Jane Hirshfield


American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist

Author Quotes

What we want from art is whatever is missing from the lives we are already living and making. Something is always missing, and so art-making is endless.

You must try, the voice said, to become colder. I understood at once. It's like the bodies of gods: cast in bronze, braced in stone. Only something heartless could bear the full weight.

In a room with many windows some thoughts slide past uncatchable, ghostly.

Justice lacking passion fails, betrays.

One recurring dream, many others have also: you go into a familiar house, discover a door or hallway, and find the house continues into hidden rooms. Sometimes a whole second house is there, a larger and unknown extension of the familiar dwelling.

Poems? are perfume bottles momentarily unstopped?what they release is volatile and will vanish, and yet it can be released again,

Something looks back from the trees, and knows me for who I am.

The same basic attention and permeability are the beginning of poetry writing. Whatever I?ve done in both practice and poetry is a search for ways of seeing and speaking, of feeling and understanding, that draw from the limitless well of the limitless real. I?ll add, I always feel a slight dismay if I?m called a ?Zen? poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that?s all. Labels just get in the way. The fundamental wildness and mystery of existence slip every leash we try to put on them, and both meditation practice and the writing of poems are leash-slipping acts.

Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.

What you understand no longer matters.

Your fate is to be yourself, both punishment and crime.

In my poems though, as you say, the comic arrived fairly late. This doubtless has something to do with growing older. A person who's seen a bit of the world can't help but notice how foolish is the self-centeredness we bring to our tiny slice of existence.

Learn how to pay attention with every one of your senses, inner and outer. Read. Live. Love. Write. Then do these things more. And last, keep the window open some inches more than is comfortable.

One way poetry connects is across time... Some echo of a writer's physical experience comes into us when we read her poem.

Poetry is a release of something previously unknown into the visible. You write to invite that, to make of yourself a gathering of the unexpected and, with luck, of the unexpectable.

Standing Deer: As the house of a person in age sometimes grows cluttered with what is too loved or too heavy to part with, the heart may grow cluttered. And still the house will be emptied, and still the heart. As the thoughts of a person in age sometimes grow sparer, like the great cleanness come into a room, the soul may grow sparer; one sparrow song carves it completely. And still the room is full, and still the heart. Empty and filled, like the curling half-light of morning, in which everything is still possible and so why not. Filled and empty, like the curling half-light of evening, in which everything now is finished and so why not. Beloved, what can be, what was, will be taken from us. I have disappointed. I am sorry. I knew no better. A root seeks water. Tenderness only breaks open the earth. This morning, out the window, the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.

The same words come from each mouth differently.

This garden is no metaphor - more a task that swallows you into itself, earth using, as always, everything it can.

Whatever is split will carry its shadow, that second road, its yellow leaves falling and falling in the steep woods of our hundred other lives.

Zen is less the study of doctrine than a set of tools for discovering what can be known when the world is looked at with open eyes.

A poem's essential discovery can happen at a single sitting. The cascade of discoveries in an essay, or even finding a question worth exploring in one, seems to need roughly the time it takes to plant and harvest a crop of bush beans.

At another level, though, poems can craft an eraser - we can't revise the past, but poems allow us some malleability, an increased freedom of response, comprehension, feeling. Choice, what choices are possible for any given person, is another theme that's run through my work from the start.

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.

Good poems bring the grant of malleability. They make the world, and the self, workable, when it might seem to have stiffened past change. They hold the omnipresence of interconnection without dismantling solitude and the inner. They undercut adamance, oversimplification, stubbornness, and our current culture?s dependence on the practical as the only way forward. The practical matters enormously; I went to a swing state and knocked on doors during the last election. But without the enlargements and suppling of imagination, practical action would quickly lose not only heart but reason. We aren?t goaded toward the good only by dread. Hope matters as much. Tenderness matters as much. And the arts?all the arts, not just poetry?are a reservoir of these multiplying, opening recognitions.

I am perennially grateful that from time to time I have had the chance to go on writer?s retreat for a month?and for me, those months in artist colonies have made a set of paradise-interludes in my life. Paradise means, literally, a walled garden. To live in one all the time would be to cut yourself off from the world. But to go into one periodically, to be immersed in silence and freed of ordinary tasks?this for me is perfect writerly happiness.

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American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist