01 - Introduction: The Pleasure Poetry Gives Us

The typical Billy Collins poem opens on a clear and hospitable note but soon takes an unexpected turn; poems that begin in irony may end in a moment of lyric surprise.

Billy sees his poetry as “a form of travel writing” and considers humor “a door into the serious.”

”Poetry is really the only history we have of the human heart.”

==The real pleasure of writing a poem lies in figuring out how to engage and maintain the reader’s interest, and the way to do that is through form.

All the fun’s in how you say a thing. ==It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

Poetry predates prose fiction by thousands of years. At the same time, poetry is a sudden occurrence.

==The brevity of the lyric poem mean that every word counts; even the space you leave on the page are part of what a poem delivers. Every poem has a shape.

I see poetry as the highest form of human expression, but the making of a poem involves ==the nuts and bolts of writing strong lines and solid stanzas.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge called poetry “the best words in the best order.”

==I think of a poem as a flashlight, an instrument of discovery.

==Poetry is a way of seeing life and establishing a connection to the world.

==Poetry, in this sense, is perhaps a way for readers and writers to experience a different sort of timeline: one that experiences histories not in terms of boundary disputes, inventions, truces, and wars, but through the way such events have made us feel. Poetry is a living history of the human heart: a testament to the romance, rather than linearity, of time.

==Essay: “Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader” in The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2001).

The pleasures of poetry:

  • pleasure of dance (rhythm)
  • pleasure of sound (words)
  • pleasure of travel (using written work to transport us to different worlds)
  • pleasure of metaphoric connection (surprise and new perspectives)
  • pleasure of companionship (memorization)
  • others

==Travel is a good metaphor for poems: start somewhere you know, end up in an unfamiliar place.

Poetry is romance of time. Time is running out. Carpe diem! Live more.

02 - Working with Form

The Love of Strangers

==Writing is all about the love of strangers.

Poetry starts as a covert activity.

Poems are expression of feelings that are no longer embarrassing.

==Poetry is a diary without the lock, a diary you want people to read.

Connect With Strangers Through Form

==Form is anything that keeps a poem together.

The reader comes to a book of poems not because they are interested in you but because they love poetry.

==To connect to your reader, you need to tell a lie that you love poetry more than you love yourself.

==Show that you love poetry (not just self-expression) through form.

Yates: “All that is personal will rot if it is not packed in ice and salt.” (ice and salt means rhyme and meter)

==Rhyme and meter are the preservatives that kept poetry together for centuries.

The Shapeliness of Poetry

==Blank space is silence. Poetry is a displacement of silence. Prose is a continuation of noise.

Poetry has a shape.

An airtight definition of poetry from Henry Taylor:

==A poem is an arrangement of lines whose length is determined by some principle other than the width of the page.

The poem is always guiding back your attention into a compress shape.

The title

The title is the welcome mat or marquee outside a movie theatre.

==Do not sum up the poem in the title.

==Titles shouldn’t draw too much attention or be puzzling. Titles should create access to the first few lines.

The first few lines

==The first few lines of the poem should contain something that is easy to accept.

==Start with the setting of where you are. Do not make demands. Just make it easy. Once the reader is inside the room, you can shut the door, and you can start making demands.

Analogy: eye chart

Line and stanza

==When he starts a poem, he writes in sentences. After he writes the first sentence, he assumes that that will be a stanza. If it needs four lines to get that out, it is a quatrain.

==After that, he writes another quatrain.

==Each stanza is a standalone stanza.

==After writing three stanzas and the poem feels boxy, he lets it go. Perhaps it is meant to be a three-line stanza.

==If the poem still does not want that, he considers using stanzas with unequal length.

==Stanza = room (in Italian). You are taking the reader into a tour room by room.

How to end a line?

  • ==Don’t cut a line into two unprofitably. For example: The whiskers of the cat
  • When you cut lines unintentionally, your reader gets distracted.
  • ==Let the lines form the progress of the reader

Poem example: ==Elk River Falls

Two lessons from Anton Chekov:

  1. Use very specific details—the particulars of experience—to keep the story anchored to external reality. ==Use detail to anchor a poem.
  2. ==Use inconclusive or “soft endings.” Do not try to solve problems. The endings of your poems do not have to resolve anything. Use a “soft ending” by ending your poem with an image.

Read Anton Chekhov’s

  • ==Misery
  • ==The Lady with the Lap Dog

03 - Discovering the Subject

Write What You Want to Write About

Literary ages and their dominant subject matters

  • Elizabethan period = romantic and courtly love
  • English Romantic poets = nature

To advance poetry, violate rules.

Don’t be someone who adheres to the rules so much that you don’t write about what you really want to write about.

==Write poems about subjects that have never been written about yet.

