Posts Tagged ‘Jane Hirshfield’

Celebrating Poetry Month with one of my poems, Poetry—The Art of the Voice, and what inspired it

April 10, 2017

Since 1996, the Academy of American Poets have designated April as National Poetry Month as a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. Since 1998, National Poetry Month has also been celebrated each April in Canada. Being a Canadian living in the United States, I have 2 reasons to celebrate it with a poem I wrote on the subject 17.5 years ago. I’d also like to share what inspired me to write it.

One morning, while recuperating from a cold in my room, I had been listening to the Diane Rehm Show. At the end she announced her guest for the next day, Bill Moyers, who would talk about his latest poetry project. I tuned in and recorded it on Tues, Oct 05, 1999, 10-11 a.m. ET.

In that episode of the show, Moyers discussed his upcoming PBS poetry special: Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers, the result of a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival, which featured readings by US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and other leading poets. He also mentioned his accompanying book, Fooling With Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft (William Morrow). You can actually see Part One and Part Two of Fooling With Words, produced by and archived at Moyers & Company.

Moyers mentioned that television lends itself well to the human voice reading poetry. He said, “Poetry is music for the human voice,” but what really made an impression on him was watching “people listening to poetry.” His cameras focused in on both the poets reading their poems, and members of the audience listening attentively.

What Bill Moyers said about this dynamic caught my attention: “Poetry is reflected in the face of the listener, in the eyes, and in the intensity of the listener’s response. It’s like a mirror to the poet’s own face. And you watch these faces and you really see that poetry is sinking in, and meeting an audience in that individual listener.”

Diane and Bill then invited 3 poets on the show to read a poem and explain how they came to write it: Marge Piercy, Mark Strand (16:44), and Jane Hirshfield (32:57). After listening to the ideas and images expressed in the conversations and poems, I was so inspired that I wrote a poem about it called: Poetry—The Art of the Voice.

Poetry—The Art of the Voice

How fine will your breath become
from listening to these words?
How soft will they seem to be
as they settle through the mind
like silent snowflakes falling
from a windless winter sky?

I often marvel at the mystery—
how words can work
on a listener’s heart and mind,
upon hearing a poet’s thoughts,
a poet’s breath, flowing
from an inner voice—

a windless wind, speaking
through a voiceless voice.

© Ken Chawkin

Years later, when Freddy Fonseca put out a call for poems from Fairfield poets for This Enduring Gift-A Flowering of Fairfield Poetry (2010), I sent it in along with some other poems.  At Freddy’s suggestion I changed one word, which caused me to refine it even more, taking it to the intended level. He published it, five haiku, and a tanka, and later selected it as POEM OF THE DAY: Poetry – The Art of the Voice, by Ken Chawkin.

Over the years, Bill Moyers has welcomed some of America’s best poets to share their works and inspiration. Many of those writers have performed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which Bill and his colleagues covered for television specials including Fooling with Words (1999), The Language of Life (1995) and Sounds of Poetry (1999). Enjoy Poets in Performance, a showcase of such poetry from past and recent productions from Moyers & Company, performed by the poets who dreamed them up, or by other artists who, like Bill, simply adore poetry.

Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. ~ Mark Strand (1934–2014)

December 5, 2014

Mark Strand, former U.S. poet laureate (1990-1991) and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1999), felt strongly that writing and reading poetry could make us better human beings. “Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human,” he said in an Inscape interview last year.

Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” When Mark Strand was asked what he thought the function of poetry was in today’s society, he replied: “It’s not going to change the world, but I believe if every head of state and every government official spent an hour a day reading poetry we’d live in a much more humane and decent world. Poetry has a humanizing influence. Poetry delivers an inner life that is articulated to the reader.”

Indeed, especially if they were as transformed by poetry as Mark Strand, who wanted to feel himself “suddenly larger . . . in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment.”

Last week, one of my poet friends, Roger Pelizzari, emailed me about the passing of Mark Strand, and included a favorite poem of his, My Name. Roger included a link to an earlier Paris Review interview: Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, with his friend Wallace Shawn, from which I’ve included interesting excerpts.

