An introduction to poet Jane Hirshfield, author of the new collection Come, Thief (Alfred A Knopf). When asked whether the poems of Come, Thief reflect any particular concerns of hers, Hirshfield begins with, “One lifelong theme for me has been saying yes to what’s difficult.” Hirshfield is the author of six previous collections of poetry, a book of essays called Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, and four books collecting the work of poets from the past. Her accolades include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the Academy of American Poets, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as three Pushcart Prizes, the California Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, and more. Her poems appear regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Poetry, and have been included in six editions of The Best American Poetry.
Quick Facts on Jane Hirshfield
- Jane Hirshfield’s website
- Home: Mill Valley, California
- Comfort food: Pasta with garden tomatoes and basil in summer. Oven-roasted cauliflower in winter.
- Top 5 reads: I’m a bit allergic to ranking—I need different books and different writers at different times in my life. So I will answer this first with this moment’s answer, by saying that I am enormously looking forward to John Berger’s new book Bento’s Sketchbook, which I just saw advertised but have not yet read, and also to delving the new Last Poems by Czeslaw Milosz, also not yet read. On the opposite end of a this-moment answer, I’ll say that for me the two great American novels are Moby-Dick and Invisible Man. OK, I have room for one more here… but who? Emily Dickinson, Izumi Shikibu, Elizabeth Bishop, Wislawa Szymborska? How can you rank such ranges of genius?
- Current reads: A year’s worth of literary magazine back issues, having fallen behind on everything after travelling in 2011 to China, Japan, Poland, Canada, Lithuania, and all over the US from Florida to Vermont, Washington State to Virginia. (I do think it important that working writers and working readers support not only books, but also the many extraordinary journals in which so much literature appears first, from the major publications—The New Yorker, The Altantic, Harpers—to Orion, Threepenny Review, Poetry, The Georgia Review, and American Poetry Review, to the smaller, superb journals like Five Points, the New England Review, Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, and a myriad others.)
What are you working on?
After a year of travelling for the new book and also for other events, which involved giving several keynote talks—which meant writing extended essays on such subjects as “What is American About Modern American Poetry” and “Writing and the Contemplative Mind”—I am at last returning to writing, very simply and with the shyness of a gone-wild creature coming back inside the fenceline, one new poem at a time. Eventually, I’ll need to look at assembling the accumulating essays into what will probably be a follow-up book to Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. I have something like 10 of them now, and people keep asking when the next book of prose will come out. But for now, I want to be simply a poet again, writing poems.
What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
Mostly, I work without any kind of hope—my intentions in writing a new poem have nothing to do with thoughts of its effects upon others. But afterward, if my work is going to be read by others at all, I might wish my poems to bring some sense of enlargement to their readers, of feeling and thinking, and also some sense of a deepened saturation in their own lives and the lives of others: people, creatures, plants, rocks, mitochondria, images, ideas, owl calls, the sound fish make when they swim, the muscularity of a flea or of a planet in its orbit. Poems want to awaken intimacy, connection, expansion, and wildness. Other poets’ poems bring this to me, so it is what I’d like my poems to bring others.
“Poems want to awaken intimacy,
connection, expansion, and wildness.”
Who would you picture as the ideal reader of your work?
Again, running already true to form here, I wouldn’t want to limit even my imagination of my readers by holding any conception of who they might be. I myself read the work of people so very unlike me—people who lived with charcoal braziers for heat and blackened their teeth for beauty; people who have found themselves imprisoned; people who speak languages I cannot begin to pronounce; people who have participated in or borne the brunt of violence; people who—it can be this simple and vast—have borne a child.
The sympathy of a reader to a poem is not circumstantial, is not identity-based, is not any kind of simple allegiance. The sympathy that makes a reader feel “ideal” is the sign, perhaps, of a shared hunger: for what can be tasted by certain words and their rhythms, and for some of the things words can carry. I am a vegetarian, and have been for over 40 years—yet John Berger’s description of the killing of a pig in a French village is for me transformative, real, and needed. Would he think of me when imagining his ideal reader? I suspect not.
Does your new book, Come, Thief, reflect any abiding concerns for you, or for that matter any new ones?
One lifelong theme for me has been saying yes to what’s difficult. That is very much a part of Come, Thief. There is also love in this book—as there has been in every book before this one; but what’s particular here I suppose is that many of the poems are explicitly about a late love, the kind you don’t necessarily count on. That feeling of surprise and boundlessness spills over into other of its poems as well. There’s a fair bit of science, as has been increasingly true in my work: biology, geology, physics…. Time haunts this book as well. Time is the “thief” of the title—it brings us everything we have and are, then comes with a back-loader and starts taking it all away. Awareness of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in particular the awareness of Abu Ghraib and of torture, are a thread running through these pages—the current manifestation of a long-running theme. But on the other side, there are more poems in this book that are lighter, that raise laughter at readings. “A day is vast./ Until noon./ Then it’s over.” Those lines always startle a recognizing response from the audience, I’ve been finding.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
In whatever hour and place is quiet and undisturbed. I am thin of barrier between self and world, but the self who writes requires a sense of protection from outer event, before feeling able to look with enough porousness of being to find something possibly new, possibly real.
Where would you most want to live and write?
I don’t have a fantasy alternative life, no desire to slip into some phone booth and emerge in another costume of the self. If I did, though, it would be a rather greedy fantasy, less of place than of a world with the possibility of eight or nine selves, each leading fully its own life of reading, writing, gardening, hiking a mountain or desert, pure contemplation, long conversation, long dancing, long passion, long silence. One of these lives must be spent entirely in love, another in friendship. One might do what is sometimes called “honest labor”—build something useful, feed others. And then why not ask for a few spare selves with which to learn something new, to do something wildly unexpected?
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.
Do you listen to anything while you write?
No. I did when I was young, but after a three-year period in my twenties living without electricity or any manufactured sounds, my relationship to silence and sound, as well as to foreground/background in general, changed completely. I prefer my whole attention pointed one direction.
When you’re having trouble getting started on a poem, where do you look for inspiration?
Outside. Literally—out the window, out the door—or else outside figuratively, to the inspiration of others. The creative is always an act of recombination, with something added by new juxtaposition—as making a spark requires two things struck together.
“Making a spark requires
two things struck together.”
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz famously began his poem “Ars Poetica?” with the line: “I have always hungered for a more spacious form.” That, coupled with the poem’s title question mark, resonates deeply for me. I want, as a writing poet, to not have any philosophy, not know what I am doing, or how I will do it. A writer will be herself, himself. We cannot help that. Our fingerprints will be on everything we touch. But within that living self, my hope is to set aside all known perimeters of style and idea, and to let what comes to me come. If I were to think I know why I write, that might preclude another reason coming along…. To enter a poem dressed only in a question mark seems to me just about right.
I did, let me add, answer this question of “why do you write” quite recently, for an educational website, The National Writing Project:
Why do I write?
I write because to write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery. A thought was not there, then it is. An image, a story, an idea about what it is to be human, did not exist, then it does. With every new poem, an emotion new to the heart, to the world, speaks itself into being. Any new metaphor is a telescope, a canoe in rapids, an MRI machine. And like that MRI machine, sometimes its looking is accompanied by an awful banging. To write can be frightening as well as magnetic. You don’t know what will happen when you throw open your windows and doors.
To write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery. Why write? You might as well ask a fish, why swim, ask an apple tree, why make apples? The eye wants to look, the ear wants to hear, the heart wants to feel more than it thought it could bear…
The writer, when she or he cannot write, is a person outside the gates of her own being. Not long ago, I stood like that for months, disbarred from myself. Then, one sentence arrived; another. And I? I was a woman in love. For that also is what writing is. Every sentence that comes for a writer when actually writing—however imperfect, however inadequate—every sentence is a love poem to this world and to our good luck at being here, alive, in it.
How do you balance content with form in your poems?
Content and form arrive for me in the same bucket—as water needs to be water, not fog, before we can drink it. I hear my poems when I write them—not as hallucination, but as an inner speaking. They arrive with a voice and a tone and a music, with rhythms, pauses. What is written down is a kind of musical notation for that first life, inside the self and inside the ear.
I have, in the new book, Come, Thief, one atypical poem, a villanelle. (Well, a stretched villanelle—but it still is one.) There is an example of what might seem to have been form first, content second—but it was the opposite—the poem arrived in me needing exactly that form of recurrences and variations to work itself deeply through. I didn’t think about this, it simply arrived as a villanelle. But when I look back later at this poem about a long relationship, one that has changed over time but not vanished, what better form could there have been? Villanelles are, by their structure, about exactly that unfolding.
How did the collection of poems in Come, Thief become a book? Were you consciously working toward a specific idea for a book?
