Jane Hirshfield


American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist

Author Quotes

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.

It's more for me as with going into a forest: if you sit quietly for a long time, the life around you emerges. As the world grows ever more clamorous, my hunger for silence steepens. I unplug the landline.

Never surrender a good question for a mere answer.

Poems give us permission to be unsure, in ways we must be if we are ever to learn anything not already known. If you look with open eyes at your actual life, it's always going to be the kind of long division problem that doesn't work out perfectly evenly. Poems let you accept the multiplicity and complexity of the actual, they let us navigate the unnavigable, insoluble parts of our individual fates and shared existence.

Some haiku seem reports of internal awareness, some seem to point at the external, but Bash??s work as a whole awakens us to the necessary permeability of all to all. Awareness of the mind?s movements makes clear that it is the mind?s nature to move. Feeling within ourselves the lives of others (people, creatures, plants, and things) who share this world is what allows us to feel as we do at all. First comes the sight of a block of sea slugs frozen while still alive, then the sharp, kinesthetic comprehension of the inseparability of the suffering of one from the suffering of all. First comes hearing the sound of one bird singing, then the recognition that solitude can carry its own form of beauty, able to turn pain into depth.

The nourishment of Cezanne's awkward apples is in the tenderness and alertness they awaken inside us.

There is no paradise, no place of true completion that does not include within its walls the unknown.

What poems are doing is counterbalancing the mainstream tenor of our culture, which is to do, to be active, to be energetic and to prove one?s self? and one of the messages underlying all poems that move us is that we have nothing at all to prove

You can't write an image, a metaphor, a story, a phrase, without leaning a little further into the shared world, without recognizing that your supposed solitude is at every point of its perimeter touching some other.

Immensity is always there, but we so often become numb to it, or deceive ourselves into thinking our own lives and selves are what's large. Step into the ocean or walk on Mount Tamalpais, and that kind of amnesia and self-centeredness isn't possible. Enter the natural world at all, you see existence emerge, ripen, fall and continue, and you can't help but feel more tender towards self and others. That summoning into the large and the shared is what poems exist also to do.

It's one of the saving graces in a life, to be able to perceive one's own and others' absurdity, to notice our shared human frailties and be able, at least some of the time, to smile rather than grimace. Like most people, I must have started out with a comic worldview in my cupboard.

One breath taken completely; one poem, fully written, fully read ? in such a moment, anything can happen.

Poems offer us counter-knowledges. They let us see what is invisible to ordinary looking, and to find in overlooked corners the opulence of our actual lives. Similarly, we usually spend our waking hours trying to be sure of things - of our decisions, our ideas, our choices. We so want to be right. But we walk by right foot and left foot.

Some questions cannot be answered. They become familiar weights in the hand, round stones pulled from the pocket, unyielding and cool.

The pressed oil of words can blaze up into music, into image, into the heart and mind's knowledge. The lit and shadowed places within us can be warmed.

There the beloved red sweater, bright tangle of necklace, earrings of amber. Each confirming: I chose these, I. But habit is different: it chooses. And we, its good horse, opening our mouths at even the sight of the bit.

What some could not have escaped others will find by decision.

You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.

Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry? Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears ? paradoxically ? at the moment willed effort drops away? At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present ? a feeling of joy, or even grief ? but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

I've gone to Yaddo many times, I've worked at the Rockefeller Foundation's Center for Scholars and Artists in Bellagio. That these are places of beauty and of changed landscape is helpful - but far more important for me is that they offer what I feel as a monastic luxury: undisturbed time.

One reason to write a poem is to flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, music, you didn't know was in you, or in the world.

Poems want to awaken intimacy, connection, expansion, and wildness.

Some stories last many centuries, others only a moment. All alter over that lifetime like beach-glass, grow distant and more beautiful with salt. Yet even today, to look at a tree and ask the story Who are you? is to be transformed. There is a stage in us where each being, each thing, is a mirror.Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door, ravenous to enter the sweetness of flowering nettles and thistle. Next comes the ringing a stone or violin or empty bucket gives off -- the immeasurable's continuous singing, before it goes back into story and feeling. In Borneo, there are palm trees that walk on their high roots. Slowly, with effort, they lift one leg then another. I would like to join that stilted transmigration, to feel my own skin vertical as theirs: an ant-road, a highway for beetles. I would like not minding, whatever travels my heart. To follow it all the way into leaf-form, bark-furl, root-touch, and then keep walking, unimaginably further.

The Promise: Stay, I said to the cut flowers. They bowed their heads lower. Stay, I said to the spider, who fled. Stay, leaf. It reddened, embarrassed for me and itself. Stay, I said to my body. It sat as a dog does, obedient for a moment, soon starting to tremble. Stay, to the earth of riverine valley meadows, of fossiled escarpments, of limestone and sandstone. It looked back with a changing expression, in silence. Stay, I said to my loves. Each answered, Always.

There?s, of course, another stage of things, after the first draft is written, in which other knowledges and intentions do come in. You have to know enough to be dissatisfied with the easy phrase, with the false or timid gesture, and also with the masks of style or stance. You have to want, more than anything else, to make your own discovery each time. You have to welcome both your own strangeness and your own fierceness. And you have to have an ear, an eye, that will recognize when a poem has stumbled in its music, seeing, courage, or path, so you can know that you need to work with it further, to ask of it more.

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American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist