casual, with a workbook you can delve into later. I think poetry takes a light touch or it might get too mechanical like prose has been squeezed into rules and forms.

A fellow student

I love the metaphor of holding the pen or pencil lightly. As a journalist most of life, the tendency (probably because of a continuous stream of deadlines) is to hold pencils until they crush. I’m enjoying these insights, and learning lots.

Warren D.

His description of writing is inviting and trusting. I like the idea of straying with the poem until it is done in that one sitting. It is the way that my poems have appeared, not through willfulness, but spontaneously stumbling upon the page, like spilled ink.

Laura K.

Begin at the beginning. Listen to the poem. Value imagination over memory. Welcome distractions. Stay with the words until they are done. We can so easily overcomplicate the process of writing poetry. These instructions felt refreshingly clear. They were invitations instead of limitations, and I'm grateful.

David H.

insightful but short typically when one mentions 20 classes one thinks of classes approaching an hour what I see before me is more a coffee break with a poet...

John S.

I like how Collins' suggestions encourage us to develop self-discipline as poets (e.g., carry a notebook and writing instrument with us, or coming to the writing table with at least one idea in hand) while at the same time, remaining open to discoveries or "surprises" as we write, welcoming the unexpected, creating poems of the imagination, not just poems of memory.

A fellow student

The writing strategies mentioned here are among those I've implemented for my classes. The mention of Yates' observation about two categories of poems -- those created with memory and those built by imagination -- led me to think about how to make poetry drafting more accessible to struggling writers. Imaginative thinking is more difficult these days, largely because students engage with forms of entertainment that do all the imagining for them.