Some poets write books, I know. I write poems. When there are enough of them, enough I feel I want to preserve, then I start looking at the book that might emerge. Yet, my books do have a coherence, I think, and that is the coherence of a life. In any five or six year period, a person is having a set of experiences that are probably not the same as that person might have thirty years earlier, thirty years later. You think about a certain set of concerns, both because of what may emerge in your personal life and because of what may emerge for your community, your country, the planet. If we were not visibly entering a time of environmental crisis, there would not be poems in my book with that awareness in them. If we had not been at war the whole time I was writing the poems of Come, Thief, I would not have written the poem that draws on Beowulf and Gilgamesh to look at our species’ long history of mutual violence. If I had not fallen in love newly as I entered my sixth decade, other poems would similarly be missing. The summer of 2008, when all of California was struck by wildfires, lies behind two of the poems. So some things are perhaps unavoidable in any given book, others accidental. Yet those poems, too, will magnetize whatever larger issues are being pondered.
To arrange poems that were individually conceived into an order is to construct an arc, a story. That is as much a part of a book’s creative making as any individual poem is. It alters the poems, just as, for an individual poem, giving it a title makes a difference, turning its feet one direction or another.
Come, Thief begins with a poem about love and art, and the “sumptuous disturbance” brought into our lives by these things. It ends with a poem about a deer passing impossibly through a fence. Both poems are about permeability and agreement, about letting the large pass through and undo us. Between them, many other things are looked at—because I do look at many things in my life, and poetry is one way I can do that with my own tongue and mind and heart. But I wanted to turn this book’s feet toward what the Greek poet Cavafy wrote of as “the Great Yes.” The title does that, and the arc of its organizing principle does that as well. There are some “Great No’s” also inside its pages—but I see no way to navigate a life fully without letting in what comes. That what comes must be mixed, as the idea of a welcome thief is mixed, that is just, for me, the truth of being human.
How has poetry made a difference in your life? What does poetry mean to you?
For me, poems are a conduit into a deepened existence. They allow me to feel and to question feeling, they allow me to think and to question thinking. To write a poem, and then to revise it—which for me is part of the writing—is in no small way a kind of Socratic dialogue you can have with yourself. 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. Does that make sense? All language, all the long history of human culture, comes to your hand along with the lifted pen. Of course, this enlarges who you are and what you can know.
“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.”
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
R P Blackmur: “Poetry expands the available stock of reality.”
Goethe: “Never let what matters most be at the mercy of what matters least.”
Tolstoy: “Make it strange.”
Galway Kinnell: “The title of every good poem could be ‘Tenderness’.”
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
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.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
Do something every day that is connected to being a poet—but remember that this does not necessarily mean writing.
What do you find most challenging about writing?
Beginnings. Finding myself in the condition where something might need and be able to speak itself through me.
Is there a question that you’re surprised people ask about your writing?
I’m always surprised the times I’ve been asked about the source of my affirmation or radiance as a writer—I think, “Do they not see also how hard-won it is, all the grief and wrestling?” Many do see that, or include it in what they say. But sometimes it doesn’t seem to be recognized, and then I wonder, have I been too subtle? Yet, I love subtle poems, I love what pushes into comprehension signaled but not outrightly said. The huge passion of Elizabeth Bishop, almost entirely under the restraint of the surface; Larkin’s hidden terror and pity.
“I love what pushes into comprehension
signaled but not outrightly said.”
Is there something you wish people would ask you more often about your poetry?
It’s rare for people to comment on the social justice foundations in many of my poems…. I suppose I’d like my own—and others’—poems to be taken more deeply into account as actual investigations of human issues, investigations for which things like music, image, metaphor, bound, hesitation, angle of view, unpredictable inclusion are the telescopic instruments of sight… But as soon as I say this, I feel that answer leans altogether too far in one direction. I am chastised by Archibald MacLeish’s old line, “A poem should not mean, but be.” That is equally essential: mystery and the play of language’s own joy are as important to a poem as its concerns. Poems are like reality in this way: they always have more than one side.
About Jane Hirshfield
Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven books of poetry, a collection of essays, and four books co-translating and collecting the work of poets of the past. Her 2006 book, After was named a best book of the year by The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the United Kingdom’s Financial Times, and was a finalist for England’s T S Eliot Prize. Given Sugar, Given Salt was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other honors include the California Book Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. Hirshfield’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Nation, Orion, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, McSweeney’s, and six editions of The Best New American Poetry. A resident of Northern California since 1974, Hirshfield has taught at the University of California, Berkeley; Bennington College; and elsewhere, and presents her poems widely in universities, literary centers, and festivals throughout the US and abroad.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. "Interview With Writer Jane Hirshfield." Words With Writers (December 5, 2011), http://wordswithwriters.com/2011/12/05/jane-hirshfield.]