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Katherine Mary Mills

Jane Hirshfield and the Mind of Poetry - Jane Hirshfield
An interview by Katherine Mary Mills


Background

Jane Hirshfield's books of poetry include Alaya (1982), Of Gravity and Angels (1988), and The October Palace (1994). Denise Levertov said of Hirshfield's work in The October Palace, "I enjoy her attentiveness, the concrete details and musicality of her images, and the way abstract and concrete interweave..." David St. John termed her work "delicate, metaphysical reflections." Hirshfield has also co-translated and edited The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Komachi and Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Japanese Court ( 1988) and Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). In 1997, Hirshfield published a fourth book of poetry, The Lives of the Heart; the Antioch Review commented that her poems "renew, reaffirm the power of language." Also in 1997, Hirshfield published her first book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, which Robert Pinsky described as a "rare and fine" collection of essays in which Hirshfield writes about "the mysteries of art," and for which Gary Snyder characterized Hirshfield as having "a diamond-hard set of insights to share."

For this interview, I first visited Hirshfield - former Buddhist monk, literary scholar and translator, horsewoman and poet - in her home surrounded by her garden in the hills north of San Francisco. Later, in the way of modern life, we completed this interview by e-mail.

KMM
:
You told me that you created your anthology, Women in Praise of the Sacred, because it was a book you wanted to read, but no one had yet compiled it, so, finally, you decided you had to do it. Did you feel this way about your new book of essays, Nine Gates? That it was something that someone should say about poetry?

JH:
Nine Gates began a little differently - each of the essays was written for a particular occasion, usually a craft lecture at a writer's conference. But within that outer request, there was also an inner one: what could I, in particular, bring to the centuries-long conversation that writers and readers have been conducting about poetry? Each year, for the better part of a decade, I asked myself that question again. What interested, puzzled, intrigued me? I never asked myself to write about what I already understood; I looked at things I was curious about. What makes a poem a poem, or a good poem good? What is originality? How is translation possible? What is the role of the poet in the culture at large? While I drew on many other people's thoughts, I was always interested in what new ground I might find to think about these rather ancient subjects. I wanted to explore the deep understructures of poetry, to make my own map of its powers - which are in the end always mysterious and always changing.

KMM:
In Nine Gates, you talk about your being Buddhist and your time in a Zen monastery. How did your study of Buddhism affect your writing?

JH:
Zen practice, and particularly monastic practice, was something I needed to do, as a person and as a writer, before I could even think of doing anything else. I was twenty-one when I started to practice, and knew almost nothing of what it was to be a human being, to enter deeply a human life. I needed to learn how to pay attention, how to stay with my own experience, how to become more permeable to the real and also more grounded in it. Before I entered the monastery, all my poems ended in a kind of drifting, in the "dot, dot, dot" of ellipsis. They had a vagueness to them, a desire to escape, that came from a vagueness in my character, my life. One effect of Zen on my poems is that my relationship to elusiveness changed. I became more willing to stand by the image, and so the work became more specific and focused. And though I still write many poems in which certain things are deliberately left unsaid, now I want that unsaid thing to be palpable, comprehensible, and present, like a large boulder six feet behind the reader's shoulder. It may not be in your direct field of vision, but it is solidly, essentially there, as the answer to a koan is there.

KMM:
Also in Nine Gates, you speak of the poet as "removing the self" so one can "begin to see the landscape undistorted by clamorous self-assertion." In The Lives of the Heart, the majority of the poems lack "clamorous self-assertion," and only about one quarter use the pronoun "I." In your earlier book, Of Gravity and Angels, roughly half the poems include the pronoun "I," and only a handful have the sense of the self as being removed. This place of being removed seems a Buddhist stance and also a point of view more common to, if you'll excuse the expression, middle age. Do you feel you have changed your point of view or perspective in the last ten years? Was this a goal you pursued? Is it, in fact, Buddhist?

JH:
I've also noticed that over the years certain pronouns have been more likely to set me to writing than others, and that this has shifted. My first book had many poems written in the universal "we." My second, as you point out, is a book of "I"s and "you"s. The third, The October Palace, began the move you noticed into a more objective speaking. Even the "I," when it does appear, is often more objective than it once was.

Novalis once said that we spend the first half of our lives developing the self and looking inward, and the second half going beyond that, looking outward. Both are necessary. The beginning student of meditation spends a great deal of time simply learning to notice what goes on in her or his own mind, and that process is ignored at great peril - unconscious energies, as Jung said, will return to us as fate. Some poets - fine poets - stay always in the personal; and as we know, the personal, if clearly seen, is also the universal human condition. Such poems are not in any way "lesser." But there is also something liberating and powerful in the poem that speaks through the outer image, story, perception. Nothing is ever "outside" the self, really - but how expanded is the self that encompasses the story of other forms of being within its own heart. Is this Buddhist? Yes. But it is also human - as any genuine truth must be. Shakespeare's plays do not have in them Shakespeare's personal "I."

KMM:
You advise the poet to observe the world, but the reader experiences the poem, not the world. This speaks to the value of the poetry, of all art, for that matter. Do you have advice for the reader as well? What experience do you hope to have when you read poetry?

