Poets may craft their words with one idea in mind, but readers often interpret their poems in radically different ways.
Speaking at the 10th annual Chet Raymo Literary Series Lecture on Wednesday evening, award-winning author and poet Jane Hirshfield shared with an audience of students and faculty in Martin Institute the many ways in which her poems have been received by readers all over the world.
Between reading excerpts from her poems, Hirshfield gave several examples of how people reinterpret poetry. For instance, her poem "What Binds Us," is frequently thought of as a love poem or end of love poem. In 2007, however, it took on a more diplomatic meaning.
Hirshfield explained with a laugh how was used in a handout on a trip she took through the Middle East with four American writers as they met with regional officials and leaders.
Another poem, "Optimism," which she intended to be about hopefulness and the environmental crisis, has been used as an anti-war poem, a poem to elect Barack Obama, and a poem displayed on the walls of several hospices.
"My favorite request, however, was when I received an email asking for permission to use the poem "Optimism" as the front epigraph to a book of short stories by a young woman writer from Zimbabwe," said Hirshfield, who emailed the author to ask why she wanted to use the poem.
"She told me she thought it completely embodied the spirit of the people of Zimbabwe," Hirshfield recalled in amusement.
The reason for these varying interpretations can perhaps be attributed to poetry's gift of neutrality Hirshfield believes.
"Poetry in the abstract is completely neutral...war songs are poetry just like work songs and lullabies are poetry...Poetry can be used for anything in the larger sense."
Hirshfield's poems focus on central issues of life with a particular emphasis on nature and time, which she believes are inseparable.
"It's a dimension we can't escape. Nothing ever stops. In human life, time makes us pay attention because we know that whatever it is, it will be gone. And so we attend, we treasure, we notice, we remember, we honor and we let it go because it will be ripped out of our hands even if we try to grip it."
Hirshfield, pictured left with Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Katie Conboy, also noted her acute awareness of living a fortunate life.
"Not only do I get to do the thing that I love but I also get to live by it and get to live this still relatively easy life we have," she said.
"I think with some regularity about writers elsewhere in the world who are not so lucky. Whose work we may never see because it might never be translated in English or might never be published or might never be written down because the person may not have enough paper or doesn't have a pen. Or doesn't have the conditions for which they can write."
When asked about poets' role in today's world, Hirshfield said "as long as people want poems when they get married and when they get buried, poetry is doing its job. It's alive and well. As long as people listen to rock song lyrics and sing them when they are sad, poetry is alive is well."
Hirshfield's selections from the night included poems from her collection After and Given Sugar, Given Salt.
After was shortlisted for England's T.S. Eliot Prize and was named a "best book of 2006" by the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and London Financial Times.
Given Sugar, Given Salt was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award.
She also gave guests glimpses of her very latest work, which will be published in her new book scheduled to be released sometime next year.
In honor of Raymo, Hirshfield read several of her poems which contain science references as well.
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