Commentary, Interviews

Interview // Jane Hirshfield

By Maggie Trapp

Jane Hirshfield is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently The Beauty (Knopf, 2015), as well as two books of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf, 2015) and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (Harper Perennial, 1997). 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; and (both twice) The California Book Award and the Northern California Book Reviewers Award. In 2012 she was received the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. 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. In 2012, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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I have been reading Jane Hirshfield’s poetry for years, but it was only relatively recently that I was introduced to her critical prose when I was told by a friend to read Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry two years ago. Reading this collection of essays on poetry was eye opening, and it has changed my teaching and informed my own writing in numerous ways. When I learned that Hirshfield was coming out with a new book of essays that carry on the work done in Nine Gates, I knew I wanted to talk with her about her ideas as well as her process. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World is a gorgeous book, and I feel honored to have been able to talk with Hirshfield about it. (Maggie Trapp)

In Ten Windows you write, “This book continues the investigation begun in an earlier volume, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. The questions pursued by poems themselves are speckled, partial, and infinite. These books, though, pursue as well a single question: How do poems—how does art—work? Under that question, inevitably, is another: How do we? Inside the intricate clockworks of language and music, event and life, what allows and invites us to feel and know as we do, and then to increase our feeling and knowing?” (vii–viii) What spurred you to write Ten Windows? What need in you, and/or what lack in the world, do you see this book as addressing?

Philip Larkin published a book of essays under the title, Required Writing. I suppose my essays are “required thinking,” because I write them when asked to speak thoughtfully about poetry in public—each of the pieces in the book began as a talk. But if I’m going to spend two or three months writing, and if some number of people will spend an hour of their lives listening to and later reading what I’ve written, I want that quotient of life to go toward something interesting, and, I hope, a little new, a little unusual. Tap-root questions are where my curiosity lies. How do poems help us carry the uncertainty that is part of the human condition? Why is paradox such a ubiquitous route to enlarged knowledge? If you begin with nothing at all, what goes into the making of poems? How is it that poems we’ve read a hundred times still have the capacity to move us to tears? A good question is for me the start of discovery—it focuses attention, the way a physical window invites and governs the direction of looking out that will happen through it.

Ten Windows is a wonderful collection of rich, resonant, important close readings as well as life lessons and learning. The book is as much a primer on reading poetry as it is a primer on how to think about life. What readers do you see for your book? Is this a book “for a working writer or a craft-alert reader,” or both? (158) You write of “poetry’s consoling powers” (128); where can we find these? Where and how do you see this book in the world?

First, thank you for seeing the book exactly as I’d hope for it to be seen. One chapter’s title begins “Close Reading,” and I do feel that the honing of close attention, showing what that looks like in practice in many different ways, is the warp and weft on which the carpet of not only art but also a life is woven. For your question about readers, though, I think that, just as with poems themselves, it’s in a way not the writer’s task to predict her words’ audience. We can’t know who will find what we do of worth, of interest. A columnist for Forbes re-reads Nine Gates (or did, I was told some years ago) every New Year’s Day. A mathematician of note read Ten Windows in manuscript—he may have been the fourth or fifth person to have seen the full book—and the depth of his enthusiasm was reassuring. Of course the core audience for a book like this will always be writers and readers of poems. But I love that my words find readers beyond that. To find in an essay collection a primer for life— isn’t that part of what we hope for poems themselves? “Primer” perhaps in the sense we use when we speak of house paint. Art readies us. It helps deepen and expand the experience of a life, and bonds us more intimately to one another and our own hearts and minds.

Where do you see poetry’s place now? What is the role of poetry in public life as we know it? What about readers who are new to or adverse to poetry—is there hope for them?

I’m not sure there is a reader truly new to poetry—not if they’ve ever heard a lullaby, a hymn, a rock or country music song, or Jabberwocky, anyhow. I know no one who doesn’t have a list of songs that go with them through their days and nights. Every child learning to speak practices the joy of repetition, the babble of music making, the pulsed wail of outrage.

