Jane Hirshfield’s two newest books are The Beauty (poems; long-listed for the National Book Award) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, both Knopf 2015. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, NEA, and Academy of American Poets; the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry; the Poetry Center Book Award; finalist selection for the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T.S. Eliot Award; and eight selections in The Best American Poetry. A current chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, Hirshfield’s work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and Poetry.
Your new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, and your latest volume of poems, The Beauty, both came out earlier this year. Were you working on these books simultaneously? Does writing about poetry affect the writing of the poems themselves?
Thinking about poems — how they work, what they do, and why we need what they alone can do — is a lifelong pleasure for me. It brings a kind of intimate knowledge that can’t help but influence how a person then writes. Attention alters what it touches. But for me as a poet, this happens only in subterranean and indirect ways. To write a poem isn’t to paint by numbers (do those kits still exist?) or follow a cookbook recipe. You don’t take one metaphor, one surprising shift of relationship, and mix with one shift of grammar or view. To write a poem, for me, is to weave a needed rope out of thin air, often in desperation, while falling.
Still: writers are sponges, and language and art are a communal heritage, the holders of certain kinds of perennially needed knowledge. Craft-awareness is part of that knowledge. As a writer and as a reader, I take in the flavors and colors of the waters I live in. The act of writing drinks in and also changes those waters, even if only by a molecule or two. There’s a slightly altered concentration of salt, a change of current. Each poem I write changes me, and each poem I read and think about changes me. The effects on my life are a fuller, broader, and more freeing sense of existence. Poems let the birds loose from the thickets.
How do you compile your books? Do they have a shape, a narrative?
Many current poetry books are written at the level of the book. I write at the level of the individual poem. My books’ coherences and rangings are simply the reflections of my life during the years in which their particular poems were written. This is partly choice, partly necessity. I don’t want to be overly conscious when writing new poems or to know anything at all about them in advance. I write to discover, to experiment, to expand the perimeters of who I am and what I might find out about this shared world, its utterly implausible shapes and unknowable unfoldings.
When the time comes to assemble the poems into a book, that is the stage in which I discover more consciously the shape of those years, the subjects that have come to haunt me. I do my best then to give the book an arc that makes sense, one governed by music and mood as much as by meaning. Almost no one reads books of poems in order, first page to last, yet the first poem matters, the last poem matters. What comes between them is, inevitably, felt as a journey. But in my case, it is not a preplanned one. It is, as a life itself is, a journey found after the fact. In The Beauty, for instance, I placed the poem “Fado” at the opening of a book that is recurrently looking at the idea of fate — by which I mean the shape of a life, my own and others’, an awareness increasingly present now that I am well traveled into the shape of my own. Yet it was only after the book was in print that I learned that “Fado” means not just the Portuguese song-form I had in mind, it is also, simply, the Portuguese word that means … fate.
These coherences will take care of us on their own. I feel, for myself as a poet, that my task is not to narrow my focus to any predetermined set of themes, ideas, emotions. It is to be grabbed by the throat, by the tears found inside the throat. To become more and more permeable, to be alert to whatever enters into awareness. And then to press further, to find the poem, to find the life. It is as the last poem in the book, “Two Negative Numbers Multiplied by Rain,” describes it: “I wanted my fate to be human. / Like a perfume / that does not choose the direction it travels, / that cannot be straight or crooked, kept out or kept.”
Do you spend a long time revising?
Some poems come clear fairly quickly, others I struggle with for months, through fifty or eighty drafts. No reader could tell which is which. Time is a good editor — leave a poem for five minutes, five hours, five days, five weeks, five months. If it still feels right after five months, if nothing troubles me when I read it through, it will probably stay as it is. But sometimes it might take five years. In one poem in The Beauty, there’s something I’d changed back and forth many times, and I’ve changed my mind about it yet again. It’s just two words switching place, but to me, it matters. I missed making the change for the third printing. It will be changed the next time. I’m grateful that my wonderful publisher, Knopf, will let me do this.
Your poems are praised and revered by some of our country’s most respected poets. Ted Kooser said, “I have never seen a poem of hers that I didn’t admire.” Did you always believe in your work, even at an early stage?
Believing in your work is a concept from the adult world and probably emerges from ideas and values outside the immediacy of self. I started writing poems very young. They offered refuge, safety, and a way to discover and feel through my life in private ways. I wasn’t thinking at all about publishing or readers. Even now I need that sense of protection and solitude to write — to feel that I can say anything and feel anything because I can always, if necessary, put the evidence into the woodstove. There’s tremendous safety in what can be tried without repercussion. It’s why our dream lives are so free, and why the life of the imagination is so essential, in every realm. One definition of play is “movement.” The part of writing that is play allows for the great experiment, for liberation from category and constraint we have no control over. Beauty, music, metaphor — all bring some play to our relationship to our outer lives.
