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Billy Collins Offers Lessons from Poetry to the Class of 2018

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins cautioned the “extremely talented and exceptionally sharp-looking” Emerson College Class of 2018 against searching for happiness in prizes or material success, and offered them three life lessons gleaned from writing verse.

Collins received an honorary doctorate from Emerson at the College’s 138th Commencement Ceremony on Sunday, May 13 at Boston University's Agganis Arena, and delivered the undergraduate address.

Listen to Billy Collins's Commencement Address

Also receiving honorary doctorates were Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Elspeth “Ellie” Cypher 80, bestselling novelist Tom Perrotta, and filmmaker Deeyah Khan, who was set to deliver the graduate address later in the afternoon.

In a witty, self-deprecating speech he promised to keep to 16 minutes (“longer than the Gettysburg Address, shorter than the funeral oration of Pericles, and less memorable than either”), Collins offered his thoughts on happiness and “self-esteem.”

When he was in college, Collins said, he had professors tell him that he should spend more time reading Gerard Manley Hopkins and less time writing about his own angst.

“It turns out my appetite for revenge is much greater than my need for approval,” Collins said. “Many years later, when I got a phone call from the Library of Congress telling me I was the new poet laureate of the United States, I thought of those teachers, and it added a little sugar to the experience.”

But students should not chase accolades, Collins said, because those are not the source of lasting happiness.

“Happiness is found in the work you do now,” he said. “Keep your head down and focus on the work. No writer who writes solely for a Pulitzer Prize will ever get one… [R]evision is not cleaning up after the party, revision is the party.”

There are three veins that run through poetry that can lead us to kindness and a more fulfilling life, according to Collins: slowing down, paying attention, and living with the inevitability of death.

In our “high velocity culture,” he said, technology provides such a volume of information, so quickly, that it can be difficult to decide what’s important.

“The first thing poetry asks us is to slow down,” he said. “Instead of continuing on to the edge of the page, each line of a poem turns us back into the poem… The poem invites you into its interior.

“Most poems take us from the outside world to the inner world of subjectivity.”

Poems also demand that we pay attention, he said, that we “notice the periphery, what is taking place on the sidelines.”

Throughout the ages, the most oft-repeated motif in poetry is carpe diem – “seize the day.”

“We’re asked to carpe our diems. Why? Because we only get a limited number of diems,” Collins said. “Living with an awareness of our mortality can … make life more vivid.”

The older you get, he promised, the more you realize that time is more important than money.

“Think about it,” he said. “If you run out of money, you’re broke. If you run out of time, you’re dead.”

As Emerson’s commencement fell on Mother’s Day, Collins ended by reading from one of his most beloved poems, “The Lanyard,” which he wrote for his own mother. In it, he’s a child at camp, weaving a lanyard to give to his mother. It’s about the futility of ever being able to repay his mother for everything she gave him.

(“She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard. … ‘Here are thousands of meals,’ she said, ‘and here is clothing and a good education.’ ‘And here is your lanyard,’ I replied, ‘which I made with a little help from a counselor.’”)

But before he read his work, Collins made a plea for the soon-to-be-graduates to take part in their democracy.

“I have intentionally not made a lot of room in my talk for the political climate of this country,” he said. “Ultimately, I don’t think that’s where we live. I want to dwell on things that are more lasting …

“But I have this to say: Vote. Vote often (but in different elections). You are doing more than preferring one candidate over another. Voting is the best way to preserve the principles of democracy.”

The Graduate Commencement was scheduled to begin at 3:00 pm.