After flipping a coin to determine who would speak first, poets Brenda Hillman and Robert Hass encouraged University of Mississippi honors students to keep poetry in their lives while working for social change. Delivering the keynote address for the recent Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College fall convocation, the husband-and-wife duo even sensed poetry in the event’s setting, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
“We are in a place where Barack Obama and John McCain debated, and it is awe-inspiring,” said Hillman, winner of the coin toss.
Hass, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to ’97, teaches at the University of California-Berkeley and is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. Hillman, whose work has been described as eclectic, mercurial and sensuous, is one of the country’s foremost avant garde poets. Both are internationally renowned, prominent environmental and political activists.
Hillman said that certain skills of a poet can be useful for students “in this time of crisis for our country and our world.” These skills include using the power of one’s senses, paying attention to the language that is used, getting in touch with different kinds of information and choosing some form of action to support a group.
The importance of language is key not only to communicate thoughts and ideas, but to see how an issue is framed. Using the aftermath of this summer’s Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico as an example, she said it is a mistake to belittle an environmental disaster by calling it an “oil spill.”
“Spill is what a 4-year-old does, it’s not what a $68 billion company does,” she said.
She also encouraged students to support local businesses, which will in turn employ their classmates, parents and friends. Hass reminded the students that it is their generation who will inherit the Earth and it is up to them to pass it on better than they found it. He weaved stories about cranes in the demilitarized zone of Korea, a wildlife biologist studying birds on the California coast and the forests of Mississippi.
“There’s a whole world to get to know and part of your job is to fall in love with the Earth,” Hass said. “People can change the world and it can be done. You can get the skills to have the power to be in the world, and then work for social change.”
Freshman Kristen Ellis said she was expecting the duo to only talk about poetry, so the wide realm of topics they covered pleasantly surprised her.
“To hear about political impact, as well as about literature, was not what I expected,” said Ellis, a Ridgeland native. “It was very enlightening and inspiring, and as a business major, it was good to hear that I can have an impact on the business world and the world as a whole,”
Hass and Hillman live in Kensington, Calif. Their visit, which included two poetry readings earlier in the week, was sponsored by the Honors College, the English department, the John and Renee Grisham Visiting Writers Program and the College of Liberal Arts.