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“To poets, all doors are open”: Poet Jacqueline Osherow reads at Sterling Divinity Quadrangle

By Elizabeth Pinborough, M.A.R. ’10

Poet Jacqueline Osherow was immersed in the Hebrew language from a young age. She vividly recalls learning that single words could have multivalent meanings and tells of being fascinated by certain phrases even before she could read. For Osherow, this fascination has to do with the “idea that it’s a holy language and we don’t really know what it means.”

Osherow, distinguished professor of English and creative writing at the University of Utah and author of five books of poems, gave a reading of her poetry on Nov. 3 as part of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Literature and Spirituality Series 2008-09.

Before the reading, Osherow met with students and professors to discuss her work.

Of her primary text, the Torah, Osherow said she has “tremendous reverence for it” but at the same time “quarrels with it.”

Second-year M.A.R. Horace Ballard asked Osherow how she knows when to end a poem. Osherow replied that, while she was enrolled in poet Robert Lowell’s last class, Lowell said of one of her poems, “This is lovely, but a poem has to end.”

Brad Holden, another second-year M.A.R. candidate, asked whether the biblically allusive character of Osherow’s poetry makes it hard for her to connect with a wider audience. Osherow responded affirmatively but explained that poetry in America is not necessarily going to reach a very wide audience anyway. “You write poems for the ideal reader....[And] you hope somebody likes it. If you were writing for an audience, you wouldn’t write poetry.”

Describing how she chooses what to write about, Osherow explained, “I have to hook myself—write something that I won’t want to abandon. Once I hook myself, I’m very stubborn.”

A native Philadelphian, lover of Florentine art, and former student at Harvard and Princeton, Osherow now resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, which has had a significant influence on her poetry. For one thing, Utah has a beautiful and remarkable landscape that Osherow draws upon.

Also, Osherow cantillates for her synagogue, which she might not be able to do in a larger Jewish community with more cantors. The reading aloud of a “holy language” has significant implications for her poetry. Osherow said, “Chanting reveals meanings in the Torah that you don’t get when you read it silently.”

In remarks to the audience before Osherow’s reading, Professor Peter Hawkins recalled that a former student of his had introduced him to Osherow’s poetry with the words, “She writes the Bible now.” Hawkins said that part of the magic of Osherow’s poetry can be found in her love and study of Hebrew, Italian, Yiddish, and English. Also, Hawkins noted, Osherow “writes with a wonderful sense of humor that is in the Bible,” which readers don’t often pick up on.

Osherow read a poem from each of her five poetry collections, then concluded with a couple of sonnets and a longer poem titled “Todas las Puertas,” in which she describes “traveling in search of Jewish Spain” and illustrates how “to poets, all doors are open.” Although she writes in English, Osherow’s reading has the nature of a cantillation, her lilting voice carrying listeners deeper into biblical texts and modern Jewish landscapes.

Rachel Winter, a first-year M.A.R. student, felt that Osherow was a particularly good choice for the Spirituality and Literature series in light of her engagement with biblical text. “Torah is part of her,” she said. Similarly, for YDS students, “Working out the problems of the Bible is part of who we are.”

Osherow’s most recent book of poems is The Hoopoe’s Crown.  She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Witter Bynner Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. She is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Utah.

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