JH:
I hope to be taken into an experience that clarifies and magnifies my knowledge of being. Reading a good poem does that - it changes us, enlarges us. My advice to anyone who wants to read poems is pretty simple: choose well what you read, and then give what you have chosen to read your fullest possible attention Read carefully, thoroughly, passionately. Be accurate to the experience of the words on the page, and be accurate to your own response to them. Hear the poem, let it move in your body, heart, tongue, mind.
If anyone wants to know what it is to read poetry truly well, I recommend the essays of Joseph Brodsky. His essays on Frost and Auden, in particular, show what is possible when a reader of genius encounters a great poem.

KMM:
You talk of the writer observing and not imposing a subjective, willed frame on the work, of the necessity for being open to experience, and you have also described poetry as creating a way "we make a pattern to avoid chaos and despair." Can you explain how those two things work together, or is there a tension between them?

JH:
The openness has to do with being permeable to our own experience, in which anything and everything must be able to enter - including, of course, our experiences of chaos and despair. That comment speaks to the content of the psyche and the content of the work. The second statement is about the nature of the art itself - by art we make a shapeliness which can hold chaos, can hold despair, and come to see the life and beauty that reside even in them. As Louise Glück has written, no matter what depth of grief a poem holds, in writing the poem we transcend that grief, free ourselves from it. We are strangely happy, working on that grief-filled poem. I think it is the happiness of knowing our own experience fully, but also being a little free of it. In writing, our experience is recognized as workable terrain - we become less afraid of the power of our emotions when we can feel ourselves also as collaborators in our own lives. That is why writing is a way to know experience most fully - in writing that is both honest and artful, we become fearless and fierce pursuers of the real.

KMM:
In Women in Praise of the Sacred, you included poetry by women from religious traditions throughout the world and history. You've said you feel this inclusiveness is creating a larger culture in which all traditions are becoming available to us. Yet surely some traditions appeal more than others, have special meaning to us, over others?

JH:
Each of us is of course shaped by our birth culture first, whatever we experience later in our lives, and for many of us the rhythms and language and imagery of that earliest tradition will remain the most powerful and resonant and "true" all our lives. But I think there's a tendency to forget how hybridized every tradition is, unless one is part of an intact aboriginal culture - and even then, it's unlikely that the themes and stories are free of the influence of other cultures. In Women in Praise of the Sacred, I traced how imagery from an ancient Sumerian ritual reappears in the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs; our American "home-grown" New England Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, read deeply in Eastern religious texts. Nowadays, Catholic monastics sit in Zen meditation, and the Dalai Lama meets with Kabbalist rabbis - they do this not in order to depart from their own traditions, but to enrich them with the wisdom of others. That opportunity is what I mean by a "larger culture." To want to close oneself off from other traditions would be like those who advise that if you want to be an "American" writer, you shouldn't really read work in translation - as if Whitman didn't take his voice from that greatest of all English-language translations, The King James Bible.

KM:
You are an Easterner, a New Yorker, a graduate of Princeton, who has lived on the West Coast, in the San Francisco Bay Area, for most of your adult life. Has living on the West Coast made you a West Coast poet? Has this landscape or the lifestyle you have here affected your writing? Certainly I would suspect in subject, but also in tone and perhaps other ways?

JH:
I think a writer is always the reflection of his or her circumstances, landscape, companions. There are young, second-growth redwoods outside my window; I have yet to write about them in a poem, but surely their presence affects me. My Zen practice, my interest in Japanese and Chinese poetry, mark me as a "Pacific Rim" writer - yet, all those interests began when I was still on the East Coast. So how do we define it? Why not take the easy path, and say I live on the West Coast, so if someone wants to call me a West Coast writer, fine. That kind of categorization isn't really my concern. I don't mind how I'm described, so long as it doesn't mean I have to give up reading and learning from East Coast writers, Midwestern writers, Polish writers, Greek writers, Korean writers.

KMM:
The horse or horses are often the focus, the main character of your poems. This speaks of your great affection for horses and your years of working with them. They are like us, you seem to say. But, more recently, lions appear as metaphors in several of your poems: "Knowing Nothing," "Spell To Be Said Upon Waking," "Lion and Angel Dividing the Maple Between Them," "Each Happiness Ringed by Lions." They are almost mythic in power. Why lions? What do they mean to you?

JH:
Sometime around 1992, the lion began walking into my poems, at the same time as the recurring trope of "the heart." Everyone knows that the writer may be the least qualified to expound on her own obsessive images, and the poems themselves are probably the best answer to your question. I can say only the obvious - the lion is fierceness and beauty; undeniable presence; danger; power; passionate love; transformation. Perhaps, for me, as one title in your list implies, lions are the earthly answer to angels. In Buddhism, to speak the truth is known as the lion's roar. The lion appeared as well in my research for Women in Praise of the Sacred. I noticed that wherever the goddess of abundance appears, she is accompanied by lions - the ecstatic devouring that must accompany abundance, to prevent the earth from filling past its brim.

KMM:
In Nine Gates, you wrote of the poem as instructing the poet: "The poem may know something that the poet as yet does not." Did you find that true of essays or prose also? Do you expect to write more prose?

JH:
I imagine I will continue, since the world keeps asking me to talk about these things. And yes, writing prose is also an act of discovery for me. What else would make it interesting enough to do? Anything worth doing is an act of going into the unknown and bringing something back, whether a new word, perception, feeling, or a new head of garlic from the spring garden.


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