I was surprised and sorry to hear the news of Strand’s passing and checked the Paris Review for an update. I found Memoriam Mark Strand, 1934–2014, under The Daily by Dan Piepenbring, and sent it to Roger.

Media from around the world published Obituaries reviewing the Canadian-born, American poet’s accomplished literary career. The LA Times described Mark Strand as “a revelatory poet who addressed love and death in his poems, but in radically lyrical, revelatory ways.”

This poem is filled with the wonderment he sought, and seems a fitting memorial, prophetically written in the poet’s own magical words.

My Name

Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.

(more…)

A Haiku on The Heart of Haiku

December 18, 2011

This week I discovered and posted the Interview from FROGPOND with Jane Hirshfield on The Heart of Haiku. I had read Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield, a classic collection of essays about the mysterious ways poetry comes to us, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. So this first Kindle Single by Jane on haiku looked very enticing.

On Friday night, after reading a free sample of The Heart of Haiku, named “Best Kindle Single of 2011,” I decided to purchase this 29-page essay about the life and poetry of Matsuo Bashō, recognized as the master of concise, compelling Japanese haiku. I downloaded the free App from Amazon, then bought the $0.99 Kindle Single. It loaded instantly. I signed in, and started reading. It was that simple.

Saturday I took my computer with me when I went to visit my friend Sali. I explained what I had done, showed her what the essay looked like in the Kindle Cloud Reader on my computer, how it allowed me to select the look of the page, (I chose Sepia), change the size of the font and length of the lines, highlight and make notes. I continued reading, aloud to Sali, where I had left off at home. We were fascinated!

Bashō had discovered the earlier Chinese and Japanese poets, wrote renga, tanka, and haiku, became a poet and teacher, studied Zen and Taoism, indulged his senses, then lived like a monk roaming the countryside. We appreciated the beauty, simplicity and depth of his poetry, and the skill of Jane Hirshfield’s erudite explanations, herself a poet, teacher, and practitioner of Zen. It seemed appropriate for her to explain where Bashō was coming from. Hirshfield had collaborated with Mariko Aratani, her co-translator for the classical-era tanka poets in The Ink Dark Moon.

It was dinner time and the other residents were already eating their meal. An aide brought in Sali’s tray, but we were enjoying the story so much I just kept on reading and lost track of the time. I happened to mention that and realized I was speaking out what could easily become a haiku. Sali has that effect on me; she’s my muse! So here’s the haiku on reading The Heart of Haiku to Sali.

A Haiku on The Heart of Haiku

We forgot to eat
Reading The Heart of Haiku
It can fill you up

Also see the excellent Poetry Foundation biography on Jane Hirshfield, including poems, articles and more; Pirene’s Fountain: Jane Hirshfield on Poetic Craft; and What Rainer Maria Rilke inscribed on the copy of The Duino Elegies he gave his Polish translator. You can find some of my own haiku and tanka under My Poems.

Interview from FROGPOND with Jane Hirshfield on The Heart of Haiku

December 15, 2011

where the writers are

Interview from FROGPOND with Jane Hirshfield on The Heart of Haiku

Blog Post by Jane Hirshfield – Oct.25.2011 – 6:22 am

The new issue of the Haiku Society of America’s excellent FROGPOND journal is out. The following interview appears there.

“At the Heart of The Heart of Haiku: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield”

This interview was conducted by email in August, 2011.

CE: Thank you, Jane, for agreeing to this interview. I think your Kindle Single, The Heart of Haiku, will be of interest to many haiku poets, as will your comments about this essay. You have a long history of printed publications, and you have described yourself previously as someone who is not especially comfortable with computer technology. What prompted you to circulate The Heart of Haiku as a Kindle Single?

JANE: Thank you—I appreciate the chance to talk about this with what I see as this piece’s most natural audience, the haiku community.