Doubts exist. They are part of any writer’s psychic weather. T.S. Eliot said, at the height of his fame, “You die without ever knowing how good you are.” In the end, it seems a writer just has to do what she or he likes to do. The weathers of self-estimation and the estimation of others are beyond control anyhow. Like actual rain, heat, and cold, self-doubt and self-belief will come and go. It’s good, though, to be skeptical and dissatisfied about your own first drafts. Complacency and over-confidence make for the dull, sloppy, self-indulgent writing. But despair, the moments when all your own words seem like ashes? That, a person just suffers. The only use of despair is that having felt it, you become able to understand that darkness in others. Meanwhile, making poems continues to be part of my nervous system, the way the senses of touch and vision are.
You have said: “Raising compassion, in a way, is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are.” I’ve noticed when reading much of your poetry, the “I” or “me” in a poem does not feel like one person’s lone experience — the images and language are inclusive, collective. In that sense, I don’t put down a copy of The Beauty with this itching desire to study the biography of the person who wrote the poems — I simply feel part of that biography. That’s a real gift as a reader. When poetry is such a personal and intimate art form, how do you let the audience in? How do you keep a poem from becoming an egomaniac?
Thank you for feeling and seeing the poems exactly as I hope them felt and seen. I’m not an outwardly autobiographical poet, even though every poem comes from my life, its bewilderments, musics, questions, freedoms, swoonings, blows. A human voice is particular, individual. It is inevitably of its own time and place and fate. But it is also just that: a human voice. I want this to be heard in my own poems as I want to hear and experience it in the poems of others. I’ve never been in prison, but when I read the mid-20th-century Turkish poet Hikmet, I recognize his circumstances, struggle, longings. I have never been sent into exile, I have never been a soldier. But the poems of exiles and soldiers are not, for me, reports from a country I feel isn’t also mine. It troubles me when, as sometimes happens, we emphasize difference to the exclusion of the sense of shared fate. I feel my life as one distinct thread of an inseparable fabric — these human bodies and fates and songs of ours that begin in birth and end in death, that unfold and vanish on a planet of bird wing and bedrock, hunger and longing.
I suppose the other way to answer your question is this. You keep a poem from being egomaniac by not yourself being an egomaniac. And yet, certain kinds of egomania are not egomania. Think of “Leaves of Grass”:
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual … eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist … no stander above men and women or apart from them … no more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me … and whatever is done or said returns at last to me,
And whatever I do or say I also return.
“Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos …” What a statement that is, in ten words mixing individual identity, country, commonality with others and with the immensity of the whole. From that ever-widening acknowledgment, the actuality of shared fate becomes possible, and the immense compassion of this passage becomes possible. It offers a knowledge we never cease to need.
Has the role of poets changed over time or has it stayed the same? What do you think that role is?
Over deep time, the role of the epic poet, the poet-bard as the repository of a culture’s knowledge and self-knowledge has receded. Literacy gave us a technology of memory beyond rhyme and meter’s holding of words in place. It gave us Wikipedia and libraries.
But the role of the lyric poet? That is the same as it was at the beginning. The unchanging task of the lyric poet and poem is to change us. Lyric poems help us bear the unbearable, take in and live amid the incomprehensible. They usher us through all the rearrangements of being that must be transited over a life. Lullaby accompanies an infant into the helplessness and surrender of sleep. Love poems, praise poems, prayers of all kinds, work songs, and elegies — all these are technologies of shift. Poems can bring comfort — they let us know, not least, that we are not alone — but they also unseat us and make us more susceptible, larger, elastic. They foment revolutions of awareness and allow the complex, uncertain, actual world to enter. The beauty of poems is so powerful, it makes possible their acts of deep insurrection and surgery within us …
Over the millennia, lyric poems also have taken on more and more subjects. That expansion of looking is part of what lyric poems do. I don’t know of any poem about the moment of entering fatherhood before, say, Galway Kinnell’s poems about the births of his children. Yet what is that moment if not a transition of being? It is poetry’s task, expanding poetry and expanding the sense of a life. And then, what holds a more subtle, nuanced, and complex a response to the frailty and suffering of human existence than this 6,000-year-old fragment from ancient Sumer — “The gods admire this earth. / I am red with its dust.”
What is on your desk right now, and why is it there?
Of my desk, it is probably best not to speak.
If you could keep only one book, and you would have to read it over and over for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I prefer the option of the actual — to live, as we do now, amid a library of Borgesian proportions, a field of books and voices infinitely expanding. But forced, I might pick the collected Shakespeare, because I would then have with me so many worlds, moods, passages, phrases, situations, people, riddles, emotions, ideas. I’d have an anthology of poems and circumstance. Another choice might be the Oxford English Dictionary — the boxed one in two volumes with the magnifying glass in a drawer above them. It is full of fascinating first-usage quotes, the ladder-wisdom of etymologies, and the worlds that words themselves unleash, springing at you in all their striped-tiger originality, fierceness, and oddness.
Interview by Joy Biles