The kinds of poem you are more asking asking about, though, often do the work of carrying what cannot be said in any other form. Poems carry shimmer, multiplicity, undertow, mystery, kites of meaning and feeling so elusive they cannot be seen, yet they tauten the string that holds them. Mostly now, “serious poetry” is a backwater in current American culture, scarcely a puddle. Yet when the moment comes that a poem is needed, poetry is there. After 9/11, there was Auden’s “September 1939,” there was Adam Zagajewski’s “In Praise of the Mutilated World.” These poems were rope ladders many climbed to return to a world abruptly made incomprehensible. This for me is no small role poems can offer. After the Chinese earthquake in Szechuan, in which many children died in collapsed, ill-built schools, millions of people wrote poems. How else to express grief, outrage, shock? Action was needed, but in large crises, comprehension is equally needed. We say of certain events that they are “heart-stopping.” Poems are how the heart finds a way to go on. They also enlarge us, lead toward compassion, and allow for (forgive this old-fashioned word) wisdom. That kind of wisdom is needed. Visionaries matter. It is one reason that Gary Snyder, working as a seaman on a freighter in 1949, could foresee the environmental catastrophe we now live in broader consciousness of. It’s one reason, in this country’s current and seemingly perennial perplexity about race, so many poetry books by black writers have come to the fore. In good poems, preconception becomes porous to new news.

Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I don’t think many of us these days would agree with that description. Even the acknowledged legislators can’t seem to legislate. But artists are, can be, the antennae of the race. It is ironical that it was Ezra Pound, that most unreliable antenna, who said this. Yet in that irony is a further truth: art, if it is good art, allows a person to think, say, feel something that surpasses the person, whose frailties, faults, inadequacies will always—in any of us who are human—be endless.

You make reference to “good poems” and “good poetry” often in Ten Windows. Can you say more about what makes a poem good? I think you get at this idea when you write “Only words that enlarge the realm of the possible merit borrowing our attention from the world of the actual and the living: they will return us to it restored to the knowledge of a malleability and amplitude we may have forgotten,” (104) and when you write, “One of the penalties and graces of consciousness is waking each day to the awareness that the future cannot be predicted, that the universe’s foundation rests on an incomprehensible receding, that bewilderment, caprice, and the unknowable are among the most faithful companions of any life. Mostly, it seems, we go on by inventing a story. Yet no story completely suffices….For those willing to let themselves feel it, any story leaves behind an uneasiness, sometimes at the center, other times at the edge of perception, and like the remainder left over in a problem in long division, it must be carried. Literature’s work, and particularly poetry’s, is in part to take up that residue and remnant, to find a way to live amid and alongside the uncertain. Plato banished poets from his republic in part because he thought poetry escapist, that it dulls the desire for truth by the hypnosis of beauty. But good poetry, as we’ve begun to see, doesn’t in fact allay anxiety with answers—it startles its reader out of the general trance, enlarging a bearable reality by means of a close-paid attention to attention’s own ground.” (122) Can you say more about this? How do you, or we, learn to recognize good poetry?

Well of course, the main way I’ve said more about it is by writing the book you have chosen to quote from so generously. For me, a good poem is a poem that leaves me feeling transformed, enlarged rather than narrowed, with a greater sense of my own existence and the existence of others, with a greater capacity for being a kite available to many winds and still able to stay aloft. Good poetry is a recognizable experience, but hard to name in generality, because so many different strategies can create it. Its own awareness is also part of what creates it. Poetry makes poetry. The same words, in another context, might fail completely to move, even to mean.

You write both poetry and essays/books on poetry. How do you see these two endeavors in relation to each other? What moves you to write one or the other? Your newest poetry collection, The Beauty, was released just as your book of essays on poetry, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, was released. Do these two works speak to or about each other? How?

I don’t take my thoughts about poetry’s workings and craft as yardsticks for measuring the fabric of my poems when I write. You have to assume that one affects the other, in the way that any reading of good poems teaches a young writer, or an older writer for that matter, what poetry is. But I write, and revise, by a process more subtle, subliminal, and complex than a checklist—even if I can make one up, after the fact, to describe the kinds of questions that I might bring to the first draft of a poem. As I said earlier, I write essays because I’m asked to. I write poems because I have needed to, since childhood. They are part of the ladder by which I travel my life, both upward and downward.

