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Poet's work 'an act of discovery'

Last modified: 5/24/2012 12:00:00 AM
Never mind that Jane Hirshfield is, in her own words, nowhere, at the moment. The e-mail interview she provides from this undisclosed location where she is deep in artistic seclusion and unreachable by phone is nearly as graceful and radiant as her poetry, revelatory of the reverence she seems to impart to every ordinary thing. The much-celebrated poet has just been selected as the winner of the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry, and it's clear that this, too, is an occasion worthy of her deepest gratitude and earnest reflection.

'To want to please is terribly dangerous to freedom of mind and pen,' Hirshfield said. 'But after the fact - after the poems have been written - to find that others find what you've found of use, and worth giving their time and attention, is something I've never ceased to be grateful for. . . . I am surprised, pleased, and tremendously honored to be given this prize, named for two poets whose work has meant so much to me over the years of my writing life.'

Hirshfield, 59, of California, is the third winner of the Hall-Kenyon prize, which is co-sponsored by the Concord

Monitor and the New Hampshire Writers' Project through a fund originally established in memory of Kenyon. It honors the married poets, both of whom made significant contributions to contemporary literature. They lived and wrote together on an old family farm in Wilmot for 20 years, until Kenyon's death in 1995.

Wesley McNair, Maine's poet laureate and a close friend of Hall's, chose Hirshfield for the award. She is an uncommon person, he said, and her poetry, 'an act of discovery.'

'She stands a little apart from the world, and from her perspective familiar things become mysterious sources of truth, and common events parables of our existence,' McNair said.

Hirshfield will come to Concord to read her poems and receive the award, which carries a $3,000 prize, in October. 'She's not only a splendid poet but a wonderful reader of poems,' said McNair, who has attended some of her readings. 'She mixes her poetry with personal stories, and she has an entrancing lyrical voice.'

Hirshfield, the author of seven books of poetry and winner of numerous awards and fellowships including a MacDowell Colony residency, is enthusiastic about coming to New England to share her poetry. She grew up in New York City and spent some childhood summers in Vermont. Many of the poems in her newest book, Come, Thief, were written during her time at the MacDowell Colony.

'That doesn't make me a New Hampshire poet, but I am a writer who forages from what's around me, and I know, when I read these poems, that the rain in one was New Hampshire rain, the woodchuck a New Hampshire woodchuck,' Hirshfield said. So I am deeply grateful to the hospitable table of this place, and if a chair's being set for me, I'm happy to come eat with others.'

That the award carries Hall and Kenyon's name is also significant to Hirshfield. 'Donald Hall was an early influence, going back at least to his iconic poem, 'The Names of Horses,' ' she said. 'That poem showed me something very deep about what a lyric poem might want to do, and how powerfully and tactfully it can do it. . . . Jane Kenyon's work I grew to know later on, first through her profoundly good translations of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. But then came her own poems - luminous, quietly courageous, and, like Donald Hall's poem, beyond their craft genius, important to me in private and personal ways.'

Hirshfield, a Princeton graduate, college professor and practitioner of Zen Buddhism, has won the respect of Hall as well. 'Don was especially enthusiastic about this year's choice,' said McNair, who takes the task of selecting a poet for the award very seriously.

'I want to be sure I'm making the choice in such a way that I'm not only honoring the poet, but I'm honoring Don and Jane through the choice that I make,' he said.

'I love Jane Hirshfield's work, and her also,' said Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, who still lives in Wilmot. 'I know that Jane would have liked her work too.'

Hall is pleased, too, for what the award signifies - that poetry and poets are still honored here in New Hampshire. He credits Mike Pride, the Monitor's editor emeritus and organizer of the award, for helping keep the art form in the spotlight. 'I think the involvement of the newspaper in the poetic life around them is extraordinary and unusual,' he said.

Pride, who is close friends with Hall and several New Hampshire poets, believes that involvement benefits not just journalists and poets but the community as a whole. 'Journalists can learn a lot from poets and the way they approach their work,' he said. 'But poetry is about readers, and journalism is about readers . . . that's the important connection.'

Information about the fall presentation and reading will be released when details are set. Donations may be made to the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon prize fund, c/o New Hampshire Writers' Project, 2500 North River Road, Manchester, NH 03196.


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