What is your question?

One of the most popular living poets in the United States, Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. Collins is the author of nine books of poetry, including She Was Just Seventeen (2006), The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (2005), Nine Horses (2002), and Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001). His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Harper's Magazine, and has been featured in various textbooks and anthologies, including those for the Pushcart Prize and the annual Best American Poetry series. Between 2001 and 2004, Collins served two terms at the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States. In his home state, Collins has been recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004. Other honors include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and the first annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where has taught for over thirty years. Ideas recorded at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival on: 7/4/07
  • Transcript


What is a question everyone should be asking themselves?

Billy Collins:    Well what are we doing with our day?  What are we doing with our everyday experience?  And how to . . .  How do you not let time just slip away from you?  How do you kind of acquire levels of attention, or levels of concentration that lead to a kind of gratitude?  So one of the big things . . . big themes in poetry . . . I think we talked about death.  That’s one.  But the other theme is gratitude.  And it’s all linked to death.   It’s like death is the main theme.  And then love and all the other stuff come out of the fact of death.  But I think the idea of just gratitude for the miracle of your life.  I mean that sounds a little corny, but just the notion that you should, you know, get down on your knees and thank God for your eyesight every 20 minutes. 

We take this amazing thing for granted.  And I think one function poetry has is that poetry is a . . . it balances out a little bit this presumptuousness.  We walk around as if we just own the earth.  And poetry tends to – at least some poetry – reminds us that . . . that this is . . . this is really the opposite of non-existence, and we are here by some kind of miraculous accident.  And that’s . . . that’s the way of quickening the pulse and of seeing colors a little more vividly, and seeing the world around you as having a deeper sense of orchestration.