Where and how do you like to talk about poetry? What do you think of traditional MFAs, low-residency MFAs, MOOCs, community writers’ houses such as the Hugo House in Seattle, etc.?

Writers and readers are people of the word, and like to talk with one another from time to time. Even the Chinese hermit poets sent letters, and visited one another across the mountains. As we have come to a less intimate society, what would have earlier in history happened in the coffee house or in private gatherings now often happens in more organized ways—but let’s not forget, Sappho led a kind of academy, Horace’s “The Art of Poetry” began as a tutorial letter to two brothers who were his students. I’m in favor of a democracy of conversation. I’m in favor of education in all its many forms. A landscape once confined to traditional (and generally expensive) academic pursuit now includes many other possibilities for people unable to leave home for two years and pay substantial tuitions. I received no small part of my own education in poetry (I only have a B.A. and never went to graduate school) listening to other poets’ craft lectures at summer conferences. The excellence of what takes place in such gatherings, or at Hugo House, Poets House, The Loft, is invaluable. For many far-flung poets, with jobs and families, a single week at a conference can replenish the spirits for a year.

Who/what do you read when you read in your non–book tour time? Which writers and which books do you draw inspiration from?

I will give you a perfectly arbitrary answer—give you what’s at hand right now, within reach of me as I type: the South African artist William Kentridge’s Six Drawing Lessons; Gary Snyder’s new book, This Present Moment; a good number of splendid and recently published books by friends, including poetry books by Prartho Sereno, Richard Jarrette, Rosalind Brackenbury, Chana Bloch, and Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty; a book of conversations with the consummate theater director, Peter Brook, Between Two Silences; a book of kinetic and beautiful photographs of John Cage and 100-word reminiscences by people who knew him, John Cage Was; and last, Wislawa Szymborska’s final collected poems, Map. That one, I don’t want to open; I don’t want to arrive into a world in which I can read no further unknown-to-me poems by Szymborska.

You write in Ten Windows, “‘Heard melodies are sweet,’ wrote Keats, ‘but those unheard are sweeter,’” (94) and, “The unexpressed can at times affect the reader more strongly than what is explicit, precisely because it has not been narrowed by conscious accounting.” (108) Your close readings, extrapolations, and insights in this book are incredibly moving and eye opening. Given what you (and Keats and, you also note at one point, Frost) have said about how meaning resides in the unsaid, the unarticulated, what do you see as the role of craft talks or literary analysis? How do you write so well and invitingly about poetry, all the while reminding us that poetry is, at heart, about what cannot be summed up or explained? You also write, “It’s the inability to be known or explicated completely that infuses aliveness into good poems—they become, as the poet Donald Hall has written, houses with a secret room at the center, the place in which all that cannot be paraphrased is stored,” (115) and, “Poems, if they are good at all, hold knowledges elusive and multiple, unsayable in any other form.” (138) Knowing/thinking these things, how would you advise teaching both the reading and the writing of poetry? Is there a way or a space for learning this craft? You write so lucidly and lovingly about poetry in Ten Windows; how do you square this kind of explicative thinking about verse with verse’s very inexplicability.

Robert Frost was once asked after a reading to explain one of his poems. He replied, “Oh, you want me to say it again, only worse?” I remember the flood-moment when, rereading as an adult “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” that so familiar poem, I suddenly felt the vastness of the dark it awakens, the tiny and momentary intimacy of carriage and horse and bell sound….A person need never articulate the underlying and evoked things to feel them. The very point of poems is to raise feelings and comprehensions that live beyond words. But still: We can say a great deal, find a great deal to notice and praise, should we be curious to do that. It’s a bit like driving a car versus taking apart and rebuilding the engine. For most people, they never need to know how a car goes down the road, it just works. But neither will it make the car run less well if you know something about mixing fuel and oxygen under pressure.

I have long told students: Three times in your life, take a poem you love and write out everything you can about its craft. Scan the rhythms. Mark the half-rhymes and alliteration. Note the verb tenses and moods, the long and short sentences. Attend to each image, study each adjective and noun, punctuation mark, line break. Try to name the poem’s strategies of rhetoric, try to feel the terrain it awakens in you. Doing all this won’t make you a great poet. But it will, I suspect, expand your tool chest’s contents. When you need a line in the imperative, the imperative will be there. When a poem feels dull, you might be able more quickly to figure out what to change or cut. Awareness, once undertaken, sharpens vision and intelligence and feeling. That awareness is mostly intuitive when we write first drafts, and still mostly intuitive when we revise. But attention paid bears fruit.

You ask about teaching. When I teach, I am always teaching just this: attention.

You write in Ten Windows of “Poetry’s surprisingly purposeless purpose” (207–208), and that “The idea of a choice between pleasure and purpose—in art, or in life—is a false one….art’s seemingly useless pleasures are not idle.” (251) Can you say more about this? This is a sentiment that might seem retrograde, even risible, in our frenetic, frazzled times. Can you explain more of what you mean by this?

Poetry, and art in general, often counterbalance the main tenor of a culture. They carry different truths, as the Fool does in the court of a king. They puncture power and purpose’s narrowing of view. We lean towards the purposive and practical, not just as humans, but as mammals. Poetry reveals another set of values, which equally matter, and make life bearable in ways that it otherwise would not be. Kindness, astonishment, seeing the beauty in darkness and grief, seeing the darkness in beauty and joy, finding solace in the knowledge that you live a life others have also known. Utilitarianism alone is a cruel and strictured measure of a life. Think of Milton’s sonnet on his his blindness, as he tries to counter his sense of himself as now useless. It’s concluding line echoes the Bible’s lilies: “They also serve who also stand and wait.” Think of Wordsworth’s critique of the world being, during his lifetime, remade by the Industrial Revolution, a world we still live in:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Think of almost any haiku by Issa:

Don’t eat him, friend sparrow—
among the blossoms…

What a relief it is, to read these lines. Poetry’s uselessness’s use is to restore us to the breadth of our hearts’ free-ranging.

Yes. There’s a particularly lovely passage about that in Ten Windows: “While poetry reminds us of the uselessness of the useful, it reminds as well of the usefulness of the useless. It reminds us, that is, that existence itself if sufficient. The reasoning of great poetry transcends reason because reason—a faculty rooted in the attainment of goal and its own perpetuation—cannot and does not encompass the whole of life. Through a good poem’s eyes, and, ironically, through a good poem’s craft, we see the world liberated from what we would have it do. Existence does not guarantee us destination, nor trust, nor equity, nor one moment beyond this instant’s almost weightless duration. It is a triteness to say that the only thing to be counted upon is that what you count on will not be what comes. Utilitarian truths evaporate: we die. Poems allow us not only to bear the tally and toll of our transience, but to perceive, within their own continually surprising and continually generative abundance, a path through the grief of that insult, into joy.” (206–207) Can you say more about what you mean here by “a good poem’s craft”? And how/why is this craft ironically involved in liberation? Could you unpack and expand on this passage?

I’m not sure I can, though I’m glad you’ve quoted that paragraph. It takes the full book to unpack the idea that good poems are a freeing and liberation, to show how that happens in a set of very different poems. I’ve always loved something R. P. Blackmur once wrote: “Good poems expand the available stock of reality.” Ten Windows is in no small part a record of my exploring that provocative statement.

When you write that “[p]oems rummage the drawers of what does not yet exist but might, in the world, in us,” (244) you strike a very hopeful tone. Relatedly, you write in Ten Windows that the effect of a good poem is what happens, in collaboration, between the poem and the reader of the poem. As a poet yourself, do you have this sense of future readerly collaboration in mind as you write? Do you imagine readers making meaning of what you write? Do you write with a reader or readers in mind?

