Jane Hirshfield


American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist

Author Quotes

I require silence to write the way an apple tree requires winter to make fruit. Being with people is intimate and joyous, but at some point, I'll wander off by myself. The paradox is that what began in childhood as an act of necessary solitude has led me straight to a life with others, in which I fly to China or Lithuania or northern Minnesota to read my poems and talk with other people who love language made into a lathe on which a life can be tuned and be turned.

A person is full of sorrow the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.

Art-making is learned by immersion. You take in vocabularies of thought and feeling, grammar, diction, gesture, from the poems of others, and emerge with the power to turn language into a lathe for re-shaping, re-knowing your own tongue, heart, and life...

Desire is the moment before the race is run.

Go back to The October Palace, which came out in 1994, and there are poems with windows, doors, the rooms of the gorgeous and vanishing palace that is this ordinary world and ordinary life. Jungian archetype would say the house is a figure for the experienced, experiencing self.

Hunger that comes and goes turns time into memory.

I see poetry as a path toward new understanding and transformation, and so I've looked at specific poems I love, and at poetry's gestures in the broadest sense, in an effort to feel and learn what they offer from the inside.

A poem can use anything to talk about anything.

As some strings, untouched, sound when no one is speaking. So it was when love slipped inside us.

Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration ? expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering?s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: ?For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river ? Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.?

Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. It is also a changing of vision. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means?

Hyesims poems: transformative as walking high granite mountains by moonlight, with fragrant herbs underfoot and a thermos of clear tea in the backpack. Their bedrock is thusness, their images beauty is pellucid and new, their view without limit. The shelf of essential Zen poets for American readers grows larger with this immediately indispensable collection.

I see poetry as a path toward new understanding and transformation, and so I've looked at specific poems I love, and at poetry's gestures in the broadest sense, in an effort to feel and learn what they offer from the inside. There's a difference in how you experience an art form when it's engaged with from within; even a little practice with dance lets you feel a ballet inside your body rather than simply as something observed. I also know that looking closely at the workings of others' poems has taught me to feel more closely the turns and images of my own, and has increased my range of response to the world as a whole. That is one of the main gifts poetry brings.

A poem makes clear without making simple. Poetry's language carries what lives outside language. It's as if you were given a 5-gallon bucket with 10 gallons of water in it. Mysterious thirsts are answered. That alchemical bucket carries secrets also, even the ones we keep from ourselves.

As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.

Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius ?not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.? Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist?s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance ? a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue?s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.

Good poems ask us to have complex minds and hearts. Even simple-of-surface poems want that. Perhaps those are the ones that want it most of all, since that's where they do their work: in the unspoken complexities, understood off the page.

I am more myself, writing, than I am when not writing, and I am also more than myself, writing, than when I am not writing.

I see poetry as a path toward new understanding and transformation.

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.

I think, though, that perspective-awareness may follow from a kind of speaking that also came into my work more recently - the "assay" poems (some labeled that, some not) that engage an abstraction or object from multiple angles.

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American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist