September 18, 1997
Jane Hirshfield's two new books -- The Lives of the Heart, a volume of poetry, and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a collection of essays -- have more than poetry in common; both are born from a relentless looking, an eye that won't turn away. About her new poems, the bulk of which explore the idea of the heart, she says, "I simply followed what kept calling me to look at it." And the essays, written over a span of ten years, are each well-considered studies on both the craft and role of poetry. "My job as a human being as well as a writer," Hirshfield says, "is to feel as thoroughly as possible the experience that I am part of, and then press it a little further."
Vigilant in this pursuit of the spiritual, drawing on her long-time study of Zen Buddhism and life-long commitment to writing, Hirshfield has left a trail of poetry in her wake. She has written three other volumes of poetry -- The October Palace (1994), Of Gravity & Angels (1988), and Alaya (1982) -- has translated a volume of Japanese poetry, The Ink Dark Moon (1990), and has put together an anthology of 43 centuries of women's spiritual writing, Women In Praise of the Sacred (1994).
Jane Hirshfield spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
Poems by Jane Hirshfield from The Atlantic Monthly (with readings in RealAudio):
The Song (1986)
Within This Tree (1991)
The Love of Aged Horses (1994)
Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight (1996)
The Poet (1997)
Discuss this feature in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.
More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Your new collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, and your latest volume of poems, The Lives of the Heart, have the same publication date. Were you working on these books simultaneously? If so, how did writing
poetry affect the writing of the poems themselves?
The essays of Nine Gates were written over a ten-year period; many predate the work in The Lives of the Heart. Still, I think the direction of influence goes more the other way -- rather than the essays' abstract thinking directing the progress of my poetry, I'd say that it's because I value poetry in its particular, poem-by-poem life that I wanted to deepen my understanding of the poetic mind. The questions I've found of interest are the questions of a working writer rather than a critic, though I hope they prove illuminating to readers of poems as well as other writers.
I see poetry as a path toward new understanding and transformation, and so I've looked at specific poems I love, and at poetry's gestures in the broadest sense, in an effort to feel and learn what they offer from the inside. There's a difference in how you experience an art form when it's engaged with from within; even a little practice with dance lets you feel a ballet inside your body rather than simply as something observed. I also know that looking closely at the workings of others' poems has taught me to feel more closely the turns and images of my own, and has increased my range of response to the world as a whole. That is one of the main gifts poetry brings.
Robert Hass writes in his essay "One Body: Some Notes on Form" that it is from repetition that "our first sense of the power of mastery comes." And Basho, the most celebrated Japanese poet of his day, claimed that after supreme concentration on an object, "the essential nature of the object can be perceived." The Lives of the Heart alludes to or clearly depicts a heart in a great many of its poems. Was this a practice in repetition, supreme concentration, or neither?
It was not at all calculated. When I was finishing my last book, The October Palace, something in me kept saying, "No, write six more poems." Six poems later I still didn't feel like the book was done, and I thought again, "Six more poems." During that second batch of "six more poems" I began to write a slightly different kind of poem, and in each there was a heart and in many also a lion. I thought of them as the "heart-lion" poems, and it turned out, after The October Palace was finished and printed, that I was not done with them yet.
Obsession is not quite the right word for it ... but it's the closest I can come. Something had grabbed hold of my psyche and interest and emotions and I needed to keep working it out. I don't know if I can claim this as "supreme concentration"; it felt more like a recurrent dream. In the dream life you don't deliberately set out to dream about a house night after night; the dream itself insists you look at whatever is trying to come into visibility. There was something I needed to return to regarding the many lives of the heart, and though I knew that "heart" is one of those words -- like "dream" or "poetry" -- that poets are not supposed to use, I felt that, as person and poet, it would be disastrous to turn away from a subject that kept coming up.
What do you think it was about the heart that compelled you?
Part of poetry's core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn't being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward. Perhaps these poems came to me because I hadn't been looking thoroughly enough at the activity of my own heart -- I had fallen asleep in a way, or had been looking overly outward. And certainly the heart is denigrated by our culture, which values the intellect and neglects the emotional, or cheapens it to the dulled formulas of mass media. Perhaps I was looking in those poems for a container of concentration and words with which to try to do better, to counteract that dulling, both inward and outward.
It's also true that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. It's easy to say yes to being happy, but it's harder to agree to grief and loss and transience and to the fact that desire is fathomless and ultimately unfillable. At some point I realized that you don't get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.
You were lay-ordained in the lineage of Soto Zen in 1979. Although your writing is not laden with Japanese imagery or Zen ideas, your work is often linked with Zen Buddhism. What kind of influence has your study of Zen had on your writing?
As I understand it, Zen practice is an investigation of who we are as human beings, and of ordinary experience -- of knowing the taste of your own tongue in your own mouth. If it weren't about everyone's experience it wouldn't interest me. As with every spiritual tradition and practice there's in part a specialized vocabulary and description, but in the end Zen is simply about looking at human being and human nature, about how we are in the world and how the world is. And as a poet, that is also what I want to explore.
