Billy Collins on How to Write Poetry

And then we do have some questions. There was one from someone named Garin Hill
asking, “If you aren’t a poet, but were interested in getting started, how would you do that?” Oh well, you just have to read. It’s really such dull advice, there’s no key to it. You just have to read, poetry that is, for
10,000 hours. That’s a good number that people use. I mean, if you’re going to become proficient
at anything, like the cello, you would take cello lessons. If you wanted to be a sculptor, you would
take lessons in sculpture-making. You wouldn’t just attack a piece of marble
with your bare hands and a screwdriver. Or these days it could pass for post-contemporary art. But you can just grab a pen and express yourself. You can’t do that with a cello or a bassoon
or a piece of marble. So, the preparation to write poetry is really
a hidden one, and it really lies in the simple act of reading tons of poetry; and I mean,
not just stuff you find in magazines, but if you really want to be trained in poetry
you need to read Milton, you need to read “Paradise Lost,” you need to read Wordsworth,
you need to read Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” big poems, the major stuff. So, eventually you kind of internalize the
rhythm of English verse. You start thinking iambically, not exactly
that you’re writing formal verse, but you begin to think in the rhythms of English poetry. That’s if you want to take it seriously. I mean, if you don’t want to take it seriously
you can just get a 79-cent pen and express yourself. No one’s going to read it with any pleasure
because you don’t have the training. You haven’t paid attention to
what’s happened in the past. And you know how it is, if someone comes along
and they haven’t bothered to check out the history of what they’re into and they just
kind of announce themselves as if they discovered it, they really look like jackasses. So there’s that risk also. So reading is, I’m afraid, the answer.

18 Replies to “Billy Collins on How to Write Poetry

  1. The River

    The river began
    It formed from the earth
    It slowly began to form a path
    Growing larger in size
    The river was content
    The river was stable
    But, when It hit a boulder
    It split into two
    Half going right
    Half going left
    One half encountered
    Pollution and very little rainfall
    Whereas the other side encountered,
    Very little pollution and had lots of rainfall
    But, When the time came
    It didn't matter
    Which way the river went
    Right or left
    Both sides
    Still ended up
    In the ocean.

  2. Due to illness, I couldn't read prolifically like yourself, (or however amount of words should read first), but at age 19 I "got into it". I was an avid reader as a younger person, and this helped I think. The styles of various serious authors all have their own expressive ways of literature development, for example, influences, resources can be made available, shared in a group, library, or even in a different culture – in another country – but your advice could be a prelude to a higher level to professional writing.. It's the ability to produce regular, paid income, to live by our own stuff, for others. Do the reading, and then do some really good writing. It's great advice. Thanks. I enjoyed watching this, and see what the "successful" poet does.

  3. Collins best advice:  Read poetry, just that: Read.  Here is a poem by poet Benjamin Saltman (d. 1999) A COOL PLACE
    Benjamin Saltman

    I go out in the morning and rub my eyes.
    Who knows what to tell the day?
    Some know what to order immediately,
    they recognize each other, what is to sell.
    I walk under the peach sky on Aura Street
    and my thoughts stick from leaf to post
    in happy webs. For those who are like me
    it’s clear the bells have outrung themselves.
    For a while there’s room in the city.
    Who knows the nature of this pleasure must know me.
    A corner of being neither fence nor tree nor peach sky.
    My young children know it every day
    but it’s hard being older to keep from holding
    all of everything in a blind embrace.
    I want to hold a single thing.
    It’s time to enter a cool place where only a piece
    exists, a beer, a chair,
    the intimate hands of one person dangerously one person.
    To ask, will you sit near me? To say, you’re not everyone.

  4. Follow your obsessions. What themes are of interest to you? Read what you like and write about your own experiences. Don't imitate, though we all do at first. Be yourself. It takes courage to be you. Remember, too, that no matter how good you are, somebody isn't going to like what you do. Some were upset when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for his lyrics. People were upset, too, when John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for his fiction. That's the way it goes. Be yourself, but one must discover how to do that.  I suggest thinking long and hard about what matters most to you and try to write like you think. My mother once told me when I asked what the name of a flower was that was growing in our southern Indiana backyard, "I think you should look at that flower a while before I tell you what it is called. If I tell you now, you'll never see it again." I write like my mother talked about the world, in very simple terms, One doesn't have to try to sound deep to be deep. It's usually a recipe for failure. Be honest, be true.  Tell it like it is. Don't be afraid to be yourself. Remember when you were very small and listened at night to the sounds of the house?  Perhaps you had the same tired refrigerator that we had, the motor of which made a sound like a cricket bleating in the night kitchen.  Or maybe you remember the chairs after supper pushed away from the table and what that made you think about when you were ten. Maybe you were very restless when you were that age; I know I was. We grow up very fast. Who knows why we're always in such a hurry to do that. Sometimes the simple skill of emptying one's self and letting everything come in is perhaps hard learned. I write early in the morning right after I wake when everything around me is very still.  Sometimes I write about that, being still. Anything can be a good occasion for writing a poem.  That said, it's always better to write about what you have lived. It doesn't mean not to write about something you imagine having done or not done, like going to war or dreaming about a mare stomping on you, as Louise Bogan wrote about in her excellent poem, "The Dream," or in another poem of hers in which she writes about distance and talks merely about what she sees. Seeing is key to observing and poetry is all about our observations of the world. One must be very observant to be a good poet.

