In this excerpt from a PBS radio interview, Billy Collins — U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 — discusses his process of X-raying poems. (Read and listen to the entire interview at

INTERVIEWER: Where is the artistry in poetry? Is it the imagery, the cadence, the choice of subject?

COLLINS: Well, it’s sort of like doing six or seven things at a time. In prose, one just has to write sentences, one after the other. In poetry, you have to — you don’t have to write sentence, but I haven’t had a better way to express myself than the sentence, and lines at the same time. Because the line is the second unit or maybe the primary unit of poetry. So lines are delivered one at a time. So those are two things to think about. And even packaging the poem into stanzas is another consideration that is part of the craft of poetry.

INTERVIEWER: When you hold classes with students about poetry, you talk about X-raying a poem. I think we’re hearing a little bit of that right now. Can you explain a little bit more what that means?

COLLINS: Well, I think to X-ray a poem is really to find how it gets through itself. When I start a poem, I have an inkling of where the thing is going. I’m not completely in the dark, but I don’t know exactly where it’s going, and that curiosity is kind of what drives me to continue through the poem. And I think if we take a famous poem and we imagine that Keats has written four lines of it, but he doesn’t know what the fifth line is or any of the subsequent lines, then we have a sense that the art of poetry is really a matter of finding a path, an imaginative path which results in a conclusion or some kind of ending. So when I teach poetry, I try to not use the question what does this poem mean, so much as how does this poem continue, how does it commence and how does it keep going, and how does it stop?

Graphic: Poetry/Poem X-rays by Silver Birch Press