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Billy Collins on life, death and poetry

Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins tells The Post's Lillian Cunningham a story about running into a former student, and what he learned about teaching. (Video: Cameron Blake, Lillian Cunningham, Julio Negron and Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)
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Despite his stature as former U.S. poet laureate and his achievement of the nearly impossible — great commercial success as a living poet — Billy Collins cringes at the idea of being a leader. "Leadership to me suggests that there’s a place to lead the person to," he says. "Whereas poetry is actually the home of ambiguity, ambivalence and uncertainty."

Collins, 73, nevertheless agreed to join our On Leadership series (perhaps from the same place of curiosity and playful humor that infuses so many of his poems). The author of collections like Aimless Love and Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes talks to us about why poetry and leadership feel fundamentally incompatible to him, the responsibility an artist has to be true to his vision of the world, and how gratitude can be one of our most powerful emotions.

"With poetry," Collins says, "you don’t have to go through a windshield to realize that life is precious."

The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to the podcast with Billy Collins.

Q. What does the word “leadership” mean to you?

A. My association with leadership is not very positive, really. The first thing I think of — sadly, I might add — is the whole motivational speaker phenomenon, where people are made to feel better about themselves and to turn into leaders, which means to give them self confidence, right? In that way, it’s really connected to the self-esteem craze, which I think has infiltrated teaching and had a terrible effect on it.

The great writer Wilfrid Sheed said that when he was growing up, low self-esteem had another name. It was called “humility.” It was actually a virtue and not a psychological impairment.

Q. Do you think poets can be leaders? Or is the term wildly ill fitting?

A. I think poetry takes place in a quieter place. Leadership to me has kind of a public ring to it.

Poetry can do a lot of things to people. I mean it can improve your imagination. It can take you to new places. It can give you this incredible form of verbal pleasure. But leadership to me suggests that there’s a place to lead the person to, that there’s a mission or a goal involved. I don’t think poets are that purpose driven. A poem actually can have either no point or a very nuanced point.

It also depends to some extent on how the poem is taken in by the reader or the listener. I think if a poet wanted to lead, he or she would want the message to be unequivocally clear and free of ambiguity. Whereas poetry is actually the home of ambiguity, ambivalence and uncertainty.

Q. A lot of business leaders and politicians and heads of non-profits talk about their responsibility to citizens or their responsibility to improving society. Do you think artists have a responsibility?

A. If an artist is driven primarily by social responsibility, I think the art probably suffers because, again, just as leadership has a rather defined end point or purpose, social responsibility would seem to have a very clear moral context.

I don’t want to sound like an aesthete, but one has to be true to the art. And that means being true to the tradition of the art, but also being true to your own artistic vision. That’s a little high sounding, but I think writing and creating are expressions of an epistemological position — that is, how you look at the world, that slant you look at it from. And that’s all I feel I am in a palpable way responsible to: using that slant to get at some truth or a little smidgen of beauty.

It’s a matter of being true to your imagination, and being true to your vision, and true to the material you’re working with, whether it’s a violin or the dictionary of the English language. You have to listen to all the other violinists who have ever played, and read all of the poetry you can consume. That’s my sense of responsibility. It’s an artistic responsibility, not so much a political one, not so much a financial one or a responsibility based on commodity. It can’t be commodified.

Q. What are some of the ways you would describe your character? And has the way you think about yourself changed over the years?

A. I was introduced at a reading by a colleague of mine some years ago. She said that when she first knew me, I was a professor who happened to be a poet, and I’ve turned into a poet who happens to be a professor.

That’s exactly how my life professionally has moved. I basically went to college, to graduate school. Then, as you know, if you stay in graduate school long enough, they give you a Ph.D. and tell you you can’t go to school anymore, much to my disappointment. I would have just stayed in graduate school forever. I started teaching in the City University of New York, primarily. And the poetry emerged quite later. I didn’t get a real book published until I was over 40.

So, that’s the big change in my sense of myself. I was kind of doing the poetry as a sideline or I was doing it somewhat covertly. I also just couldn’t figure out how to do it well. It took me a while.

Q. What about some of the traits you associate with yourself? Would you describe yourself as funny? Disciplined? What are some of your own personal adjectives?

