Acclaimed poet explores depth of human experience

Award-winning poet, essayist and translator Jane Hirshfield visited Vassar to give a talk about and reading of her work on Thursday, Dec. 1, sponsored by the Creative Arts Across Disciplines. Courtesy of Steven Barclay Agency

In a 2015 interview for NPR, poet Jane Hirshfield expressed, “Compassion, in a way, is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust do for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are” (NPR, “‘Windows’ That Transform the World: Jane Hirshfield on Poetry,” 03.15.2015). In times like these, when our campus feels the weight of all our combined fates, compassion for others is more important than ever. Art is oftentimes the key to understanding, and Hirshfield’s public lecture this Thursday, Dec. 1, at 6 p.m. in Taylor Hall 203 may offer us some new perspectives on our shared experiences.

An award-winning poet, essayist and translator, Hirshfield received her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, graduating in the school’s first class to include women. She is the author of eight collections of poetry, including “The Beauty” (2015)—a finalist for the National Book Award—as well as “Come, Thief” (2011) and “After” (2006), both shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize. Her collections of essays, “Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World” and “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry,” are considered to be seminal works in their field.

After working to co-sponsor this event with the Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD), Professor of English Patricia Wallace spoke of her excitement for the poet: “Jane Hirshfield is a wonderful, accessible poet, a beautiful essayist and a translator … I have admired her work for many years and wished we could bring her to Vassar.”

Professor Wallace immediately thought of Hirshfield when the Mellon Foundation provided a grant to support an interdisciplinary faculty seminar entitled “Coming to Our Senses: Creativity, Attention and the Contemplative Arts,” for which Hirshfield is now one of two speakers.

As Wallace remarked, “I immediately thought of Jane as a guest for one of the seminar sessions, since she has written beautifully about creativity in her two essay collections (‘Nine Gates’ and ‘Ten Windows’) and since her poems are such careful acts of attention.”

Hirshfield is not only a prolific writer, but is also an ordained lay practitioner of Zen Buddhism who put aside her writing to spend eight years studying at the San Francisco Zen Center. Hirshfield explained, “I felt that I’d never make much of a poet if I didn’t know more than I knew at that time about what it means to be a human being. I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.”

Due to her focus on “life,” her poetry often ranges in subject, from the metaphysical to the political and scientific, and even to the simple events of the day to day. Her careful attention to detail makes the poet stand apart from the crowd.

Professor Wallace emphasized this skill, stating, “As Jane’s poems often demonstrate, paying attention asks what else, what next, what more, what deeper, what hidden?” Now is certainly not the time to turn away from the uncomfortable, and Professor Wallace praises Hirshfield’s, saying, “[She has an ability] to call on the creative power of attention, which makes visible what is otherwise hidden, ignored or silenced.”

Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator Tom Pacio was excited to hear these words from the source, stating, “I think it is a great gift when an artist can share their work directly with a group of people. How wonderful to hear these words being read by the person who wrote them.”

Poetry is oftentimes a vehicle by which we can find common ground through the unexpected subtleties of prose. Pacio commented: “Personally, I think that in any time it can be a struggle to be truly present in a moment, to be present with others and even to be present with ourselves.”

“I think recent events offer an increased challenge to our attention,” he continued. “I look forward to discovering for myself how Ms. Hirshfield’s work will address this.”

Kayla Schwab ’17 is also eagerly anticipating the upcoming reading and is interested in how poetry can help illuminate the world around us. She said, “I’m hoping that people will use the election results to fuel their artistic expression via poetry, for so much can be said in so few words and much change can take place through art.” Poetry is the perfect medium for Schwab, and she praises how it is “open in that it allows for people to express whatever they want however they want.”

Thursday’s lecture will invite attendees to participate in a new, shared experience, one where the inadequacies of everyday language is set aside for something more unique.

As Professor Wallace illustrated, “In the midst of a political discourse that flattens out human experience and offers us inadequate ‘explanations,’ poetry provides another kind of language, one which presses to open a deeper understanding, where the thinking of heart, mind and body can come together.”

Our minds can no longer be narrowed, and Professor Wallace highlighted Hirshfield’s unique ingenuity in this regard, stating, “I think enlarging the capacity to pay attention—to see others and the world around us deeper than our narrow habits of seeing—is the source of compassion.”

On expressing grief, award-winning poet Hirshfield stated, “The poem is broken off in exactly the way a life is broken off, in exactly the way grief breaks off, takes us beyond any possible capacity for words to speak.”

In such strange and confusing times as these, it is important that we begin to understand one another and learn to seek common ground in the midst of tragedy. Compassion for others, and the struggles that those in our community and across the nation will face in the years to come is more important than ever and is the starting point from which we will move forward.

Hirshfield’s lecture and reading in Taylor 203 on Thursday, Dec. 1, at 6 p.m. will search for this understanding.

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