The eight years I spent in full-time practice of Zen during my twenties made me who I am; that experience and its continuing life in my life underlie everything I've done since. Zen taught me how to pay attention, how to delve, how to question and enter, how to stay with -- or at least want to try to stay with -- whatever is going on. Still, there are no more explicit references to Buddhism in my work than there are in the work of a number of people who have never undertaken that kind of life. For quite a few years I didn't allow the practice part of my life to become known -- not because it isn't important to me but because it is private. Not everything belongs in the public realm. In any case I'm not an overtly Buddhist poet in the way that, for example, Allen Ginsberg was. But when I wrote the author's biographical note for Women in Praise of the Sacred, I felt I should disclose my own interest and background in the realm of spiritual experience. That information doesn't appear in any of the poetry-book biographies, though, because it doesn't belong there; knowing it may add something, but it's not the governing fact for a reader of my work.
How do you think that the practice of Zen and the writing of poetry relate to each other?
When I began writing one of the essays in Nine Gates, "Poetry and the Mind of Indirection," I thought how odd it is that poetry seems to be a way of thinking circuitously; instead of simply saying "I'm sad," a poem describes rainfall or the droop of a branch. I thought this was a secondary way of thinking, almost the reverse of the direct knowledge of experience a person seeks in Zen meditation. But when I looked into it more deeply I found that traveling by language from self into the world is also a primary way humans understand experience. Language discovers and creates itself through metaphor, and through that process external and internal words reveal their interconnection. Metaphor isn't embellishment; its way of thinking came first and abstract thought arose later, along with literacy. And so what may appear to be indirection is in fact a fundamental way that we human beings understand our lives -- through language that emerges from the body, from the tastes and sensations and movements and gestures of our own bodies and from the body of the earth all around us. In poetry, as in Zen practice, experience comes first. My job as a human being as well as a writer is to feel as thoroughly as possible the experience that I am part of, and then press it a little further. To find out what happens if I ask, "What else, what next, what more, what deeper, what hidden?" And to keep pressing into that endless realm, in many different ways.
Awareness and self-consciousness are delicate matters. Trying to examine more deeply what poems are and how they work has informed my life and brought me great joy. I don't think that attentiveness ever diminishes experience. There are times, however, when you don't want to be self-conscious. One is while writing the first draft of a new poem. At that stage too much consciousness is limiting and therefore damaging. It can wall off the permeable, the mysterious, everything you don't already know. When I write, I don't know what is going to emerge. I begin in a condition of complete unknowing, an utter nakedness of concept or goal. A word appears, another word appears, an image. It is a moving into mystery. Everything I am and know and have lived goes into a poem. I hope I'll never be governed by theoretical knowledge when I set out to write. Poems are born in part from the history and culture of other poems, but in writing I hope to learn a new thing, something fresh about what's going on in that moment, in my own life and in the world. Craft consciousness is essential to the finished poem, but comes later.
In your essay "The World is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation" you write that "encountering Komachi's and Shikibu's poetry at the age of eighteen ... taught me to see and feel differently, introduced to my life a new vocabulary of responses." Translating their work for your book The Ink Dark Moon must have furthered that sense of discovery. What worlds have been revealed to you as a translator that were shut to you as a reader?
I started reading classical-era Japanese literature and Chinese literature in college, in translation; that was my introduction to the vocabulary of Buddhist thought and of a different way of understanding one's life. Very specifically, that was the new vocabulary of responses that the sentence you quote refers to. The few poems by Komachi and Shikibu that were available at that time in English, as well as other works I came across, provided a new emotional and intellectual context for experience that I shared. Many of the poems were about love and love's losses, but described in a way I had never seen before, within the context of transience as a spiritually acknowledged fact of human existence. Finding my own experiences of the heart reflected across such a great gap of time, culture, and language brought its own solace to my tumultuous emotional life; I drew sustenance from the insight, the beauty, and the simple companionship of the poems. The poems held a view of existence I immediately felt as true but had not been able to articulate. It spoke to my life and my heart, not only my mind.
Translating many more of those poems, fifteen years later, was another kind of revelation. Discovering that I could make eight radically different translations of one poem, with each reflecting some part of what was held in the original, freed me from having such an anchored idea of what a poem is. That part of the process taught me to value a greater openness and playfulness of mind in meeting a poem, and also liberated me from the idea that there is only one right response to anything -- perhaps from the idea that there is a "right" response at all. It also brought me to a much greater freedom in revising my own work. I understood more fully that there may be a core, inchoate experience you're reaching for, but that there can be many different ways to reach it. And it freed me from the idea that a first draft is something you need to be tied to. It's not -- it's a gift with which you can then work, without dishonoring the initial form.
With Women in Praise of the Sacred you made even more poetry available to English readers by compiling and exposing a wide collection of voices from around the world. This must have been an overwhelming project. What were the rewards and challenges of being a canonizer?