A. I think I started out — as a writer anyway, and maybe as a person — being more like my father. Then at some point, I allowed my mother to come into this. My father was funny, sarcastic, cynical, jokey, very social, kind of glib, loved one-liners. I started out imitating that. Even in my social life and in the poems I was writing, I was sort of a smart ass.

My mother had a sense of humor, but it was quite submerged, and therefore, in a way, deeper than my father’s. But my mother was heartfelt, a moral guide, emotionally expansive, giving. I guess my father would be the head and my mother would be the heart, if we want to simplify it in that way.

Now I think I’ve managed to get to the point where I have my mother's and father’s traits kind of shuffled together — in the way I live, the way my personality is, and also in the persona that directs my poems.

Q. Do you think the public image of you aligns pretty closely with how you see yourself?

A. One is misunderstood even if no one outside of your family and a few friends know you. I mean we’re all misunderstood, or imperfectly understood. And once you become something of a public figure or you have an audience, you develop that odd sensation of having all these people who know you and yet you’ve never met them. Then you’re misunderstood more broadly.

A lot of people send me their poems, and I don’t know why they send them to me. These poems are nothing like my poems, and I can’t believe they think I’d feel some cousinship with them.

I have a public figure who reads poems in public places, and then I have me, the composer of poems — and that takes place in a very private place. Well, it could be on a subway, but it’s private in that I’m locked into a world of composing poems. I’m writing for one particular reader, and the exchange, I hope, is very intimate. So, to then stand up in front of a few hundred people and read is a very different experience. It’s almost as if this one reader you’re thinking of has suddenly multiplied by 500, and they’re all sitting there in these rows. I mean, I love doing both, but they call on very disparate parts of one’s life, one’s personality.

Q. Can you share any parables from your own life, where some incident stuck with you and taught you a lesson?

A. I think a lot of things in my life you could draw the negative — like an anti-parable, what not to do. But I’ll tell you an anecdote about teaching, which has been very central to my life.

In my poetry class, I’ve always had students memorize something, a few things. I feel that if they’ve forgotten everything I’ve said, if they haven’t written anything down all semester and just stared out the window, at least they’ll come away with a poem memorized.

So one day, years ago, I was on the subway in New York, and a guy across the aisle kept kind of looking at me and finally he came over and said he recognized me as his teacher. I’d taught him about 10 years before that, or more. He’d since become an oncologist, and I congratulated him on his success. Then he said, “You made us memorize a poem.” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “I’d like to say that poem for you.”

And it was a little poem by Emily Dickinson that he’d carried in his head, and maybe in his heart, for all those years. Over the roar of the 6 train, he yelled that poem in my ear, and I think it was probably the most satisfying pedagogical experience I’ve ever had.

Q. Which poem was it?

A. You know, I forget, to be perfectly honest. But I’ll never forget him doing it.

Q. Why do you think that moment has stuck with you so strongly?

A. Well, because teaching is a very mysterious process. You’re throwing information, in a sense, into the dark. I mean, you spend an hour talking to this group of increasingly younger people and you walk out of there and you think sometimes you’ve had a good class, and other times it’s not been that great. But no matter what it is to you, you’re not sure how it’s being taken or what effect you’ve had.

Yet in that case, it was a clear demonstration that something had been learned. Also, I just loved the idea that this man had become a specialist in medicine and, through all his studies in medical school, this little poem by Emily Dickinson was not eradicated. It stuck with him.

Now that I start thinking about it, one of the reasons I became a poet was probably — not probably, was definitely — the fact that my mother knew a lot of poetry that she had memorized as a schoolgirl in a very rural environment in Ontario, Canada. When I was growing up, I would hear lines of Shakespeare or other poets that she would braid into her conversation. She would never say, “It’s poetry time,” and recite. Lines from the poem were braided into her talk. So before I even knew what poetry was, I heard poetry in my house. I knew as a toddler that my mother had two very different ways of talking. It was like AM and FM, and poetry was FM. And when she was on FM, so to speak, it sounded better.