Bringing this piece out as a Kindle Single was an experiment—I had never read an e-book myself before this came out. I have to admit, I don’t really like reading on-screen. But many others do, and mostly I did this because the description for the Single program fit exactly what I had: an essay-lecture too long for publication in any magazine, but not long enough for a formal printed book. I had thought about expanding it into a regular book—but I’d have needed to polish many more of the new translations I’d done (with the invaluable help of Mariko Aratani, my co-translator for the classical-era tanka poets in The Ink Dark Moon), and I’d also have needed to round the book more fully. I do now wish I had put some back matter into even this Single—a “further resources” section, for instance. But I never could quite decide to expand it, the piece stayed on my desk, and when the suggestion to submit this to the new Kindle Singles program came up, I took it almost on impulse. I didn’t actually expect them to accept it—it’s by far the most literary thing on their list so far. And then from acceptance to publication was dizzyingly fast—two weeks, including their copyediting, which was, by the way, very good. So I didn’t have any time for anything but the quickest final pass.

You know, Basho himself might have been one of the first to buy an iPad or Kindle. He was never without the books of earlier Chinese and Japanese poets he loved, and I imagine would have been happy to carry less weight in his knapsack. He was, throughout his life, both practical and what’s now called “an early adopter”—haiku anthologies were the first broadly popular printed books in Japan, so Basho, who published in them and also brought one out himself, was participating in the leading-edge technology of his time. One thing I muse over in The Heart of Haiku is that Basho, today, might have been the first person to take You Tube videos and turn them into a true art form. What he did feels comparable to that, to me.

There are so many superb books on Basho already, I’m not sure the world needs another. That was always one of my hesitations about turning this into a book. I do retain all the rights, and will quite likely include this in my next book of essays. That way it will reach more people who don’t already know about haiku—which is what I first wrote it to do. And the Kindle Single did do that—a truly startling number of people have bought it so far, in only two months. I’m sure it helps that it costs only 99 cents, and can be downloaded onto any computer almost instantly. I hope some of them may continue to pursue that curiosity further.

CE: I understand that this project began as a presentation for the 2007 Branching Out series of poetry lectures held in public libraries around the country, a program co-sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and Poets’ House. How would you characterize your initial audience? How much did you revise the presentation before it was published by Amazon? For instance, to what extent was this project originally conceived of as a way to help people better understand and appreciate haiku as readers or as casual writers of haiku-like poems? Do you feel that the current version is at least as much directed toward those who already write haiku as it is toward the initial audience?

I was asked by the Branching Out program to give a talk for the general public—for people who might not have read much poetry, let alone haiku. I tried to do that—to find ways to open the field to newcomers—but poetry is a universal language, whose very point is that it does not simplify; it expands, saturates, investigates, faces many directions at once. I tried to make the original talk something that would be interesting to both kinds of audience—new, and informed—and truly, there isn’t that much of a gap. You’re always a beginner, entering a poem. A poem asks an original, unjaded presence, some state that includes both informed awareness and the erasure of preconception.

I have polished the piece quite a lot since the original lecture, but that’s just what I do with anything I write, poetry or prose. I’d gone over it again just this past February, when I was asked to lecture on Basho at a Japanese university. As to whether I changed it to make it more useful for serious writers of haiku, no, not specifically. I myself don’t make that strong a distinction between looking at poetry as a writer and as a reader. Every serious writer needs also to read alertly, with a real depth of attention—both her or his own work, and the work of others; and every act of reading a poem is a recreation of the original energies of its writing—that is what a poem is: not a record of thought, experience, emotion, realization, but a recipe for its own reenactment.

CE: You have extensive knowledge about poetry in general and haiku in particular, including a knowledge of the history of haiku in English. Where do you see this book fitting in among some of the other work on haiku in English (for instance, Eric Amann’s The Wordless Poem; R. H. Blyth’s Haiku in 4 volumes; Harold G. Henderson’s Haiku in English; and William J. Higginson and Penny Harter’s The Haiku Handbook to name just a few foundational texts in this field)?

And where do you see this essay fitting in among other considerations specifically focused on Basho’s life and work (Robert Aiken’s A Zen Wave; Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams; Makoto Ueda’s Basho and His Interpreters come to mind among others)?