I never thought of myself as developing a canon while I was working on this project. I began it because I was surprised to discover it didn't already exist. I had looked for women's poems about their experience of the spiritual and the sacred, found a few, and left it at that. But about a year later, my conscience began to nag me. I thought, This is a book that should exist, and I started asking around to see if there was someone who would know what material there might be.
Having done The Ink Dark Moon four years earlier, I knew that the prevalent belief about women's total silence through the centuries was a misconception. Of course women's literature is not well known -- women have been suppressed, their works have been destroyed -- but I had also become very confident that anywhere men were writing, women were writing, whether it was preserved or not. Women simply couldn't be kept from doing this deeply human work of recording, shaping, and discovering their experience through words. I wanted to slightly revise the idea we all received from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own by asserting that yes, it was hard, only a few survived, the social forces against women were enormously powerful, but women have always found their way through words and writing to a full life -- and here is the evidence for it. In fact, the earliest author that we know by name was a woman, the Sumerian moon-priestess Enheduanna, who wrote forty-three centuries ago. It's important we know this if only to correct the great burden that many women still feel -- the burden of being the first, of inventing from scratch. There is a tradition. And I find that companionship encouraging.
In "The World is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation" you note, "Many writers describe the attempt to bring the world into language as itself an act of translation." The standard criticism of literary translation is that a piece of writing does not survive intact the journey from one language to the next that, as you've said, much is lost. In this light how does a lived experience change when it is translated into words?
I'm not sure myself that the metaphor of translation is entirely accurate for the relationship between experience and the poem that seems to come out of that experience. Literally, translation means "carrying over," but it seems to me the relationship between life and language isn't a carrying over but a further creation -- a making of more life through words. Sensation, awareness, emotion, can all exist in beings without language, but complex human consciousness is a worded consciousness, to such a great degree that we often have to work hard to rediscover the immediate life of the body, of the visual imagination, of the senses. Poetry, of course, is a verbal realm in which that sense-born world is of the essence. It is a place of interconnection, where mind and body, self and other, inner and outer, may meet. And so I see poetry not as an attempt to accurately depict an experience already known but as the making of a new experience that presses into some place not yet known. I write poems when I am perplexed, aroused, suffering, curious, uncentered. The poem tries to answer that puzzlement, to expand the boundary of what I can know and understand; in that extended understanding what was shimmering at the periphery can now come into the core. A good poem is a bit like a volcanic island. It creates new terrain of the soul.
You have been active in the writing community -- both in the Bay Area where you live and nationally -- teaching, publishing your work, giving readings and interviews. To you, what is poetry's place in the public realm?
What I first fell in love with was writing poetry. The public-life side of it -- where you go out and give readings and interviews and teach -- came to me as a surprise. But I entered that life, and the question of poetry's place in the public realm is fascinating. Before writing was invented, poetry's role in the public realm was to hold all knowledge in a shape in which it could be remembered; all the technical aspects of poetry were developed to preserve hard-won understanding and knowledge with accuracy over time. Over the millennia, with the advent of writing, that role has shifted. Now the role of poetry is not simply to hold understanding in place but to help create and hold a realm of experience. Poetry has become a kind of tool for knowing the world in a particular way.
In poetry's current manifestation -- and by current I mean at least the past couple of hundred years -- it is the place where the thinking of the heart, mind, and body come together. Its role is to forge a musical, intellectual, and emotional knowledge in which those different dimensions of human consciousness can be brought into one field where we can be fully human. The role of the arts, especially in our increasingly technological culture, is to discover and preserve that way of interconnected thinking. If we forget these other parts of being human -- the connection of human life to the life of rocks and trees and animals and weather -- then we will lose any sense of proportion about how we ought to be in the universe, amid a wider existence.
What do you see as the relationships between poetry and poets and poetry and non-poets?
People talk about poetry's having a diminished life in the current culture, or else they talk about its current renaissance, but I think that in good times or bad times for poetry as a whole, people will always have periods in their lives when they turn to poetry. Dealing with grief or falling in love, people will look for a poem or perhaps write one in the attempt to sort through and understand their most powerful experiences. Or, for the occasions of large transition -- a marriage or a funeral -- they will ask someone to read a poem that marks and holds the feeling. One of the jobs of poets is to keep making those holding words available, so that when other people need them they will be there.
I was deeply moved when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's lover Maurice Tempelsman read Cavafy's poem "Ithaka" at her funeral -- and when it was then reprinted in every major newspaper in the country. "Ithaka" is an important and astonishing poem that holds enormous wisdom about what actually takes place in the scope of a life, and his bringing it forward on the occasion of her death made it available for everyone. The poem served the public purpose of shared grief and could then stay in the mind for private understanding. I think for poetry to have that kind of life in a culture is enough. It would be wonderful if more people wanted to read poetry every day, but it's more important that the poems be there when people need them.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.