One of my favorite poets from the modern age is Billy Collins, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. With over ten published collections of poetry, Collins transforms the world around us into a spectacular playground by placing forgotten objects under a microscope slide and turning them over in ways we wouldn’t normally see.
Born in 1941, Collins first published a collection of poetry in 1977 titled Pokerface. His writing style consists of ironic witticisms meandering through free verse stanza, usually forgoing rhyme and rigorous meter structures. His most recent collection, Whale Day, hit shelves last year (2020).
Now that he has arguably mastered his craft, he’s teaching others and enabling them on their poetry writing excursions. According to Collins, here are three tips to help you improve your poetry.
An idea echoed by Stephen King in his memoir On Writing, Collins agrees that one of the best ways to get good at writing is to read other people’s writing. If it’s published, it’s been published for a reason, right?
By reading the poems of others, we can dissect what’s working and what isn’t working. How do they use figurative language? Are their metaphors and similes effective, and why or why not? If there’s a rhythm, how does it interact with the language? In addition to what’s present in the poem, what did the poet leave absent?
Using scansion, poems can be broken down line by line, then serve as a model for our own poems. Maybe the first line introduces a setting, and later on it’s revealed that the character holds precious memories about that particular place.
That being said, avoid plagiarism. You can use other poems as models and examples, but you shouldn’t outright steal from other writers. With this in mind, be sure to take in all sorts of poems, for you never know when inspiration will strike.
This is all about putting your voice and personality on the page. Collins weaves lots of tongue-in-cheek humor into his poetry. Take, for instance, the poem Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House. This poem describes Collins’ annoyance with his neighbor’s barking dog.
In the poem, Collins turns on a Beethoven record to drown out the barking. Much to his frustration, the music doesn’t entirely quell the barking, creating an effect where the dog’s barks end up a part of the song. This leads to a lovely image of the dog “sitting in the orchestra,/his head raised confidently”. Once the record ends, the dog continues barking, “sitting there in the oboe section… while the other musicians listen in respectful/silence to the famous barking dog solo”.
Collins is a humorous person, and he doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. When writing poetry, people can sometimes focus too much on their emotions and present themselves too seriously. Collins argues that we shouldn’t stuff our normal personalities into the closet when we write, but instead try to stay in touch with our idiosyncrasies when composing a poem.
You can use a character voice in your poems, but your own personality should still be present to influence your writing. If you have a somber personality, lean into it. If you’re a bubbly person, let that shine. If you’re a naturally serious person, don’t try to force humor into your poems. Just don’t try to be somebody you’re not — your poems will feel more authentic this way.
Anything that catches your eye is fair game, be it a stray hair or a sidewalk crack. You don’t even have to take it seriously, according to Collins. As long as it inspires you, it’s a perfect subject for a poem. Collins’ poem Aimless Love takes this idea and runs with it, showering adoration over dead mice and soap bubbles.
In addition to starting small in terms of subject, Collins also recommends starting small thematically. If you begin a poem determined to write about the injustices of the world or human miseries while tying it to a playground scene, you’re likely to box yourself in. Leave room for yourself to explore — start with one subject, then let yourself discover what the poem is really about as you write.
Take Collins’ poem, The Best Cigarette, for example. The poem begins musing about which cigarette he’s smoked he would consider to be the best, deciding that the ones he smoked while writing take the prize. The poem shifts, becoming a love letter to writing and the creative process.
Multiple drafts may be necessary, but there’s no harm in that. Collins’ also suggests making a mess when writing, and from that mess will come the clarity of your poem. Of course, every writer has their own process, so do what’s best for you. But Collins has quite a few credentials under his belt, so his advice might be worth a shot.
MasterClass. “Billy Collins's 6 Tips for Writing Poetry - 2021.” MasterClass, 28 Apr. 2021, www.masterclass.com/articles/billy-collinss-tips-for-writing-poetry#quiz-0.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.