An Interview with Jane Hirshfield
Given Sugar, Given Salt, poems by Jane Hirshfield, available from Harper Collins. (Portions of this interview appeared in the March 16, 2001 edition of the Tacoma News-Tribune.)
Michael J. Vaughn:
You're such a force in representing poetry as an art form - do you see elements at play within "poebiz" that seem bent on keeping poetry obscure and far away from the masses?
I can never quite decide whether poetry these days is a well-kept secret or wildly popular. In an odd way, I think it's both. Clearly most people are not going out and buying books of poetry, either by living writers or the great dead, and yet I also truly believe that poetry is a living presence in most people's lives. Poems are still passed between lovers, and read at weddings and funerals - to me these are the real signs that poetry's still doing its work in the culture. The last party I went to (which wasn't a writerly group of friends), people started spontaneously reciting memorized poetry, things like Kipling and Poe. And then there are other cheering manifestations: there's a poem by Galway Kinnell and also a full-page article on my new book, with a reprinted poem, in the March issue of Oprah's new magazine, O. I have a poem engraved on a brass plaque at a Muni stop along San Francisco's Embarcadero, and I've had one run on a placard in the New York City buses and subways. Not too long ago I bought a dress that had four lines from Wordsworth hanging on a tag, along with the one that had the extra buttons. Maybe these small cameo appearances are the right way for poetry to live in the culture, and it's only our habit of comparing poetry-knowledge to rock songs or movies that makes us feel, at times, neglected or hidden away. Maybe poetry is like ginger or cayenne pepper: so potent that most people wouldn't want to eat a whole dish of it on its own.
I think what we miss, though, is the sense that you might refer to a poem or a poet and have everyone around you know what you're talking about, the way you could talk about the newest Woody Allen movie. Those of us who love poems passionately would like to feel that everyone else loved them as mch, knew them as well, could be as thrilled as I am even at the mention of Jack Gilbert or Anne Carson or Czeslaw Milosz. Still, I don't think there are forces suppressing such knowledge - the general culture is just too speed-dominated to take in poetry well. To read and love poems takes contemplative time, and one of the themes of "Given Sugar, Given Salt" is how even for someone like me, time has speeded up tremendously in the past decade or two. But one of poetry's tasks is the creation of lasting language. I do believe that it is art's nature to survive, and it will.
Michael J. Vaughn:
On the other (decidedly rougher) side, what's your opinion on the poetry slam phenomenon?
I am glad of any kind of participation in vibrant language, of any kind of love of words. If this is what gets young writers engaged and involved, then I'm for it, even though it's not a kind of poetry I myself hurry to hear. Poetry is a very large field - big enough to include Homer's epics and Bob Dylan's song lyrics and e.e. cummings's punctuation-as-play. Surely it has room for us all - the quiet and the loud, the private and the confessional, the metaphysical and the political. Nothing can damage poetry except the deadening of our ears and eyes and hearts, and slams are about a way of finding out how to be alive through shared words. That has to be a good thing.
Michael J. Vaughn:
I recently was asked to help out my niece, who has just decided she wants to write for a living (poor girl) and wanted my advice on poetry. One of the first things that came up was the inevitable confusion over the fact that poetry doesn't need to rhyme, or even have structured meter. How do you explain free verse to someone like this, who's just starting out? How do you explain the meaning behind the line break, the stanza break, the instinctual rhythms behind the apparently unstructured poem?
Free verse never loses its mystery, not even for those who have written it for decades. Sometimes the line break signals a break in meaning or breath, sometimes it serves to cause the poem to leap faster, in order to cross it. The poem on the page is a symbolic notation system, something like a musical score, but there are different conventions in how the visual aspect is being used, and these conventions are established by each poet - even at times by an individual poem. Sometimes the line breaks and the way a poem is set up on the page are in accord with how it should sound, sometimes they are contrapuntal to that, adding a different, jazz-like element. The way you learn how to hear a poem is by testing it on the ear - the way that has the most power is the one that is "right." The music of the poem always does matter, though: that musicality is an integral aspect of the "thought" is what makes poetry poetry?
Michael J. Vaughn:
And one more out of left field: Is there a point at which the poet becomes not just the producer of poetry, but an artistic work herself, apart from the writing? (Obviously, I ask this because I think you're approaching this point yourself.)
This is perhaps an old-fashioned idea, but I think the life and character of the writer (and probably the very best parts of that life and character, if the work is any good) are always what underlies any work - yes, the culture does as well, and the wisdoms and wildnesses of langage itself, but these things must come to the page through the tongue, body, mind, heart, of the writer. The fingerprints are in every image, every sentence. Similarly, working on a poem, on hundreds of poems, changes the person, and I think this may be what you are getting at in your question. I do believe that revision travels in both directions, that writing is an almost yogic activity. A little quatrain by Yeats captures this perfectly: "My friends who say I do it wrong / Whenever I revise my song / Do not know what is at stake: / It is myself that I remake." Poetry for me, from childhood, has always been a means for discovering a self, for creating a self. It is the field in which I have put down my roots and from which I have drawn. Most of the time, we don't live at the pitch of concentration from which art comes, but I think every artist practices his or her art in order to touch the essential, to touch the real. This has to have an effect. Or at least that's my hope.
Michael J. Vaughn is the fiction editor for The Montserrat Review. He is also the author of Gabriella's Voice, a novel from Dead End Street, LLC (deadendstreet.com), and books columnist for the Tacoma News-Tribune.