Those books are indispensable, and many were part of my own introduction to haiku and, I’ll add, to poetry as a whole: the first book of any kind I ever bought for myself, at age eight, was a Peter Pauper Press book of translated Japanese haiku. We should add also the many translations of Basho’s poetry now in print. I recommend them all—I think that to understand anything, especially when there are large leaps of culture and time and translation involved, the most accurate understanding comes from looking at multiple sources. There is no single “best” authority. If you can’t read Basho, Issa, Buson, or Yosano Akiko in the original, then reading them through many eyes is best.

As for how my contribution fits in, The Heart of Haiku was retitled by Amazon when they took it for the Kindle Singles program; my title was Seeing Through Words: Matsuo Basho, an Introduction. I think that tells you quite a lot about how I see this piece: I would never myself have made such a grand claim for it as “The Heart of Haiku” does. My piece is introductory, not exhaustive, and its angle of entrance is historical, through Basho, not haiku in general, though to read Basho you have to understand what haiku are, and how they work, and what they can hold at their best. Basho himself, though, is a perennially useful lens, since haiku as we now know it was so radically changed by Basho, generally described as its “founder,” even though the form existed before him. For current, American writers of haiku, The Heart of Haiku is really a way to look back to the rootstock, to refresh their relationship with how haiku was first conceived by its extraordinarily radical and continually evolving founding figure. Basho himself was concerned with so many of the issues that current haiku writers are concerned with—how to write in this moment’s language and perception, how to learn from the past without being bound by it, how to use haiku as a tool not only for expression but for the navigation of a life. I still read Sappho and Homer, I still read Su Tung Po and Dante, and I still read Basho and Issa and Buson. These are wellspring poets for me. Basho’s teachings about writing are as relevant and provocative now as they were when he was alive. “Poetry is a fan in winter, a fireplace in summer.” “To learn of the pine, go to the pine.” “Don’t imitate me, like the second half of a melon.” His navigation of the creative life and poverty, his restless curiosity, his losses, even his death was exemplary, really—Basho’s last spoken words take the point of view of the flies his students were trying to chase from the room. They show how supple and compassionate a poet’s sense of existence can be.

CE: The Ink Dark Moon, it’s been said, helped inspire what’s become a working community of tanka writers, both in the U.S. and in Australia. How do you see  your role here, as a poet, translator, and teacher?

JANE: I might not have published this Basho piece at all, except that people who’d heard it or read it in manuscript kept telling me both that they loved the translations and that it does bring something new to the table. That it was helpful. That’s my hope for anything I do, though I write my own poems outside of any hope, or intention, beyond the needs of that particular poem and moment. I translated Basho’s haiku freshly mostly because I found I couldn’t use other people’s translations for the original talk—not because they weren’t good, just because, once you’ve done some translating, you understand how much more intimate an entrance to a poem that is. I am tremendously lucky that my old co-translator, Mariko Aratani, agreed to re-join me for this project. As a teacher of poems, I’ve been investigating the deep workings of poetry for almost forty years now, both Japanese and Western. I believe in the happy accidents of cross-fertilization and that different traditions have always informed one another. There are two essays in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry that talk about Japanese poetics and translation. My interest is always the same: in how poems work, precisely, in why they affect us they do, and in bringing in whatever background helps us read more vulnerably, openly, accurately, and deeply. I think this is especially needed for haiku. We teach haiku to third graders, but in fact it’s an art form that requires some real initiation to be truly practiced or read. Haiku are the most immediate of art forms in one way, but in another, they are slip knots that you need to know the knack of, to untie fully.The more I learn about haiku, the more I feel how much I have not yet learned. It is bottomless, really. Any good poetry is.

CE: In your essay, you address the wide popular interest in non-literary haiku and you specifically reference the thousands of haiku written about Spam (“Spamku”) and posted online. You foreground that, “… to write or read with only this understanding is to go back to what haiku was before Basho transformed it: ‘playful verse’ is the word’s literal meaning. Basho asked for more: to make of this brief, buoyant verse-tool the kinds of emotional, psychological and spiritual discoveries that he experienced in the work of earlier poets. He wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.” To what extent do you find contemporary English-language haiku poets continuing to follow this approach?

It seems to me that the best contemporary haiku writers are in Basho’s lineage, and Issa’s and Buson’s. This is of course my own definition of “best.” It’s fine that many poets do other things as well. But the central work of poetry is the same everywhere—from Sappho to Akhmatova, Tu Fu to Frank O’Hara, lyric poets magnify and enlarge and open our relationship to our lives, to the lives of others, and to the world.

Your consideration of Basho’s overall output of haiku leads to an intriguing claim about the impact transparent seeing can have. You state, “Basho’s haiku, taken as a whole, conduct an extended investigation into how much can be said and known by image. When the space between poet and object disappears, Basho taught, the object itself can begin to be fully perceived. Through this transparent seeing, our own existence is made much larger.” Would you please elaborate on how this type of seeing enlarges our existence?

I’ve come to feel that every good poem does this, not only haiku. The exchange currency of the imagination is fundamentally transformative and empathic. The current thinking in neuroscience is that this recreation of other within self has something to do with mirror neurons, but poets have known the alchemies of empathy from the beginning. Permeability is how image works, how metaphor works. Every time we take in an image in a poem, we become for an instant that image. Reading “mountain,” I become for that moment everything I know of mountainness—its steepness, its insects, its largeness, its seeming immobility punctuated by streams or rockslide, what it asks of the legs that travel it, what it asks of the breathing, of the eyes, what it tells us of abidingness and perspective, of distance and scale.  Any time we take in a poem’s held experience, we become that experience. The experience of a poem is not “about” life—it is life. And so taking in a good poem, our lives are expanded by that poem’s measure. One of the great paradoxes of haiku is that the measure of taken-in meaning can be so large, from a vessel so small, and how meaning in haiku can reach in almost any direction. A haiku can puncture our human hubris, or can remind us that we too are going to die. It can pierce us with the beauty of spareness or open us to the futility of ambition. It can evoke humor, memory, grief. It can, at times, do all these things at once.

CE: You also note that “…the haiku presents its author as a person outside any sense of the personal self.” Do you see contemporary English-language haiku presenting the authors as people outside a sense of the personal self? What might the author gain from striving to experience and write haiku in this manner?

JANE: I recently judged a haiku competition and was a bit startled by the frequency of the pronoun “I” in one form or the other, and by the strong presence of personal life that was in them, including in those I chose as the winners. In some cases, I wondered if the pronoun might have been there to fill in the count, since these were haiku written in the traditional 5-7-5. But I think it runs deeper, and is more a reflection of how poetry in general is written in America today.

Basho studied both Taoism and Zen, and his relationship to poetry reflected that. Basho once said that the problem with most haiku was that they were either subjective or objective. A student asked him, “Don’t you mean too subjective or objective?” Basho answered, simply “No.” I share Basho’s Zen training and interests, and I see poetry as, in part, a mode of perception by which we can slip the shackles of single view and single stance. I think that is one of poetry’s tasks in our lives, to liberate us from narrow, overly pointed seeing. A good poem never says or holds only one thing.

This opening into broader ways of perceiving does happen in poems that include “I” and personal circumstance, I should add. And on the other side, I think it a misconception to believe that all haiku ae somehow supposed to be “objective,” and impersonal. Poetry reflects inner experience and understanding. The most objective haiku I can think of is Buson’s: “Spring rain,/ the belly of the frog/ is not wet.” This is not a metaphor for anything other than what it holds, the awareness of rain so gentle that it does not drip down to or splash up to even something so near as the frog’s belly. And yet, reading that haiku, I feel it, in body and in spirit; I feel appreciation for the action of the small and the subtle, for the wetness of the frog’s back and the grass tips’ thirst. To have such an experience is to step outside of ego, but not outside our experience of life on this earth, a life with rain, shared with other creatures. And this modest, homely, silent frog is something that emerged into Japanese poetry with haiku—in earlier Japanese poems, we know frogs by their voices, not by their skin’s dryness or wetness. Frogs’ calling is an image of our own longing, desire, and courtship, of the small sounds we ourselves make amid the vast dark. Buson’s silent frog, or Basho’s in his famous “Old pond,/ frog jumps in/ the sound of water,” these are different. Frog is frog, water is water, the sound of their meeting is completely itself, part and whole neither vanish nor are separate. This seems to me something worth noticing, worth storing in repeatable words, worth practicing. Isolation is real, the solitude of the self is real, but interconnection is equally real. A good haiku keeps us in the particular and multiple, not the generic. It stops us from leaning too far in any direction.