Examples of poets who have written in unchartered territories

  • ==To a Locomotive in Winter by Walt Whitman
  • ==Satan Says by Sharon Olds (anger to parents)
  • ==The Sense of Movement by Thom Gunn (Elvis Presely)
  • ==Oatmeal by Galway Kinnell

==The choice of subject is where you can exploit the imaginistic potential of poetry.

==You can be anywhere, you can do anything, you can be anything in poetry.

Don’t censor yourself.

The Subject You Start With and the Subject You Discover

A poem progresses from a small thing to a big thing, from a concrete thing to an abstract thing. See The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo.

Poetry has two subjects:

  1. The subject you start with
  2. The subject you discover as you go along

==The first subject just starts the poem but leaves it once you discover what the poem is really about.

Read: ==The Lanyard by Billy Collins

  • The word lanyard triggered the image of the object, which triggered a memory of making a lanyard in camp, which triggers a memory of his mother.
  • ==Choose a topic that is large and choose an image as point of entry.

Don’t Think About the Theme

==When composing poetry, you can let go of thinking about the theme and instead think:

  • ==How does a poem go?
  • ==How does a poem behave?

See ==How Does a Poem Mean? by John Ciardi

==Instead of extracting the poem’s meaning and throwing it away to go somewhere else, spend more time in thinking about how the poem develops.

Poems don’t come down from heaven. They’re from real people, written by real hands through trial and error.

==Think of a poem as a moving thing: think of the hydraulics of the poem, the travel of the poem, the turning points, how the poet is working, and how is it ending.

==Think of the poem as sniffing out a way into itself not really knowing where it is going and then discovering a way to end.

Know When to Be Clear and When to Be Mysterious

Clarity and mystery is in every poem. Each has a place in poetry.

==Good poems were written by poets who know when to be clear and when to be mysterious.

04 - Writing the Poem

Carry a Little Notebook

==Billy does not sit down to write. When he sits down, he already has something in his mind to write about.

==“You are not a poet all the time but you can be a poet when you’re not writing poetry.”

  • Look around and observe images.
  • When you sit down to write, you are more relaxed.

Jump-Start Your Writing

==Wordsworth talks about a “wise passivity”: open yourself up by settling your mind in a meditative way and wait for things to come in.

More active ways to trigger your writing

  1. ==Take a poem of someone else’s and write an imitation.
  2. ==Use someone else’s first line.
  3. ==Write five first lines in different pages and see which ones lead to second or thirds.
  4. ==At the end of the day or in the morning of the next one, write 20 things you did that day or the day before. Don’t write chronologically. Just write as things pop out. Wait for connections between the lines to come.

Start at the Beginning

==Billy writes at the beginning until it ends. He seldom writes through backfilling (starting at the end).

He writes a poem in one sitting. Readers could sense a mosaic poem that has been written in the course of months and where words were changed.

==Stick with the poem until its done. You can’t be in the same river twice.

Let the Poem Guide You

==If there is something that is distracting you while you are writing the poem, put it in the poem. Maybe it belongs there.

Don’t be too stringent. ==Let the poem lead you to one way or another.

William Butler Yates differentiated

  1. ==Poems written by memory - lesser type as they describe what you already know and remember; recounts past experience
  2. ==Poems written by imagination - unpredictable and unexpected

==Let go of the topic. Let surprise surprise you.

How to surprise yourself when writing a poem

  • ”Hold the pen lightly.”
  • ==“Enter the poem without deadly commitment to staying with the topic.”
  • ==“Have a literary sense of adventure.”

05 - Writing Process

Billy Collins’ process

  • ==Writes in a notebook with a pen or pencil so he can make a mess (cross outs).
  • ==Writes one good line after another.
  • ==Crosses out lines or stanzas that don’t work.
  • ==It is important to not delete the mistakes, i.e., to see the process of how you are getting to the next good line or revisions.
  • ==Billy brings the poem on the computer to see how it looks on the page.
  • Poems should look like flags (left aligned, the right is wagged).
  • ==“Dress” your poems based on their purpose.
  • Revise by organizing the statue of the poem.
  • ==Lots of staring involve at the poem.

Make a Mess

==Don’t be disappointed with a poem that you started but seems not to get anywhere. Keep doing it and a good poem will arise, which could only have risen because of the previous writings.

==Your poems are part of your recording of life and, therefore, will mix with the other stuff.

Writing “Grand Central”

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe

and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.

Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling

under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.

Usually, he finds a point of insertions, which are the first few lines. They are the gate to the poem. These don’t change. It’s essential that that opening is a good sense of beginning.

==Add words based on “ear decision” (e.g., “moving hive”)

“Stars” and “are” go together (ear decision).