Charles Wright, who is our current poet laureate, defined poetry as language that means more and sounds better. And when she would speak in poetry, it had a different sound to it, more melodious. Her expression would change, and you could see that she was pleased. She was happy to say these words. If I were in therapy — well, who needs a therapist? I’m making these connections on my own — that’s why I was so moved by that guy’s poem on the subway. It was my mother.

That’s where all of psychoanalysis ends up, anyway.

Q. At its best, what do you think poetry does?

A. Well, it gives pleasure. It’s easy to come out very high sounding about poetry, but if it doesn’t give pleasure, I don’t think it should be read. In Wordsworth’s preface to "Lyrical Ballads, 1798,” where he outlines his aesthetic and describes this very new kind of poetry at the time, he mentions the word “pleasure” over 50 times. That’s essential, I think. If it gives pleasure, then other things can happen. If it doesn’t give pleasure, then that’s a deal breaker and you just stop reading the poem.

Certainly one thing a poem can do is give you an imaginative pleasure by taking you places very suddenly that prose can’t take you, because poetry enjoys the broadest and deepest and highest and most thrilling level of imaginative freedom of any of the written arts.

Another thing poetry can do is connect you with the history of human emotion. That’s why at critical points in our lives, at funerals or weddings or other rituals, often a poem is read. The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we’re feeling today is not just our emotion, it’s the human emotion.

Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions. Most history books, what we call history books, are stories of battles and treaties, negotiations and beheadings and coronations. But poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.

Q. Here’s a question I would love to ask just because I have absolutely no clue as to how you would answer it: What would you consider the bravest moment in your life?

A. I think I’m still looking forward to that.

The word just doesn’t resonate with me. I’ve done things that made me, and would make most people, nervous. And I’ve gotten over that, but I don’t know if that’s bravery. I think that’s just coping or managing. I read the elegy I wrote for 9/11 to a joint session of Congress. That was unnerving, but I don’t think it was necessarily brave to do that. I think if you asked me what was the most cowardly, I’d have the same reaction. I just don’t know if my life has taken me to such extremes that I would describe it in those very dramatic terms. I try to keep it in the middle of the channel.

Q. Then here’s a question that we ask everyone in this series, and you can interpret it in whatever way you want. What do you believe?

A. What do I believe? Well, it varies. I’ll tell you what I believe right now. I believe in a creator. Him, her, it — some creationable force. I arrive at that, as most people do, through the argument from design. Is it Spinoza who uses the image of the clock? That’s a very mechanistic view of the universe, but it’s the sense that you couldn’t throw the parts of a clock up in the air and hope to have them come down in the right order.

But, I don’t believe in an afterlife. So I believe in a creator who provides all this, right? And then, the creator says to you, “You want more than this? You want immortality? Well, come on. Isn’t this enough that I’ve provided for you here?”

Q. That reminds me a little bit of an old interview with you that I read. The person asked you what makes a good poet, and one of the things you said was that it takes an attitude of never getting used to being alive, of continuing to have a sense of wonder for the world around of you.

A. I think that’s very important. We think of the emotions that poetry conveys as being certainly love and certainly grief, but there’s this undercurrent that rises to the surface often, and it’s the emotion of gratitude. It sounds very corny, but it’s the gratitude to be alive.

It’s very easy to lose that, very easy to fall into a silent and unaware presumptuousness, where you think: “Well of course I’m here. I mean, how else would it be?”

Sometimes that is interrupted by an accident, a disease, a car crash — in more dramatic terms, 9/11 — and it brings people up short, it bring life into focus. After 9/11, you heard quite often about couples who said, “We were going to get married next year, but we decided to get married in a couple of weeks.”

Well, poetry has been telling people that message for thousands of years. And with poetry, you don’t have to go through a windshield to realize that life is precious. Poetry keeps tapping you on the shoulder with that same message.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?

A. My father always had a lot of good advice — like keep your money in a money clip and not in a wallet, so you can get it out faster. He said, “It’s not how much money you have, it’s how much money you spend. That’s the important thing.”

But he also said, “Give everybody a chance. Give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Then if you get burned by that innocent or positive attitude, well then you know. You’ve learned something.” So I try to start everything with some kind of optimism, unless proven otherwise. But if you disappoint me, then you’ve had it.

Listen: A podcast conversation with Billy Collins

Watch: Billy Collin's subway poem