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Whether you just want to learn to express yourself more convincingly or how to read and write poetry, Billy Collins’ poetry masterclass is a must. Billy’s fun, yet practical, approach to learning to read and write poetry means this course will work for most people.
Poetry – the history of the human heart
Billy starts by explaining why poetry is worth exploring. He describes it as a historical record of the human heart. I did no 100% agreed with him when I started the course. But, by the end of it, I understood what he meant.
Working with form when writing poetry
In this lesson, Billy outlines the various elements of a piece of poetry and starts to explain how each of them can be used to draw the reader in. How to seduce them, take their hand and lead them through your poetry. At this point, he explains how to lay a poem out on the page, which is far more important than I realized.
At this point, you really need to download the workbook and do, or at least read, the exercises contained within it. Doing that should help you to better follow what Billy is trying to teach you. The first time I did this section of the course, quite frankly, even with Billy’s explanations, I was totally lost. However, when I read the workbook and went through the video again, things made a bit more sense.
Discovering your subject
There’s no chronology involved in poetry. You can go anywhere. You can be anywhere. You can fly.Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry Masterclass
If you want to write freely, poetry is a good medium for you. With poetry, there is no plot to lay out and guide your readers through. You are not restricted at all.
You can write about something simple and explore it in any way you wish. Billy’s poem The Lanyard is literally about a lanyard.
But, it is also about him making one for his mother. How he felt when giving it to her and how he imagined she felt. It also explains what he thinks the lanyard is representative of in their relationship and is a reflection on the relationship a child has with their parent.
It is truly amazing to see how much he packs into such a short piece of text. Reading it makes you realize that poetry needs to be re-read and savored if you want to get the most out of it. Billy recommends that you start your journey into poetry by looking around you, selecting something and simply writing about it.
How to write your poem
Usually, Billy only sits down to write when he has an idea. That can happen any time, so, he carries a notepad around with him to capture those moments of inspiration. Once, he got caught short, so to speak, without a pen. So, ended up visiting a bank so he could use one of their pens to turn a moment of inspiration into a poem.
However, sometimes inspiration just will not come. For that situation, Billy has several tricks and exercises that he uses to trigger ideas in his mind. They include:
- Listing out what he did the day before
- Re-writing someone’s poem to get the creative process going
- Pausing and looking around you, picking an incident or moment and writing about it
Billy explains each of these techniques in detail. He also walks you through his writing process. How he gets his first thoughts down, turns them into a draft, hones that draft, types it up, lays it out on the page and produces the final version of his poem.
You will enjoy the bit where he shows you his extraordinary notebook. I would love to see him publish one of them, one day so I can get a proper look at it.
Learning to read poetry
As a non-poet, I was quite keen to get to this section of the course. I have tried to read poetry. But, I have usually ended up feeling frustrated because the meaning is rarely clear enough for me. I thought that was due to my inability to comprehend what was on the page.
After taking this section of the course, I realized I had been looking at poetry all wrong. Poetry is meant to be thought-provoking. It is a rich medium that enables the poet to pack a lot into a small amount of text.
At one point, Billy read The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, line by line, twice. He did this to demonstrate how one poem could be read and understood in different ways. For me, that was a lightbulb moment.
I realized poetry needs to be read quietly and slowly. You need to savor it and take the time to think about what you are reading. As Billy says, I need to “stop tieing it to a chair and torturing it”.
Billy Collins and Marie Howe discuss poetry
Don’t be tempted to skip past the videos in which Billy Collins discusses poems and writing techniques with his fellow poet Marie Howe. They read Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare and tease out how both writers create a compelling picture for their readers. They discuss the rhythm of the piece, the words used and the ideas that are expressed to add texture and help the reader to engage emotionally.
Later in the course, Marie explains how a letter to her brother turned into her acclaimed poem “What the Living Do”. Potentially, you could use the same approach.
You will also enjoy watching them discuss how “The Death of the Hat” evolved from being literally a poem about a hat to being about Billy’s father (check it out here). It is a classic example of how a familiar object can stir memories and emotions that provides inspiration. It is clear that Billy knows how to spot that spark of an idea, pull at the thread and create a wonderful poem from it.
Tapping into the power of sound to enhance your poetry
This course helped me to understand that the rhythm of the words is something very important. You can use the order of the words to recreate the sound of the thing you are writing about. Billy provides a great example of a poem that demonstrates this perfectly.
Also, watching this video made me realize that as a child I had read a poem that used the same creative trick. If you read John Grierson’s poem Night Mail at the right pace, at certain points, it sounds like a steam train rushing across the tracks. Appropriate because the poem is about the night train on which mail was once transported and sorted, in the UK. It also reminded me of the value of reading poetry aloud. When you do that, it is much easier to pick up on these clever sound tricks.
Finding your voice as a poet and creating a persona
Finding your voice as a writer is tricky. Unfortunately, it takes time. In the end, you realize that the best voice is your own. It is what comes naturally to you, that works the best. Given that poetry is quite an emotional medium, being ready to put some of yourself into your work is essential.
Billy provides an exercise to help you do this. He also shows you how to draw on the work of poets you admire to find your voice and develop your persona.
Should you use humor in your poetry?
I always think of poetry as being serious. Apparently, when he was younger, so did Billy. But, fortunately, he has since discovered that humor has a place in poetry too.
If you are a funny person, there is no reason not to let that side of your personality show through in your writing. Humor gets people on your side and helps to make what are sometimes serious subjects more palatable.
If someone tells you a joke and you laugh, you’re on their side.Billy Collins – Poetry Masterclass 2019
Billy Collins provides feedback to two poetry students
These two videos provide you with a different way of learning. I probably learned more from this section of the course that all of the other 16 videos. Although, I doubt I would have understood as much of these videos as I did without going through the course in order. The two students he used for this feedback are clearly very talented. They both wrote intriguing poems, which I enjoyed immensely.
Reading and writing poetry masterclass workbook
Every masterclass comes with a workbook. How they are laid out and what is included appears to be up to the person who creates the course. So, they are all different.
Billy Collin’s masterclass workbook does not contain that many details from the videos. Instead, it mainly consists of exercises for you to do to practice what you learn.
A great reading list is included. Each of the poems used in the course is printed out in full, which is helpful. If you can print the workbook off or have it open on another device like your tablet or phone, I would suggest you do so. This will enable you to pause and re-read things as you go along.
Who is Billy Collins’ Masterclass aimed at
There is no doubt that this course is squarely targeted at students of poetry. People who already write. But, the good thing is that you do not have to be very experienced to be able to benefit from this course.
People who are fans of Billy’s work will probably also enjoy this masterclass. So, potentially you could give it to someone like that as a gift. Or, better still, give them a masterclass.com all-access pass.
With that pass, they can take any of the 50+ courses that are already available, as well as all of the new ones they add. The all-access pass represents excellent value for money. It costs the same as what you would have had to pay to take just two of the masterclasses. So, effectively you get at least 48 courses, for free.
I bought the all-access pass. At the time of writing this post, I have taken 20 of them and all of them have been very good. So, I can highly recommend Masterclass.com to you. If you would like to read my full review, including details of all of the extras you get when taking Masterclass courses, you just need to click here.