”When and where” are steps toward an ending

==When writing prose, you almost always feel like you writing can be re-drafted. Bettered. However, when writing poetry, you almost always know that the words you chose and their placement were careful and intentional.

06 - Reading: Connecting with Poetry

Poetry can make people tense because even if you speak and read the language you may not know what a poem means.

Poetry asks for more participation from readers than any other form of writing.

Forms of writing can be placed into an spectrum of easily understandable writing and ambiguous writing. At the opposite end of a cookbook is poetry.

==A poem has more than one meaning.

One of the joys of poetry is you can’t say one thing at a time.

==A mature way to look at ambiguity is that it enriches the poem. It gives the poem more texture and interest if the poem can support two to three readings.

==Each reading of the poem is complementary rather than competitive. One reading shouldn’t be more right than the other.

The Ambiguity of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”

A popular poem assumed by many to be about making major decisions in life.

It seems that one way is different from the other.

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

But before that he said:

Then took the other, as just as fair,

Then he said (as he continues to qualify):

Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same,

Therefore, Frost is blurring the difference between the two roads. The choice was not clear.

He continued:

And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black.

No one has walked on either paths that morning. They were about the same.

The poem is usually taken as in favor of individuality, not going with the crowd. But there is so much in this poem that blurs that black and white distinction.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

A sigh can be ambiguous: relief? remorse? regret?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

It is unclear what that difference is: regrettable? disastrous?

In the beginning of the poem, Frost was undecided. The decision-making was a coin toss. But at the end, Frost was resolute. He sounded grandfatherly, avuncular.

The poem was intentionally full of mess.

Interpretive Pressure

==The more you know one poet, the more interpretive pressure to put on them.

==Poets in terms of intelligibility

  1. ==Easy. Charles Bukowski is a clear poet. What he says is what he does.
  2. ==Medium. Emily Dickinson has a more complicated use of language: elliptical language, references are compressed, not someone talking to you, constructs a little puzzle, pleasures and rhyme to be derived.
  3. ==Hard. Hart Crane or Wallace Stevens. Crossword puzzles. They demand you to work hard on their poems.

Collins read Hart Crane in graduate school.

Hart Crane’s The Bridge

The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene Never disclosed, but hastened to again, Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver paced As though the sun took step of thee yet left Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,— Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning, A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

The poem is dense. Not necessarily have to be decoded. But that the words need to be pried a bit to find a room between them. You can do that by close examination.

Leave Your Footprints on the Margin

==Leave signs of your passage through this page or book on the margins. This results to two pieces of text: the poem and your take of the poem.

==Your notes don’t have to be about understanding the poem. Leave question marks for puzzling lines, asterisks for lines you want to return to, or exclamation points for surprising lines.

Personalize the book.

It’s having a conversation with a poet.

A Cautionary Tale Against Interpretation

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

==Just have a quick glimpse at it.

hold it up to the light

==Listen to the sounds or hum of the poem.

press an ear against its hive.

==Experience a poem as place. Use light in case it is unclear.

walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.

==Respect the surface of the poem even the name of the poet.

I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem

07 - Discussion with Marie Howe: Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is a poet of real delicacy and decorum.

  • 4 beats then 3 beats
  • She doesn’t know what to say every time but she always had that common meter waiting for her (Ole King Cole, nursery rhymes).
  • The quatrains are little boxes waiting for her.
  • Meanwhile, she is dealing with extreme states: live burial, a breakdown.
  • Tension: Decorous and mannerly language + Frightening extremities she’s dealing with
  • Capitalizes nouns
  • Uses commas and dashes
  • Emily Dickinson has domesticated her extreme states and survived them. This is where she is treasured.
  • She has nerves of steel.
  • ==She is one of the few poets that besides the common meter she uses seems a pure original. Difficult to say she was influenced.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)

  • She is a surrealist in this poem.
  • Hard to pin down the meaning of the last stanza
  • The state of breaking down again and again

And I, and Silence, some strange Race, Wrecked, solitary, here -

Almost like science fiction. Physical. Being squished into a wall.

And Finished knowing - then -

Continuous. She entered the realm of what cannot be said.

08 - Discussion with Marie Howe: William Shakespeare

Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mays in me behold

  • Metaphors: He compares himself to a certain time of the year
  • In the four quatrains he describes emanating death through different metaphors. Then at the couplet, he says, if you understand this your love will be strong because you love something that is leaving.
  • The wordings of the last line is tricky. He is dying, but he said she is the one who is leaving. He turns it funnily around.
  • A Korean poem said that when someone one loves dies, the one left is the one who had died not the one who died.
  • ”To love that well.” Who is that “that”? Why is it treated as a thing not a person? Even if it is him. That can also mean “them” or “this."
  • "When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” The conventional way is to say, “When yellow leaves, or few, or none, do hang.” He corrects himself. He is doing that for the sake of sound also. But also a beautiful intentionality.
  • ”Bare ruin’d choirs” - popular line. Metaphor: bare branches = choir lofts in a church where birds used to sing. The lines before it follow iambic pentameter. But “Bare ruin’d choirs” is not iambic. And then the next part returns to iambic again. He combines sound with image, so you see the image more.
  • Second quatrain: sunset, end of the day. “black night doth take away.” He calls night a metaphor for death: “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.” (a good metaphor for sleeping but being sealed up sounds claustrophobic)
  • It darkens as the poem goes along.