Thank you again, Jane, for participating in this interview and providing additional insights into your essay, The Heart of Haiku.

NOTE: Jane Hirshfield’s The Heart of Haiku is available from Amazon.com as a $.99 Kindle Single, and can be read on any computer or smart phone, not only Kindles, with a free download. A new book of poetry, Come, Thief, has also just been published, by Knopf.

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Also see A Haiku on The Heart of Haiku; the excellent Poetry Foundation biography on Jane Hirshfield, including poems, articles and more; Pirene’s Fountain: Jane Hirshfield on Poetic Craft; and What Rainer Maria Rilke inscribed on the copy of The Duino Elegies he gave his Polish translator.

Pirene’s Fountain: Jane Hirshfield on Poetic Craft

November 26, 2009

Interview

Deep Craft : A Conversation with Jane Hirshfield

Pirene’s Fountain is privileged to present Jane Hirshfield in this issue, speaking to us both as one of the finest poets writing today and as a mentor and teacher. The idea to offer a craft-oriented interview came about from letters and queries sent by readers looking to enhance their poetry writing, and we thought there would be no better way to begin an ongoing discussion of craft issues in Pirene’s Fountainthan to invite the thoughts of a master poet on the subject. In this exchange, rather than concentrate on mechanics, we try to understand some of the rare, indefinable qualities that pulse in a poem and make it real, tangible, and breathing—words capable of charging the imagination for years to come.Ms. Hirshfield shares her insights here in response to questions based on her essays, both a series of recent ones (published in such periodicals as The American Poetry Review and The Associated Writers Programs Chronicle)and those collected in her highly acclaimed book on craft, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997). Now considered a classic of its kind, Nine Gates has been taught to students of architecture, dance, and the visual arts as well as to writers of both poetry and prose. Works of insight, wisdom and learning, grounded in philosophy, world literature, and ruminations about the essential nature of art, Hirshfield’s essays are meditations on life as well as on poetry.In these explorations of poetic craft, Hirshfield conjures meaning and beauty, revealing how words, in poetry, can come to overspill their own brim, and how poetry reflects and expands upon the most central issues of human life.

With Ami Kaye

Ami: Jane, it’s an honor to speak with a poet who brings such a rare and deep vision both to poems and to thinking about how poems work. Perhaps we can start right off by talking about the trope of “hiddenness,” the subject of a recent essay that appeared in The AWP Chronicle. Early on, you quote a line from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” You go on to comment, “Many poems hold certain of their thoughts in invisible ink.” Can you please tell us something more about hiddenness and craft?

Jane: I’ve come more and more to believe in the presence and centrality of that invisible ink—or, to use a different metaphor, to believe that there is a set of hidden clockworks beneath the surface of any poem we find ourselves moved by. This is true, paradoxically, even of poems that seem to tell everything outright. A poem may seem naked or plain, but if it moves us, there will always be something else at work, under the surface of its words. This second, undertow life is what differentiates poetry from instruction manuals, journalism, or, for that matter, a diary-type journal. Good poems always travel in more than one direction. They do not soothe us with platitude knowledge, they broaden us with complication, multiplicity, permeability to the subtle, and with unexpected perceptions, gestures of language, and comprehensions.

