| (B. 1953)
These flat and leathery leaves
of a dry country,
dust on window ledges, grip
of roots in the dirt—
how the crone cups us
in parched palms,
blows a little wind into the ear:
garlic, wild rose.
From: Of Gravity & Angels
Wesleyan University Press, 1988
If upon reading this jewel of a poem you feel a sudden whiff of magic in the air, you’re not alone. That is what Jane Hirshfield’s poetry does. You don’t just read her poems. Like Alice, you jump into a wonderland, opening, stretching, transforming your mind with new possibilities. Ms. Hirshfield’s landscapes are not only about pretty pictures, she writes about core issues of human existence, encompassing all the creatures and circumstances relating to that existence and the images conjured up in response to her ideas become alive, real, and sentient; they reach out and draw you inside the poem, inviting you in to dance with them. They grow out of each other, rooted in hard won realizations and a deep understanding of poetry in a concrete way, no matter how ephemeral the ambience might seem.
Her unique expression is the language of music; it flows around you, intrigues you, pulls and enfolds you, embraces you with its voice. Alternately simple and complex, her diction is precise and clear. Her exquisite articulation sparkles with pure sound. And in the combining of mundane and sublime, as with counterpoint in baroque music, she strikes a delicate balance. One listens to different harmonies working independently but weaving together in seemingly effortless mastery. No more evident is the relationship between poetry and music than in Ms. Hirshfield’s body of work; she plays her words with a breathtaking virtuosity. She uses line breaks and lengths to craft rhythms, and her pacings create velocities that move us along from image to revelation.
That is often what great art does—you can analyze it to death but there is an indefinable quality that attracts and pulls you back, over and over again to taste, savor, enjoy, immerse yourself. There is always a mystique, that “hidden something,” that “je ne sais quoi” which compels you to explore further and understand deeper. You are well rewarded and never disappointed.
While you gather experiences listening to life’s orchestra, “a world full of noises,” Ms. Hirshfield teaches that silence too is important and even necessary for creating art, that sometimes, if you listen carefully, it is in the silences that you can hear what your poems want to tell you.
have a chair, her shadeless lamp,
the table. Let one or two she loves
be in the next room. Let the door
be closed, the sleeping ones healthy.
Let her have time, and silence,
enough paper to make mistakes and go on.”
From: “The Poet”
Lives of the Heart, HarperCollins, 1997
Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City in 1953. After receiving her B.A. magna cum laude from Princeton University, she went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. Ms. Hirshfield has had an extremely distinguished career in poetics and creative writing. She is a celebrated poet, essayist, translator and scholar, and has held many teaching appointments and numerous honors.
The New York Times has lauded her work as “radiant and passionate.” The Japan Times called her book of essays, NINE GATES: ENTERING THE MIND OF POETRY (HarperCollins, 1997), an “indispensable manual for any writer,” her several collections translating the work of earlier women writers are now considered classics, and her many appearances at writers conferences and literary festivals in this country and abroad have been highly acclaimed.
Ms. Hirshfield’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Orion, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, five editions of The Best American Poetry, and countless publications. Her work frequently appears on Garrison Keillor’s public radio Writer's Almanac program and has also been featured in two Bill Moyers PBS programs. In fall 2004, Jane Hirshfield was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets, an honor formerly held by such poets as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop. She has taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, and Bennington College. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Jane Hirshfield is the author of six collections of poetry, including After (shortlisted for England’s T.S. Eliot Prize and named a “best book of 2006” by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and England’s Financial Times), Given Sugar, Given Salt (finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award), The Lives of the Heart 1997, and The October Palace (1994), All published by HarperCollins; Of Gravity & Angels (Wesleyan University Press, 1988), and Alaya (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series, 1982). She has also written a book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Literature (HarperCollins, 1997) and edited and co-translated The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Komachi & Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (Vintage Classics, 1990), Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994), and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2004, with Robert Bly).
Ms. Hirshfield’s Books
|| Click on books for their Amazon page.
Some of Ms. Hirshfield’s honors include The Poetry Center Book Award; fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets; Columbia University’s Translation Center Award; three Pushcart Prizes; five selections for The Best American Poetry; and (both twice) the Commonwealth Club’s California Book Award and the Northern California Book Reviewers Award.
Click on this link to view a list of Ms. Hirshfield’s publications, honors and academic appointments.