I am a poet who writes so deeply inside the feeling of searching, there’s no room to think, in that first writing, about readers at all. I am barely aware of myself—as I imagine a dog following a scent becomes all nose, though the legs are running, the ears flapping, the tail flying. Awareness of readers at that point would cause my imagination’s legs to trip. Plus, I am simply an introvert. As a child, I hid my poems under the mattress. They were not for show, they were written to lash together a life raft.

Later, though, as I became somehow a poet who puts her words out in public, and one who teaches, I became a writer who does consider the reader—but only in the stage of revision, once it’s clear that the first draft is a poem at all. Then I will, as part of revising, step back and try to see what the words might say to a person with no prior knowledge of them or of the life they emerged from. You try, as best you can, to see what that page-drawn experience might be.

I have to allow, after many years of publishing, some inescapable, subliminal awareness of readers’ presence. I try to let that influence me as little as possible, but it’s there. A sense of conversation and of responsiveness develops over time. I don’t set out to write poems in response to current events (or on any other subject) as a deliberate practice, yet it seems I many times have. Perhaps this is what’s meant by “responsibility.” Not that we ought to write on any particular, socially shared subject, but that the ability to respond to whatever is in awareness is part of what it means to be poet.

That leads directly to my next, and last, set of questions. In “What Is American About Modern American Poetry,” you write, “A final facet of American poetry that needs bringing forward is its sometimes vexed relationship to public engagement….Uneasiness about the question of ‘engaged poetry’ has surfaced roughly once a decade for sixty years now, and the debate over whether or not poems should be socially useful or significant elements in larger cultural debate seems, at least for some, perennially troubling.” (234) Where do you stand on this question? Where should poetry be in our society? What role does it play? On a related note, do you think going back to requiring elementary- and middle-school children to memorize and recite poems is a good idea? Few people have lines of verse (aside from songs) running in their heads now. Are we poorer for that, or was that a way of interacting with poetry that was not open enough or interesting enough and we’re well rid of those rote memorizations?

To start with your last question, I have such a poor memory, and always have, that I found school memorization terrifying. I chose poems no longer than sonnets, and unlike most people I know, I don’t recall even one of those early memorized poems. But this is a personal failing. In adulthood, I’ve memorized a baker’s dozen of poems, and try from time to time to refresh and keep them. It’s astonishing how often a person might find it useful to recite Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” or Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Memory gives us so much, enlarges so greatly. It’s been my fate to have to find a way to live mostly without that. I carry a lot of notes with me when I teach. I write down my thoughts in essays because the page holds what my memory does not.

For the question of engaged poetry and the need for it, I stand firmly with both sides. Environmental catastrophe, justice-awareness, violence-awareness—for me these are continuous with, not separate from, what is interior and personal. A human life does not come in boxes with borders. The fate of a mountain stripped for mining, the fate of a child sold by a family that cannot afford to feed her, the fate of my own heart—these are not separable. I’ve written of the death of my sister and I’ve written of the First Gulf War, I’ve written of desire and longing and eros and in some of those poems there are images taken from physics. I’ve written of war grief by describing an artichoke’s long boiling.

The dissident “Misty” poets of China risked jail because they wrote love poems—valuing the personal, individual, and subjective life was the route to Tiananmen Square. People who take one side or the other here, who say we must write this, or must not write that, seem to me to have fallen into a strange simplification. Why narrow what poems can do? Our lives are hybrid, alloy. They take place on ground private and public, emotional and ethical, practical and foolish, personal and social. We babble for love of sound-play. We ask language to paint into visibility language’s own incapacities. We make aphorisms that delve into politics, philosophy, social commentary. We investigate with new poems old epics, their archetypes and antitheses. We renovate, unbuckle, refasten. A pencil can be turned toward childbirth, marriage, a dead father’s shirt. Good poems stand witness to any and all of these things. I would not, myself, want any definition of poetry that leaves out any part of what it is to be human.

Maggie Trapp teaches literature and writing for UC Berkeley Extension. She writes book reviews for various publications, and she is the staff poetry reviewer for Extract(s).