In addition to this larger scale dimension of hidden energies in poems, there is also a set of particular craft devices that might be described as “invisible ink.” One example is the deliberate choice to leave something out. A poem can convey an emotion or event’s presence by walking around it, revealing its shadow, alluding without naming, pressing back against it. Poems can create meaning in the same ways that mimes create walls, tables, balls, out of thin air and their own responses. This mode of communication falls into the category of what rhetoric calls periphrasis. Think of those Chinese scrolls in which the moon is a circle left uncolored. It is simply the paper, unpainted. That is an act of visual and physical periphrasis—the ink brush touches everything but the moon itself, which is, as in the physical sky, beyond any actual touch or reach.

In more subtle ways, as well, a sense of something present but unspoken makes a poem feel not only richer, more subtle, and more tactful but also more convincingly “true,” because it seems three-dimensional. What has a front, a back, an unseen interior, feels to us real. Yet another example of “invisible ink”: if some emotion or event seems impossible to describe effectively, or perhaps at all, it can still be conveyed by leaping over it, going straight to some aftermath condition. You can describe a storm, or you can describe the wreckage afterward—the boat in a field half a mile inland from shore tells us most everything we need to know of water and wind. What the reader imagines in the absence of words is often more powerful than anything words could evoke, because the reader’s own thoughts, associations, and experience can perfume the poem.

Ami: In the essay “Poetry and Uncertainty,” which first appeared in The American Poetry Review, you allude to Keats again, this time to his idea of “negative capability” ( “…. Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”). The essay goes on to examine that concept in a number of different ways. Can you tell us more about how uncertainty relates to poetry and its making?

Jane: It’s always hard for me to summarize my essays, but the gravitational center of that one is that good poetry always includes not only knowing but also some real measure of not-knowing. Uncertainty is the basic condition of life, a condition that most of the time we try to ignore. Good poems let that essential unknowability into the room, and we are changed—our relationship to our lives is changed—by agreeing to its presence.

I’m in general wary of certainty, which tends to limit not just the imagination but also compassion. We do need to know things of course. Facts exist, and they matter. There are objective truths, at least for the purposes of daily life. Yet our certainties also create fixity and boundary in us, and a surfeit of sureness can lead to rigor mortis of intellect and heart. It’s a poet’s job to be vulnerable, and at risk. The subject haunts my poems as well as the essay, and has been much on my mind in recent years, raised in no small part by the seeming increase of fundamentalist beliefs in the world. Those reified beliefs’ effects seem to me universally disastrous, no matter which ones or whose they are. I am aware of the irony of the seeming certainty with which I say this. But I’ve come to feel that nothing is more dangerous to self and others than a person sure of her or his own rightness. When I find myself adamant, in life or in a poem, I try to catch that tone, and administer a useful antidote—a question. “Is that so? Is it the whole story?” Sometimes I’ll end up letting a statement stand, sometimes I’ll change it, or add to it. The habit of questioning a little further is what matters—it throws open the doors to the new.

The defining gesture of a lyric poem, for me, is that its words create and then preserve, in revisitable form, some act of discovery. This means there must be some point in a poem’s composition when the author cannot really know what he or she is going to say— the already known cannot be discovered. Many poems of course hold re-discoveries, refreshments of discovery.  That is no less real. Some realizations or recognitions cannot be made what food producers call “shelf-stable”— they need to be created from scratch each time. The realizations I most care about are like this: they are fragile and evaporative and can only be held aloft as a hot-air balloon or soufflé is, by some active counterforce to the ordinary gravities of complacency, sleepiness, and received comprehension.

To find your way to any discovery requires exceptional attention. The mind and heart and tongue need to be free of shackles if they are to leap. The teaching motto of the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahnim was “don’t-know mind.” The Japanese Soto  Zen teacher Suzuki-roshi famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s, only one.” Then there was Sartre, who described genius as what we invent in desperate circumstance. That statement points to the necessity for heat—for the passion that causes attention and language to rise beyond their ordinary capacities and satisfactions.