==Shakespeare sonnet

  • ==Three quatrains
  • ==One couplet
  • ==The sonnet is the first conventional form in which a turn is required (either after 8th or 12th line). Usually, the couplet, the turn is a turn back to the poem. Shakespeare writes it and turns around and says, “I wrote that?” It is a moment of self-consciousness.
  • ==The sonnet became very popular during the Renaissance when the idea of the individual and self-consciousness was being foregrounded

Joseph Bratsky advice

  • ==Read down to see what rhymes, the words that rhyme together may give more meaning to something
  • Long rhymes with strong

09 - Sound Pleasures

For a long time, form = rhymes + meter.

==Form provided stability and predictability. You don’t know what the poem will say but you feel at ease on the hands of the poet.

==Modern poetry can still have this musicality but in a less concentrated and predictable way.

The Disappearance of Rhyme and Meter

==Whitman was the first to remove regular meter and rhyme away. He removed those two training wheels but the bicycle kept going.

This started a debate in the 1850s whether Song of Myself was poetry or not. One professor said, if this is not poetry, it is something greater than poetry.

==Walt Whitman

  • ==had a general radical vision of himself as a poet.
  • ==great self advertiser
  • ==as a social and sexual liberator, he saw himself as a liberator of verse
  • ==He knew that if he will remove rhyme and meter, he needs to replace it with something. He used some devices:
    • ==anaphora: the lines begin the same way; instead of regularities at the end of the line, they are at the beginning (e.g., Crossing Brooklyn Ferry); he must’ve gotten it from liturgical prayer or Bible; chant

How to Establish Trust With Your Reader

==When you establish trust in your reader by designing the form to create some predictability, you make it easier for the reader to accept the content of the poem. We know a little about what’s going to happen but we don’t know everything that’s going to happen.

Knowing and not knowing is a very pleasurable and familiar state of consciousness.

Without rhyme and meter, readers are really in the dark. We lose this pleasurable and familiar state of consciousness.

How can we compensate as writers of contemporary poetry?

==You can still use rhyme but put it inside the poem rather than just at the end (internal rhyme). Poetry can still provide musical pleasure but not in a predictable way.

Illustrate: “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

  • Intentional beat
  • Vowels that echo each other are sprinkled throughout the poem

Speech Rhythms

Revision = Seeing again

==He works at the poem until it is done.

==When he revises it the next day, he makes adjustments on sound for it to sound better and cadence, making it run and bounce better.

==Speech rhythms (from Robert Frost): He wanted to make poetry sound natural. Wordsworth also wanted to do this. His preface to Lyrical Ballad said he wanted to write in the speaking language of men, just how people talk—flowing, conversational. You can do that and still have rhythm. Daily speech has rhythm. We emphasize some words and not others.

Be attentive to these speech rhythms.

==Listen to poetry you like and how people talk.

==When you’re writing or revising a poem, be conscious of how it sounds. Read all your poems out loud. Read poetry to dogs or fish or parakeet.

10 - Playing a Visible Game

==To compensate with your lack of rhyme and meter, “play a visible game.” This will help with improving the predictability of your poem.

==Turn over cards at the beginning of the poem to let the reader know what’s going to happen in the future. Answer what game are we playing here? What’s the pattern?


“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird” by Wallace Stevens

  • He used roman numerals to signify that the poem consists 13 stanzas which say how to look at a black bird.

”Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand” by Charles Simic

  • We know something. We are lead through each finger with expectation and surprise.

Visible Game in “Questions About Angels”

==Announce what you’re going to do in the title.

There is a build up of questions and this creates some pressure to the poet to stop asking questions.

As the writer, an answer came to him, which became the beginning of the end of the poem. “One angel.”

Shift from the religious to the secular.

==Sometimes you look back to a poem and realize: the purpose of this poem is to discover its own ending.

  • Billy won’t be able to create that one angel without the lines before that led to its creation.

==When writing the poem, poets are really thinking about one thing: how do they get out of the poem? How do we stop? How do we find a place of settlement where I don’t want to say anything anymore and you don’t want to hear anything anymore.

==The beauty of a poem can be measured by the degree of silence it creates when you say the last line.

