“The music and poetry wash over each other,” says Dodge Poetry Festival founder Scott McVay, who saw them perform together at the Festival in 2008. “It’s a mixture of left brain and right brain, concentration and relaxation.”
As artists-in-residence at the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, New York’s St. John the Divine, the Consort has performed in such acoustically resonant places as Washington’s National Cathedral, the Grand Canyon and the Negev Desert.
The Chapel is a special place for Hirshfield, as well, who graduated from Princeton in the first class to include women in 1973. “I was in Princeton’s Chapel the first week I was a freshman,” she says. “I don’t know what that entirely naive and deeply shy young woman would have thought if someone had said I would be returning to read my poems, let alone in the company of the Paul Winter Consort, whose music makes a chapel all on its own.”
Recently elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, the New York City native had, in her 20s, put poetry aside to study at the San Francisco Zen Center for eight years. “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,” she said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life.”
Her interest in Zen philosophy began at Princeton, where she took courses in Japanese and Chinese poetry, and was introduced to poet Gary Snyder, who came to campus and gave a talk on the Buddhist Yamabushi sect mountain monks.
Hirshfield’s most recent volume, “Come Thief,” evokes a common theme of Buddhist parables: Welcoming the thief. “Come, thief, the path to the doorway agrees,” she writes in the title poem.
“All paths welcome whatever wants to walk on them. The person delivering the mail comes down the path, the thief comes down the path,” she said in an interview taped by Voice of America. “Your beloved comes down the path. Your enemy comes down the path, and the path never chooses. The path says yes to it all.”
The work of poetry, she says, is to make us permeable not only to the experiences inside us, but what goes on all around us.
Since the 1960s, Winter has been listening to the songs of the humpback whales, as well as wolves, eagles, elk, loon cicadas, elephants and birds — all are given a vocal part in his music of the Earth. Winter has traveled by raft, dog sled, horse, kayak and tug-boat to 52 countries and wilderness areas on six continents to record the symphony of the Earth.
The Consort’s newest work launched in spring, Flyways, celebrates the miracle of the great bird migration from Africa through the mid-East to Eurasia, exploring indigenous musical traditions from each of the cultures over which they fly, interwoven with the vocalizations of some of these 350 species of migrating birds.
“To read with the Consort is to find yourself on a mountain,” says Hirshfield. “Sometimes you walk, sometimes you listen. Doing either, you are held by something large and transformative and amazing.”
Music and Poetry of the Earth will be performed Wednesday, October 10, 7 p.m., at Princeton University Chapel. It will be followed by a Meet-the-Artists reception, with drinks and desserts, to benefit the preservation mission of D&R Greenway Land Trust, 8:30 – 9:30 p.m.
Reserved Seating and Meet the Artists Reception $75, available through D&R Greenway at (609) 924-4646; Reserved Seating $35, and General Admission $15, available through Princeton University Ticketing Office, by phone 609-258-9220, online http://www.princeton.edu/utickets/, or in person at Frist Campus Center Ticket Office, Monday-Friday noon- 6 pm. Free for Princeton University students with valid ID.