PJ Star features Dr. Jannett Highfill

Dr. Jannett Highfill

February 3, 2012

By Gary Panetta, Peoria Journal Star

Meet Jannett Highfill, economist and poet.

In a time when the world neatly divides itself into word-people and numbers-people, so-called art-for-art's sake idealists and show-me-the-bottom-line realists, Highfill finds herself in the unique position of embodying both extremes.

As an economist specializing in international economics, international trade and international monetary economics, she understands all about efficiency and goal-setting.

But as a published poet, she understands something, too, about a realm less easy to quantify and much less amenable to factory line efficiency: the realm of words and feelings with their colors, shades, connotations and rhythms.

"I'm falling down grateful for economics," Highfill said one morning in her office at Bradley University. "But I'm falling down grateful for poetry. Both are utterly essential for me and my head, the way my head works. That kind of analytical way of trying to understand how the world works, trying to get a handle on what happened in the 2008 financial crisis, trying to get a handle on what to do about world poverty - that stuff matters to me a ton.

"But it also matters to me a ton to try to explore and express how I feel about a friend who is in a rest home. But as far as I can tell, economics and poetry don't have that much in common other than it's me who's doing them. My husband would have argued that they have a lot in common because they're both me. But maybe I'm too close to see that."

Highfill's husband was Warren Dwyer, a respected Bradley English professor who died in 2010 and to whom Highfill's book, to be published in January by Finishing Line Press, is dedicated. Titled "Light Blessings Drifting Together," this slim volume's dedication page contains a translation by Dwyer, a Latinist, of a line from Ovid: "When the seas grow calm and love balances the lessons of experience."

"The chapbook, roughly speaking, is the description of a marriage - of a long marriage," Highfill said. "I guess that quote kind of encapsulated my feelings about the long marriage. We were together 21 years. We weren't married that long, but we were together a long time."

Their relationship combined two interests of Highfill's: Her own passion for economics and her husband's passion for literature. Both passions had long been a part of Highfill's life, who grew up in Wichita, Kansas.

"It's absolutely innate," Highfill said about her interest in poetry. "I've been a reader all of my life. My mom, who wouldn't let me have much to do with decorating the house, let me put up a Robert Frost poem when I was a kid in the family room on the paneling. It doesn't sound like much, but in our world it was a big deal. It was a strong statement. Poetry is valued. I can put it up here in the family room.' "

The poem was "The Road Not Taken." She was a high school junior at the time, and has remained fascinated by Frost ever since.

"I love Frost, period," Highfill said. "Diction, tone, pace, a certain tough-mindedness - I like all of that. The strong formal elements."

Nevertheless, it was economics, and not literature, that called to her as an undergraduate.

Part of it was simply the times - the difficult economic period of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the compelling social and economic questions that followed: What had gone wrong? Why wasn't the system working? The same questions are being posed today in the midst of the Great Recession.

"The macroeconomic problems were just conspicuous in a way that they haven't been from 1990 to '08," Highfill said. "How you get good outcomes for people - outcomes in the most practical sense of jobs, prosperity and fairness? Distributional questions."

Highfill's passion for words continued, however, and was shared by her dissertation adviser at the University of Kansas, who was a poet as well as an economist. As a result, combining poetry and economics did not seem strange to her.

When Highfill arrived as an economics professor at Bradley University in 1985, she devoted her spare time to taking courses in literature, art and philosophy. Later, she went on to earn an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.

She said she benefited from earning the MFA - and also has benefited from belonging to a local writers group, the Grandview Hotel Poets, who pride themselves on gentle but honest criticism. The result was a number of published poems, which, together with previously unpublished work, make up "Light Blessings Drifting Together."

In its directness, simplicity and attention to formal elements, the chapbook recalls a little the poetry of Frost, Highfill's favorite poet.

For instance, in "Here," grief and its disorienting effect on a speaker, who is watching a beloved person close to death, is captured by the formal device of breaking up of words and lines on the page. "Last Tithe," a reflection on mortality, is wrenching in its brevity:

The heart stops, once,

beyond the crushing persuasion

of human hands

or instruments made by hands

and we are ungrateful grateful.

"Oh yes, I hate your piano as much as I hate you" begins a poem titled "Breaking Up," and what follows traces an emotional path familiar to anyone who has been in a long-term relationship, with its inevitable hurts and frustrations.

Capturing such experiences in poetry or in the other arts won't balance the budget or lower unemployment. Like religion and philosophy, art doesn't easily lend itself to quantitative analysis or the bottom line. Then again, as Highfill observes, it doesn't need to.

"Economics is about means - the arts are about ends," Highfill said. "Art is per se a value. Its value is not what else it does. The art justifies itself. It justifies itself in terms of the person making it and in terms of the person who's buying it. So poetry is famous for being a venture that costs the artist much more than it makes. My own attitude is 'Fine. That's the way it is.' "