11 - Turning a Poem

When a poem is underway, would you like it to follow a straight line of reasoning or do you want it to turn, swerve, or bend in some unexpected direction?

==John Ashbury: Many poems in their course of composition go off an unexpected direction and that is poetry. Poetry is the swerving away.


  • ==chronological turn
  • ==change your addressee (who you’re talking to)

The Turn in “Baloney” by Louis Jenkins

From an erotic scene Food (how to play with your food) Ending: The food became a lens of looking at the world (rises to the level of epistemology)

She retreats from the erotic scene and goes to a pre-sexual innocence of a baloney sandwich maker.

==As a writer, trust your own associations. If one thing reminds you of a memory, that is fine if you turn into the territory of that memory.

==William Stafford: If he wrote five lines, the sixth line belonged there because he wrote it.

==Your authorial sovereignty over your poem should allow including associations that otherwise might seem crazy.

The Turn in “Monday”

Has an odd and inexplicable turn at the end.

==People who write fiction and plays are standing outside people’s houses and spying on them. The poet however is inside that house looking at the window and telling readers what he sees.

Being Playful With Your Reader

In some cases, the ending of the poem reveals that the poet has not been completely upfront about his or her intentions.

”Wan Chu’s Wife in Bed” by Richard Jones

In the entire poem we were set up. She has infidelity.

”8 Count” by Charles Bukowski

==Being playful with your reader can be a good alternative to deep sincerity.

12 - Discussion with Marie Howe: “What the Living Do”

Came to her after a long writing day: working on 4–5 poems at once. She pushed everything aside and said she’ll just write a letter to her dead brother.

Some poems are preceded by other incomplete poems.

Billy’s comments

  • The poem is all around in time. It jumps.
  • In the middle of this everyday chaos, she is thinking…
  • The everyday is what the living do.
  • In praise of being alive.
  • The everyday is compared to that of the dead. But this comparison, that she is here, intensifies her being alive.
  • The last line sounds so sure of themselves. Same with “This is what the living do.” You earned this simplicity by sharing the actual everyday experience.
  • This happens in ==Shakespeare’s poems: he stops at the end and looks back at what he wrote. This looking back is more sure of himself, more direct.
  • ==You were not writing a poem here. You were writing a letter to Johnny, which turn out to be an amazing poem.


  • Struggled with the ending
  • Suggestions she got from a friend in the early draft:
    • Don’t say fork. It’s comic. Say utensil.
    • Don’t say nose it’s like fork. chapped face instead of chapped nose
    • ”I am living. I remember you.” (blunt)
  • What she wants is to transmit the idea that she contains the beloved within her. So she’s extra alive.
  • ”We want…” repeated as if he is still alive. Wanting more is the definition of romanticism.
  • The “but” is the resistance to the wanting more. There are moments when everything is enough. ==Some poets use but to turn the poem or say but this is also true. This process is self-consciousness.
  • ==Sometimes, she needs to understand who is she speaking to. This really helps her. She can’t speak to the general reader often.
  • ==We’re alive and we’re gonna die. Poetry knows that. We live in time. Poetry reminds us of that because we always forget. Poetry holds the exquisite tension of that.

13 - Discussion with Marie Howe: “The Death of the Hat”


  • ==Your poems often don’t immediately announce what they’re not about.
  • But the term “ashen newsreels” already predicted the ending. “Ashen newsreels” great to describe black and white.
  • ”But” the turn: We’re not like those guys. “But today we go bareheaded // into the winter streets //“
  • A second turn: “Today” which brings us to Billy Collins’ imaginative world. The house “wear cold white hats of snow.” The mice with “their thin fur hats.”
  • Third turn: “And now”
  • Saying that your father wears a hat of earth is a cheerful way of saying, he’s buried.
  • ==Billy’s poems have tenderness, humor, real grief, love
  • He could’ve just said, “And now my father,” but he included “after a life of work”
  • wear, father, earth (assonance, rhyming); that, hat


  • His father came later.
  • He was provoked by watching old movies. It was a poem about wearing hats as a fashion.
  • The poem ended up being an elegy for his father.
  • People laugh at “peas and a baked potato”
  • From the 50s, we turn to today where the hat becomes a metaphor for death.
  • The hat of wind makes it all disappear—ending.
  • The “hat” is a keyhole to the larger thing (Note: Like Thoreau: local cosmos)
  • His father went to the poem because of a joke he did with his coworker concerning hats.

These poems are elegiac but not formal elegies. A formal elegy calls upon nature. Marie’s is a letter. Billy’s is a poem that pretends to be about the hat but becomes an elegy. ==They are both disguising their true intention. The intention is to reveal instead of announce in the title.

Both poems are infused with joy or love that wasn’t only grief. They’re also about time that passes.

