Jane Hirshfield


American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist

Author Quotes

Zen pretty much comes down to three things -- everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.

I travel as much as I do. It isn't the life I expected. I don't know what dust of pollen will come back with me from these travels. But I must trust that I will not treat frivolously the glimpses I've been given into other places and others' lives.

In the dictionary of Cat, mercy is missing.

Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days.

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.

Poetry's work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving

The creative is always an act of recombination, with something added by new juxtaposition as making a spark requires two things struck together.

The thought that something we cannot see, of unsurpassable skill and unimaginable form, exists in the back room?s locked safe?isn?t this, for any artist, for any person, an irresistible hope, beautiful and disturbing as the distant baying of Thoreau?s lost hound that tells us, not least, that the mysteries of distance are endless?

Time-awareness does indeed watermark my books and my life.

When the body dies, where will they go, those migrant birds and prayer calls, as heat from sheets when taken from a dryer? With voices of the ones I loved, great loves and small loves, train wheels, crickets, clock-ticks, thunder ? where will they, when in fragrant, tumbled heat they also leave?

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.

I want to preserve a certain unknowing about my own poems - perhaps because unknowing is in itself a useful poetic thirst. To move the perimeter of saying outside my own boundaries is one reason I write.

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.

Life is short. But desire, desire is long.

Passion does not make careful arguments: it declares itself, and that is enough.

Poetry's work is the clarification and magnification of being.

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.

The trick, though, is to not lose compassion, to not allow the sense of absurdity to outweigh the awareness of real beings, with real feelings. Mean-spirited humor turns the world into cardboard, the way Midas's simple-minded greed turned food into inedible and useless stuff.

To feel sabi is to feel keenly one?s own sharp and particular existence amid its own impermanence, and to value the singular moment as William Blake did infinity in the palm of your hand?to feel it precise and almost-weightless as a sand grain, yet also vast.

When your life looks back-- as it will, at itself, at you--what will it say? Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool. Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from. Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many. Your life will carry you as it did always, with ten fingers and both palms, with horizontal ribs and upright spine, with its filling and emptying heart, that wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return. You gave it. What else could do? Immersed in air or in water. Immersed in hunger or anger. Curious even when bored. Longing even when running away. what will happen next?--the question hinged in your knees, your ankles, in the in-breaths even of weeping. Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in. Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face. No back of the world existed, no unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for. This, your life had said, its only pronoun. Here, your life had said, its only house. Let, your life had said, its only order. And did you have a choice in this? You did--sleeping and waking, the horses around you, the mountains around you, the buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts. Those of your own kind around you--a few times, you stood on your head. A few times, you chose not to be frightened. A few times, you held another beyond any measure. A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure. Mortal, your life will say, as if tasting something delicious, as if in envy. Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.

A tree lives on its roots. If you change the root, you change the tree. Culture lives in human beings. If you change the human heart the culture will follow.

Bash? wrote, The moon and sun are travelers of a hundred generations. The years, coming and going, are wanderers too. Spending a lifetime adrift on boat decks, greeting old age while holding a horse by the mouth?for such a person, each day is a journey, and the journey itself becomes home.

Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections ? language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration. By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors or perception open; James Joyce called in epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical?a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought ?too deep for tears.? Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person?s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be place into things ? it radiates undimmed from Vermeer?s paintings, form the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl ? and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.

Here are poems from a new generation of writers who honor the magnetic fields of the real; who feel and think with full and open-eyed passion; who focus heat as the magnifying glass focuses sun: until the paper catches. Read them.

I don't think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn't just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.

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American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist