Visiting Writer: Jane Hirshfield

Monmouth University welcomed seasoned poet, Jane Hirshfield, to campus on Mar. 22 as a part of the Visiting Writer Series. Hirshfield is recipient of The Poetry Center Book Award and a part of fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. Popular works by Hirshfield include her collections of poetry The Beauty and Come Thief as well as a multitude of other collections.

Associate Dean and Director of the Visiting Writers Series, Michael Thomas, opened the reading with remarks about Hirshfield. He stated, “Mrs. Hirshfield’s poems make the ungraspable, graspable, the imprecise then gets named, even if it’s a life experience that we won’t ever fully comprehend.” This concept of explanation and didactic poetry was a theme threaded throughout the poetry Hirshfield read.

Dean Thomas chose Hirshfield for the Visiting Writers Series because, “She presents an originality and aesthetics of poetry that is different from all the other poets that we’ve had.” Furthermore, Hirshfield is a poet who is “highly esteemed, highly recognized, highly accomplished”; she brings more experience to the Visiting Writers Series.

Hirshfield took to the podium and explained that the readings she had selected were organized from earliest to most recent, which is her newest collection of poetry, The Beauty. The first poem she read was called “The Poet” in which she uses the pronoun “she” and explains that it is a “universal” she as opposed to the usual universal “he.” She stated, “If I don’t make the universal ‘she,’ rather than the universal ‘he,’ who will?”

Hirshfield then read from a poem titled “Justice Without Passion.” She provided background for this poem stating that it was written during the Robert Bork Hearings. She suggested that justice without passion is interchangeable with justice without compassion and that sometimes it is “important to take off the blindfold [of justice] to know someone’s background.”

Her next selection of poetry was reflective, she said, of the happenings in Brussels. The first poem was written by Hirshfield as a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks. Hirshfield states that violence is not the answer to violence and that “the dead do not want us dead.” She expressed her grief at the participation in violent endeavors and her honest grief of not knowing what to do about it. Professor of English, Dr. Michael Waters, appreciated Hirshfield’s inclusion of Brussels, “I was glad that she acknowledged the tragic events in Brussels on the day of her reading, implying rightfully that we are all citizens of the world and, as such, must remain empathetic.”

She then moved to the topic of perplexity and stated, “it’s a good idea to be comfortable with being confused.” She read from her poem “Vinegar and Oil.” In this poem lies her most quoted line of poetry, which reads, “How fragile we are between the few good moments.” Hirshfield is fascinated by the idea of the unknown and the poem conveyed this message of perplexity being just that, perplex and, furthermore, too complex for true comprehension.

Hirshfield’s last selection of readings came from her most recent book, The Beauty. She explains that the first section of the book has a multitude of poems whose title’s start with “My.” She then jests that “my is a funny word; we say it but it means nothing.” She then read from a few of her “My” poems. The first was called “My Skeleton.” This poem was about growing old and having the same skeletal system throughout aging. The poem gives a beautiful image in which the speaker thinks his/her hands are empty, but then remembers that the skeleton is still in them.

The second “My” poem was called “My Proteins.” This poem was about the protein of itch. Hirshfield said that she was fascinated in this topic because she always wondered as a child, “when does it stop being a sandwich and start being you?” Hirshfield’s readings of these poems gave the audience a taste of the way science and literature can be complementary to each other. The poetry, or literature, of science can be absolutely stunning, as Hirshfield displayed.

Her last poems are what she called “pebble poems,” which are very short poems that convey very large meanings, depending on the reader/listener. One quite ironic and comical example she read was a poem called “Three Words.” The poem was actually only two words long and it said “have teeth.” Hirshfield jokingly prefaced the reading of the poem by saying “think dentist’s chair.” The pebble poems seemed to be a crowd favorite with the audience that attended the event.

The reading was followed by a question and answer segment in which Hirshfield fielded questions from community members, faculty, and students alike. One question referred to the pebble poems and questioned how they came to fruition. To this, Hirshfield told a story about how her one pebble poem, “Sentence,” came about. She said that originally a 35 line poem, but there was one line that stood out, so she cut the other 34 lines out. But, usually, she said that the pebble poems are the way they are because that is exactly how they came to her—short and impactful. She writes a pebble poem “exactly how it arrives.” She then continued to explain that some of the pebble poems lack grammatical elements because “at the end of a life, few lives are rounded off by a period.”

The event ended with a question from a student that asked Hirshfield for advice from young, aspiring poets. Hirshfield’s answer was to “open the window wider than you think is comfortable.”

The audience has a very positive reception of Hirshfield’s reading. “Her reading was pure pleasure; her poems are mostly brief and deceptively simple, and reflect her Zen-like sensibility,” praised Dr. Waters.

Alyssa Riley, senior accounting student, said of the event, “I was intrigued by how much could come out of just one poem. The event really showcased the true beauty of poetry.”

Hirshfield was an incredible addition to the Visiting Writers Series. She set the bar high for the next participant, which will be Robert Bly on Tuesday, Apr. 12.