  5. To be honest, writing poetry really and truly can begin for you at any age depending on what's happening in your own life. Writing poetry is really all about your life in words. Describing a certain scenario that you went thru or seeing something that maybe had a huge effect on you psychologically. Most of the proficient poets are those that have an exquisite background and went thru a lot in their past so they end up putting those feelings into words and create a rhyme from it. What is said by a certain person is how that specific individual lived his or her life. Some poets, as a result, get highly recognised by a large audience as others may be able to relate to their emotions and thus it gets interpreted in many different ways which can create some change in our lives. Poetry is about writing everything down about the things you see around you and how you feel about yourself which can encourage us to reflect on change. The more you write poetry the better you get. And listening to music can also help with writing and creating good poetry

    Ps, reading isn't fully the answer, knowing is.. You can know something these days just by hearing a person talk or looking at peoples body language

  6. How out of touch with the beginner poet could Billy Collins possibly be? Did he even hear the question? His type of response is exactly why academia/ivory tower gets a bad name. It's as if you can't be in the poetry club until you have served your sentence and read 10,000 hours of dead-white–verse. Don't dare read 10,000 hours of modern poetry, that may damage your sensibilities, corrupt your aesthetic, ambush your canon.

    We wonder why poetry is the least popular form of writing in the USA. Collins' rhetoric is not helping. in 2003 I earned an MFA in poetry and at the time my fellow academics kind of poo-poo-ed Collins because he was "too accessible". I liked him at the time, thought he was my hero even. However, over the last 15 years I have come to find his verse over wrought with allusions to Greek philosophy and other esoteric-TS-Elliot-type-show-offy-stuff. I don't need him to mention Lazarus to like a poem. That does not make him my hero. His blind trust in the power of classical allusions is his kryptonite.

    I am at the place in my poetry career where I am confident in my own canon. In other words, I don't agree with academia's list of what is "sacred" and "accepted as genuine". Of course, to be a writer it sure helps to be a reader. This is pretty obvious, even if you are reading your own work. But you don't have to say that like Billy Collins just did.

  7. People listened to poetry out loud before there was reading. You can kick poetry around all you want, say you can do it with not knowledge or self-training. You're doing out of a burning need to express yourself, and perhaps out of a desire to call yourself an artist to feel you are important. Go post on All Poetry.

  8. I wrote a poem and wanted to share it :')

    Anxiety sips from me

    as though I’m it’s only bird feeder in the area

    Depression eats away at me

    as though I can only suffice for half of it's needs

    And tonight? It’s hungry as it’s ever been.

    Trauma kills me

    As if it was an eagle looking for roadkill

    Me being the roadkill

    Drug abuse nailed me in the head waiting to kill me.

    Waiting to kill me due to the fact I’m unworthy of living.

    So there they sat, all trying to kill me in one way or another.

  9. Here is advice from a poet who has completed two poetry mentorships and several writing classes, has won a stipend, been featured, selected as a distinguished writer, and published several times, have over 25 readers reserve a copy of her books months before it is to be released, and is currently on the short list of a poetry contest, and looks to possibly win another.


    Learn how a poem begins (yes there is specific way to enter a poem).
    I m not speaking of content.
    Master at least 10 literary devices
    Train yourself to be an expert in the use of metaphor
    Observe alot of nature and human life and take notes
    on anything that you can't get off your mind
    Get a mentor and takes lots of poetry class
    Make it the first thing you do, early in the morning
    and right before you shut your eyes
    Have your own place or two in your house when you write poetry
    Get use to using aromatherapy oils that stimulate the brain and encourage focus.
    Take writing classes that is prose and fiction writing.
    Do at least one poetry exercise a day
    Take the advice of some of the most famous writers including Hemingway.
    Please visit my youtube for more poetry writing tips.

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