Jane Hirshfield’s poetry
Pure and translucent language that is metaphysical in nature is characteristic of Ms. Hirshfield’s poetry. Her original and lightning-swift allusions feed the momentum of images building one upon another in writing that is simultaneously simple and elegant. Ms. Hirshfield's observations touch a responsive chord in her readers. She crafts poetry that is subtle but filled with sensory richness, able to hold multiple meanings and truths: it originates from a place of depth and intuition, propelling readers to test their own capacities. A diffused light seems to shimmer from this one:
The Tea Light of Late September
As if the porous bag
had been dipped
in the summer’s water,
then set aside.
sleep and waking,
I took it between my lips.
And though the earth
and everywhere cruel,
the heart diamond flashed out
once, twice, and once again
it cannot help but make to beauty,
before the bone-white cup
is fully drained.
From: The Lives of the Heart
With this short poem below, Ms. Hirshfield in saying so little, says so much and displays her deep connection with Japanese poetry. As in haiku, words are used with extreme economy and restraint, yet they take on many roles. They must immediately leave the writer’s hand and in a few, deft brushstrokes coalesce into an image that invites readers to look under the surface for what’s left unsaid.
The Groundfall Pear
It is the one he chooses,
yellow, plump, a little bruised
on one side from falling.
That place he takes first.
From: The October Palace
Her poems invigorate, deeply touch, express truth and experience in a precise way. We know this poetry will endure over time because the poet has the intelligence and humility required as a vessel for truly great art. In the finely drawn images of this next poem, we hear our own sad melodies played out.
Not Moving Even One Step
The rain falling too lightly to shape
an audible house, an audible tree,
blind, soaking, the old horse waits in his pasture.
He knows the field for exactly what it is:
his limitless mare, his beloved.
Even the mallards sleep in her red body maned
in thistles, hooved in the new green shallows of spring.
Slow rain streams from fetlocks, hips, the lowered head,
while she stands in the place beside him that no one sees.
The muzzles almost touch.
How silently the heart pivots on its hinge.
From: The Lives of the Heart
In this beautifully titled poem we have the opportunity to experience Ms. Hirshfield’s fine articulation of language, the precise details, the clarity and concision of her words and thoughts:
Orange Oil in Darkness
The useful part
of things is elegance—
in mathematics, bridges.
Even in hedges
of ripe persimmons
or mandarin oranges,
for the minimum possible,
The art is what is extra:
A fragrance penciled in,
or long division’s inescapable remainder.
Not quite unplanned for,
more the unexpected, impractical gift.
Not the figures traced
in the bridge’s stanchions
but the small
and lovely sounds they make in the wind.
Who drew that in?
Who could have?
For years now I’ve mistaken
art for beauty,
but it is not beauty.
Art lives in a plenitude more iron,
more empty, less demanding.
Art doesn’t care,
except in moments of despair.
Those it lets pass, recognizing weakness.
From: Lives of the Heart
Sometimes reading Jane Hirshfield is a glimpse into enlightenment. Often exact understanding eludes the reader, but each reader finds something unique by virtue of his own memories and experiences.
This stunning and deceptively simple poem catches the reader by surprise:
Hope and Love
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark.
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
From: Lives of the Heart
Ms. Hirshfield is able to articulate the depths of emotion without an excess of sentimentality. She has the knowledge of our limitations and looks upon those shortcomings with an understanding eye. Readers will feel the poignance in this mellow, evocative poem:
The Heat of Autumn
The heat of autumn
is different from the heat of summer.
One ripens apples, the other turns then to cider.
One is a dock you walk on,
the other the spine of a thin swimming horse
and the river each day a full measure colder.
A man with cancer leaves his wife for his lover.
Before he goes she straightens his belts in the closet,
rearranges the socks and sweaters inside the dresser
by color. That’s autumn heat:
her hands placing silver buckles with silver,
gold buckles with gold, setting each
on the hook it belongs on in a closet soon to be empty,
and calling it pleasure
Ms. Hirshfield’s words lend themselves to an alchemical transformation. Thoughtful and reflective, her writing is extremely intelligent. Her poems find resonance in our minds and hearts—her discovery becomes our discovery, her comprehension, ours:
Take the used-up heart like a pebble
and throw it far out.
Soon there is nothing left.
Soon the last ripple exhausts itself
in the weeds.
