Question: Do you have a personal philosophy?
Billy Collins: I think it’s a matter of . . . probably a matter of value . . . valuing attention. Valuing paying attention and valuing the moment, and realizing that the present is the most elusive of all. You can stabilize the past because “there it is”. Or you can at least stabilize a set of memories and call it the past. You can stabilize the future in that even though you can’t know it, you can project a future and you can dream about it. Or you can just think of it as an object of curiosity. But the present is always disappearing. And there are ways to slow down this flood of time through, you know, just a kind of little meditation or just stopping and looking. I think that’s the thing I value, and that’s what. . . I probably am in that state, you know, a half percent of the time; but the poetry tries to get into that, a lot of it does, anyway . . . tries to get into that state and arrest one of those moments.
I have this kind of crackpot analogy which is that this is old atomic theory. But if you took an atom and you smash it. . . Matter is composed of atoms and you smashed one and it releases this staggering amount of energy. Time is composed not of atoms, but of moments. And if you smash a moment, there’s also this amazing release. And the way you smash a moment is not with a cyclotron, but through attention. You smash a moment by fixing it in your mind.
And I think a lot of poetry. Haiku is a good example. Most little haiku poems are just interested in isolating a moment; but that moment becomes a tiny thing. And suddenly it becomes everything at once. That’s powerful.
Question: Do religion and faith inform your worldview?
Billy Collins: Well I’m the kind of recovering Catholic. I went to Catholic school from the 1st grade right through college – the full metal jacket of Catholic education. When I got to graduate school, it was the first time I’d been in a classroom with a female since the 8th grade. So I’m unsure of the effect of that on me. So I have all the imagery of Catholicism. It’s still very vivid and vibrant. And the faith is something else. It’s very difficult in a way to maintain a connection to a church that is so full of flaws and hierarchically-structured church. Martin Sheen, I think, summed it up best when he said that . . . he said, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe that Mary was His mother.” In other words you can lose contact with the theology, but you can never lose contact with the iconography, the imagery and the stories.
Question: What is the measure of a good life?
Billy Collins: I think decency to people. Courtesy is very much a part of it, I think. I keep going back to Wordsworth, but he suggested the better part of our lives is – the thread that connects our lives – is composed of what he calls little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
And it’s very important that these acts are unremembered. If you do something consciously for someone and remember it . . . Well I mean, an endowment is a nice thing to do and get your name on the gymnasium or the library. That’s one kind of contribution. But equally as important, I think, to stitch your days together is just a kind of moving through the world with a kind of courtesy. It seems almost trivial in terms of . . . like a point of etiquette . . . but I think courtesy leads to much biggest things. But you have to start with the tiny gestures.