14 - Finding Your Voice: Influences

The initial assumption is that you find your voice within through introspection and that once you find it the poems will just get out of you.

==Billy believes that your voice has an external source and that it doesn’t lie within you. He believes that your voice is in the voice of other poets.

==You develop a voice by copying, imitating, and lifting from these poets.

==Billy learned intimacy from Whitman (e.g., Crossing Brooklyn Ferry). Whitman formed a sense of brotherhood with his reader.

==Billy learned elliptical writing from Dickinson: jumping from one thing and another. She also got rid of the connectives that clutter poems and are better used in prose.

==From Frost, Billy learned being gradual in revealing the meaning of the poem and leaving ambiguities in it. He also learned rhyme and meter.

==When you hear an original voice, what you are really hearing is the voice of several poets combined in an ingenious way that you can’t trace them back to the sources.

Experiencing Literary Jealousy

==You won’t be a poet unless you experience literary jealousy (literary influence but felt like jealousy).

==If you feel envious with one poet, take one of his poems and read it over and over again and look how they did it.

  • ==Notice the turns they did in the poem and how they did it.
  • ==Consider how you can do the same in your poetry.
  • ==You can also use the beginning of someone’s poem and take it in a different direction


  1. ==Begin your poem with a very simple description.
  2. ==This seduces your reader.
  3. ==Then take it in a different direction.

Influences: “The Mower” by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin influenced him in his 20s.

Larkin used a narrative and then ended with a two-line moral: this is where he turned.

The use of the word “careful” was important because he was “careless” when he accidentally killed the hedgehog.

Influences: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

English romantic poet best known for his supernatural poems.

Coleridge has another set of poems called the Conversation Poems.

A lot of his poems start at home: staring out the window, lying in bed, in a hammock.

But he starts with what’s around him: domestic, middle class surroundings. Then takes the reverie forward.

==Start at home.

Finding Your Voice: Creating a Persona

==Most issues of craft and how to write a poem are solved once you have a persona because the way you write are just the mannerisms of your persona.

The persona is a character.

If you’re a poet, just invent one character and you’re done.

==The persona is a voice that is yours, a result of reading, but you are very comfortable with it and you own it.

Illustration: “Digging” by Seamus Heaney

He wrote this poem and read it back and realized that no one else could’ve written it but him. That means he discovered his persona.

==When you read something back and you know you are only the one who could write it, that’s your persona.

==But you won’t know that unless you’ve done a lot of reading. You need to read a lot.

==Without reading (enough), you’ll never find a persona. You won’t have the surety that this voice is just yours.

Draw From Your Own Personality

Most of the time, we’re too nice when writing poetry. We put a lot of ourselves in the closet and we show a better self, more sensitive, more in tune with the motions.

==Billy suggests, get that true self out of the closet and bring that into your poem.

==Use your temperament, tonal voice, sounding, sense of humor. In short, your personality.

==Your voice is your personality + the poets you’ve absorbed.

==You’re never alone when you write. You’re with all those writers who taught you how to write.

My Persona: A Person of Leisure

It took him a while to develop a persona. In high school, he started by imitating all the wrong people: Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

Billy's persona has a personality which he introduces in the first lines or later. He is a person of leisure: no job, an aesthete (has a taste in music and arts), falls in speculations and meditations, he has a high-level of curiosity about things, not very ambitious, hammock or couch thinking about things. He has all the time in the world.

==A poem is a casual talk in the beginning then later intensifies then changes or turns into something else as it is bored in the casualness.

Transparent eyeball: viewing things in the present moment (Emerson)

==He is not an autobiographical poet. He does not write from memories. He is activated in the present. A poet of present observation.

16 - Humor as a Serious Strategy

When he started writing poetry, you can’t write funny in poetry. It was dead serious.

==Humor is always authentic. You can pretend to be serious but it’s so difficult to pretend to be funny. You’re either funny or you’re not.

English poetry find a place for humor right at its beginning.

  • Chaucer’s tales are funny, esp. the miller’s tale.
  • Shakespeare wrote comedies.
  • Metaphysical poets relied on wit (The Revival by Henry Vaughan).
  • Augustinian poets (John Dryden) relied on satire.
  • Humor stopped among the romantic poets.
    • Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley eliminated sex and humor from poetry and substituted it with landscape.
    • Very little sex in poetry in the 19th century and no humor until the 1950s.
    • If you wrote humorous poems from 19th century to 1950s, your work will be consigned to “light verse” (e.g. Ogden Nash).
    • Bill Matthews said the trouble with light verse is that it wants to be funny all the way through from the first to the last line.

Kenneth Koch and other New York school poets esp. Phillip Larkin West Coats poets like Ron Koertge Lawrence Ferlinghetti

These poets told Billy you can be funny without being silly. ==You can use humor for serious intents.