Returning home, slice carrots, onions, celery.
Glaze them in oil before adding
the lentils, water and herbs.
Then the roasted chestnuts, a little pepper, the salt.
Finish with goat cheese and parsley. Eat.
You may do this, I tell you, it is I permitted.
Begin again the story of your life.
From: Lives of the Heart
An impression of freshness like a breeze right after a cleansing rain, or the sudden glint of gold
running through a dark stone deepens as the poem masterfully turns in an unexpected direction:
Large as two hands together
still cupping rain
yellow of amber stripped lightless,
scent of cold leather.
Nameless, one of ten thousand,
lifted without complaint or hope
to this painted table,
neither envelope nor letter.
Almost nothing. Yet before you,
words lie down in envy and silence,
Switch their tails,
bury their damp, dark snouts between paws.
From: Lives of the Heart
Hirshfield’s poetry shows her awareness of the present, of living in the moment, which she sometimes breaks away from to plunge deeper into uncharted areas of our psyche:
“Almost the twenty-first century”—
how quickly the thought will grow dated,
Our hopes, our future
will pass like the hopes and futures of others.
And all our anxieties and terrors,
nights of sleeplessness,
will appear then as they truly are—
Stumbling, delirious bees in the tea scent of jasmine.
From: Lives of the Heart
The poet’s voice quiets for us to hear what is unspoken in the silence between each intake of breath, so still and soft it is, barely perceptible. Layered like tissue wrappings only to find a hidden core of energy that drives the poem, here is a piece as delicate as its title:
“I never knew when he would come,”
my friend said of her lover,
“though often it was late in the afternoon.”
Behind her back the first plum blossoms
had started to open,
few as the stars that salt the earliest dusk.
“Finally weeks would go by, then months,”
she added, “but always I let him in.
It made me strong, you see,
the gradual going without him
I think it taught me a kind of surrender
though of course I hated it too.”
Why he would appear or stay away
she never fathomed—
“I couldn’t ask. And that also seemed only good.”
A small bird fluttered silent behind her left shoulder,
then settled on some hidden branch.
“Do you ask the weather why it comes or goes?”
She was lovely, my friend, even the gray
of her hair was lovely. A listening rope-twist
half pity, half envy tightened its length in my chest.
“When he came, you see, I could trust
that was what he wanted.
What I wanted never mattered at all.”
The hands on her lap seemed quiet,
I noticed something unspoken begin to
billow and shimmer between us,
weightless as muslin,
but neither of us moved to lift it away.
From: Given Sugar, Given Salt
We need wise and compassionate poets like Jane Hirshfield, one who has earned her insights about the human condition, having lived through pain and strife. Somehow a maturity and integrity inhabits her work; there is both strength and beauty in her words. And considering how swiftly her poetry moves within, there is surprising depth.
Ms. Hirshfield is a visionary whose poems are distilled from a larger consciousness springing directly from her spiritual practice and world experiences. Her touch is light and deft, but each word is weighted. Her work, although not overtly flavored with the Zen Buddhist path she has followed for many years, is both spiritual and humanistic. Her clear intellect and innate feel for the poem blends with a sensuous music that wields an astonishing power.
Jane Hirshfield reminds us that being a great poet is not about the accumulation of degrees and honors; it is not about publishing copiously and the recognition that may come as a byproduct of a successful writing career, but about learning, experiencing, opening art to the truth. Ultimately, it is about being alone with a poem, being faithful to one’s art, and finding the joy in writing. Each poem requires different treatment from its creator who shapes the poem even as the poem shapes the poet. It is about setting free revelations from the words and living in them, in understanding that while the words are in our care, we have an opportunity to say something worthwhile; to make an impact, to nurture and form those words before we let them loose. Once the ink has dried, they belong to a larger world.
Please click on link below to read the wonderful “Craft Interview” with Ms. Hirshfield:
Deep Craft: A Conversation with Jane Hirshfield
(We thank Ms. Hirshfield for her gracious permission to use all materials, poetry and photographs for this feature, and for her generosity in sharing with us her brilliant insights and teachings about the craft of writing in her superb interview. We are also indebted to Ms. Hirshfield’s publishers, HarperCollins Publishers and Wesleyan University Press for the opportunity to reprint poems from The October Palace, After, Given Sugar Given Salt, Lives of the Heart, and Of Gravity & Angels.)