==Humor makes you feel broadened and expansive. It physically takes you when you have a laughing fit.

==Use it in short measure, fit. Show the reader that you can use puns and wordplay.

”Seriously Funny” a collection of funny poems.

==Humor can be used to engage or get the reader on your side.

Humor in “The Swan at Edgewater Park” by Ruth L. Schwartz

Some poets monopolize a subject. Yates wrote a lot about the swan so it’s difficult to write a poem about swans. Poets can corner landscape, animals, or activities.

While Clevelanders walk by saying Look at that big duck!

People laugh at that line.

Then she suddenly makes a jump:

Beauty isn’t the point here; of course the swan is beautiful, But not like Lorie at 16

She just used Lorie to tell you about the swan and disingenuous.

A position joke.

==The emotion of poems cannot be captured by a word in the dictionary. Poems mix different moods together.

==They’re only a few number of emotions but different shades of them. Like color.

==A poem’s title is the name of an emotion. The poem is the definition of that emotion.

17 - Student Discussion: “My (Muslim) Father Seizes the Thing On My Nightstand” by Sarah Iqbal

==She always writes her poems by long hand first. And she’ll rewrite them every time by hand (as Billy does).

==A poem that nears finish has been rewritten 10-20 times. Her notebooks are repetitive.

When she put the poem on a Word doc, it became more complicated to read because of the spacing.

Her poem is original in that it ==uses space for a specific purpose. When reading the poem one has to pause to reflect these spaces.

She got the idea of using these spaces from reading ==Shane McCrae’s Mule.

She took the idea and made it more physical, to make you feel like you’re living in it.

The spaces created tension because there’s no flow. An act of brutality becomes in slow motion making it more horrible.

The reader can feel her hesitation to go forward. The poem was difficult to write.

==The experience needed a form that did justice.

==Sometimes you need to wait for the right form for something to give it beautiful justice.

The reading is meant to show that the speaker doesn’t necessarily know what to say next.

Suspenseful. We don’t know what he is picking up. Double irony: muslim father. Picks up the wrong book. Weaponizes the Bible (Jesus as peaceful persona).

The repetitions have a numbing effect.

”I’m saying” repeated I can’t believe I’m actually saying this. Also to get someone’s attention: “Here’s what I’m saying.”

My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke

Ending: The entrance of the mother shows that the context of the beating is isolated. The mother is somewhere else just lighting candles. Where is she lighting candles to? The same Jesus? The same Bibles?

You can use the same thing for good and evil.

Whatever happened in that room doesn’t have to be like that.

The revelation of what the weapon is is handled very well.

  • We don’t know the thing yet.
  • Then it becomes the Bible.
  • Brick
  • Brick can be used to build a house
  • Bricks are used to build a house where a brick-like Bible is weaponized to hit a child

Because of the spacing, it becomes not a recounting but really brings us into the experience.

The reader is almost implicated.

18 - Student Discussion: “The Crash” by Paul Epland

The cat is an amazing way to end a violent poem.

It spends a lot of energy describing the violence of the crash.

the smoldering thing with its creased aluminum pricking the air, its roof folded inwards and squinting.

he rejected his own metaphor

At this moment the reader realizes that he is talking to them.

The poem is consciously developing its own metaphor.

A poem about observing something.

Turn: Second to the last stanza.

They have dragged me onto the pavement

When this happened, Billy thinks the poet knows that the poem is about to end.

Final move: Go back home, leave the scene of the crash

The speaker is dead but he’s able to see back home

Billy’s question: Will the reader be able to make that jump with you that you (the speaker) are dead but still know what’s happening at home.

Suggestion: “Back at home”, make the turn more emphatic.

The speaker is very interesting.

The crash unifies it.

Read the poem by Karl Shapiro “Auto Wreck.”

Discussion with Marie Howe: Writing Poetry

Some parts of poetry can be taught while others can't. Billy thinks he can’t transfer some things in him to others.

==Free write. Just write. Get beyond the will. Give up the need to write something good that reflects on you.

==Marie writes and writes until everything that needs to be said is said and something occurs that has never happened before.

==Marie said she doesn’t want to write “poetry” but wants to go beyond it.

  • Poets she love with compelling voices: John Donne.
  • ==Their living voice makes her feel spoken to.
  • ==Feels contemporary no matter how old it was written.
  • ==Their are poems she threw out because all of the things she wrote she already knew. There’s no discovery.
  • ==The writing of the poem is the experience. It is not a record of an experience. Even if you are writing about something that happened before, it has to be a new experience in writing about it. There has to be a new discovery in recalling it. Why do you want to recall it? What occurs this minute that you’re recalling it?
  • ==Language: the experience and the telling of it intertwines that it is said in a way that cannot be said any other way.

==Billy writes his poems in one sitting. He wants to be so connected with it he doesn’t want to go away.

  • ==By doing this, he wants the reader to notice that the poem indeed is an experience for him—the act of composition is an experience.

==Marie writes a lot of things, lets them pile up, she doesn’t get up in the middle of the experience, she stays as hard as she can. But if she’s reached as far as she can go, she’ll leave it in the desk. Later she goes back to the poems and does more things to them. Sometimes some things drop away from them.

When Billy is done, they’re done, at least the conceptual run is done. Revisions are on cadence and musicality.

==Billy always has a first line. Then either Billy feels the poem rolling forth and the first line has something that needs to be unpacked and this rolls until the end. Or the poem is uncooperative. It doesn’t want to go anywhere. Lies flat. No vibes. It’s waste basket time for him.

For Marie, she feels like she’s in a dark room feeling for a portal. It takes her a while to find that portal.

Billy writes more than Marie. It takes years before Marie gets a book going.

Writing is a joy but it also should be a practice.

==Billy just writes haikus for practice (5-7-5).

  • ==Haikus look at you with indifference.
  • ==They don’t care about your self-expressive desires.
  • Doesn’t care about your career.
  • Restriction sometimes improve or not improve your poem.

==Write a poem that when you shake it it won’t rattle or nothing will fall out. Read it out loud 40 times. This will reveal words you don’t need. Every time, look for something that shouldn’t be there.

==Read your poems in front of an audience. There are many kinds of silence.

  • You can hear changes in silence.
  • Deep respectful silence
  • Dead silence

A Poet’s Journey

Poetry came to Billy slowly.

He wanted to be a poet since he was in high school.

He started fooling around with words.

Billy’s father was not a poetic type but brought home Poetry magazine to Billy in high school.

In Poetry magazine, Billy read contemporary poetry. At school he read traditional poems by male, dead, with beards, with three names.

Contemporary poetry talked to Billy using the language of everyday life.

==He would find words that go together that shouldn’t but are cool and marked these on the margin. He appreciated the verbal sparks of the poems even without comprehending them.

==Patrick Cavanaugh answer when asked how he became a poet: I started fooling around with words and at some point it became my life.

Getting Published

He wanted to be a poet but it was an aspirational wanting.

==He didn’t know how to be one: maybe write poems in the side, keep it secret, get published in a magazine, have a book a poetry and sell a thousand copies, and that’s it.

==Being published in poetry is a big deal, a big step. There are lots of unpublished poets.

==His first two books were chapbooks published by presses that have now disappeared.

  • Pokerface: Poems by Billy Collins (25 pages), put together by a hippy couple in LA. Literally handmade.
  • These chapbooks were what he had under his belt until he reached his forties.

==He was published in very tiny magazines other people hadn’t heard of. He reached a point of desperation and anger where he didn’t care about where he got published.

This changed gradually.

==Something very important happened with an editor named Miller Williams at the University of Arkansas Press. He sent 40 poems to this editor he never met. He sent the poems back with 17 or so poems with paper clips and included a brief note: The poems I have paper clipped, you have something there. The other poems do not live up to the standard set by those poems. If you can write more poems that with the paper clips, I’ll publish your book.

That was enough for Billy to put the pedal on the metal.

He threw all the other poems. Held on to the paper clipped poems. In the next two years, he dedicated himself to writing poems up to the standard of those poems.

==Those paper clips were his MFA. Miller Williams showed him where he was good and asked him to live up to that standard. Instead of importing another poet’s standard and making you live up to it.

Live up to your best.

First book: The Apple to the Storage Paris

The Road You Choose

==Whether to get an MFA or not. It depends on your temperament. If you like being around other people and you like the experience of seeing other people’s poems and having your poems looked at, MFA is a good option.

==An MFA is not necessary though. You can do it by yourself.

==Good work will always float to the top.

==Lots of writers enter the scene later in life (40s) like Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium.

==You don’t have to be a child prodigy. You can be a middle-aged prodigy.

==Don’t be downtrodden by rejection. The practical reason is that when your poem is rejected, there are probably 7 other reasons besides the quality of your poems why they were sent back.

==Don’t take it personally. It could be a lot of external factors that nothing to do with your value.

The Club You Join

==Read voraciously so you’ll know what you can contribute. What has been said and how. This makes your journey more challenging because you want to know how to make an original contribution. You want to find a distinctive style.

This comes if it comes at all with great practice.

==It’s okay to try out other voices.

  • ==Write out a poem you really like by someone else. When you do this, you’ll duplicate the physical motions of the original poet.
  • They say the poem out loud.

These practices lead you to an intimate relationship with craft and history of poetry.


For exercises, see Billy Collins Masterclass Exercises.