To make a new poem, you need a new person. This moment’s person, with this moment’s needs. Otherwise, you might as well simply read one of the many great poems already written. The only reason to want to write something new is that you need to find something out for yourself, to run the old problem freshly, through your own life, tongue, perceptions, and feelings. Poetry is the antithesis of mathematics. In poetry, the old problems (love, loss, suffering, bewilderment, Wordsworth’s excess of emotion, the ancient conundrums of philosophy and myth and spirit) remain perhaps constant—these things are bedrock in human life. But their solutions need to be re-found each time, and will never be exactly the same as the one found before.

I’ll add one more thing. The expansions of subject matter and style in lyric poetry over the past thousand years or so are a matter of not only new persons but also of new “problems” being let in to the field of the poem. Men, for instance, did not know until quite recently that there were poems to be written about fatherhood and their children— then suddenly we find Galway Kinnell writing a poem about the birth of his son. That kind of discovery also has to do with uncertainty and not knowing. A person has to “not know” what poetry is, what belongs or doesn’t belong in a poem, to bring something new into poetry. Basho had to not know that haiku were only a parlor game and amusement. Gerard Manley Hopkins had to unbind his ears from known metrics and musics. What can be found when expertise is replaced by exploration is breathtaking. But to explore, you need to venture past the edge of the already constructed map, whether physical, conceptual, or emotional.

Ami: This reminds me of something you wrote in one of your earlier essays, “Poetry and the Mind of Indirection,” in Nine Gates. You wrote about attentiveness, craft, and their opposite: “Craft and consciousness matter. But a poet’s attention must also be open to what is not already understood, decided, weighed out. For a poem to be fully alive, the poet needs to surrender the protection of the known and venture into a different relationship with the subject—or is it the object? Both words miss—of her attention. The poet must learn from what dwells outside her conceptions, capacities, and even language: from exile and silence.” Can you please say a little more about how  “knowing” and “not-knowing” balance each other in working with craft in making a poem?

Jane: Most of the time, when we talk about craft in poems, we naturally speak of things that are able to be spoken of. We talk about what we know and what we can say. And so we say, “Verbs are stronger blacksmiths of meaning than adjectives are, yet sometimes, the plainest adjective, a color, for instance, can bring enormous expansion to a poem, simply by engaging the senses.” We say, “Each moment of your reader’s granted attention is a gift you must repay with something worthy; every syllable, every comma, must be in the poem for good reason.” We say, “There are at least seven different forms of ‘you,’ and if you change between them mid-poem, the reader must be able to know that has happened, or will be confused.” We say, “Some poems pause to look at something outside their given world; these window-moments bring light and air, volume and contrast, and can be what allows the unbearable to be fully felt.”

These are the kinds of craft points I make when I teach. I teach punctuation as a form of orchestration and musical notation. I teach close reading, rhetoric, transitions. But the opposite of all this, equally important, cannot be taught; it can only be remembered and acknowledged. After a poem is written, something of what has happened outside the writer’s consciousness can sometimes be named. But during the writing, the poet cannot know everything about the poem. In lyric poems, I suspect the poet often enough may not know much of anything. Not what it is about, not where it is going. The poem needs its first draft intoxication, its subversive trickster energies, its whistling in the dark, its unexpected and unfendable off pang of longing. A poem too sure of itself will have no crack for breathable air to enter, and will die for lack of permeability. Poems that are alive will have a life of their own, beyond the control of the writer. The writer’s only task when that life arrives is to get out of its way.

We are the amanuenses of our poems. They dictate us. Or so it seems to me. We learn everything we can of craft so that what we know can be of service to what wants to come through us.

Ami: In yet another recent essay, “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” you wrote: “Good poems provide an informing so simultaneously necessary and elusive that they are never, it seems, taken in fully, and can never be fully used up.” Can you say more about this insight?

Jane: That essay began with a question I suddenly realized I had been carrying in the back of my mind: How is it that we never tire of reading a great poem? No matter how many times I’ve read Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” for instance, it has never failed to move me. The same is true of great paintings—we do not tire of them, we do not exhaust them. I thought about this for months, and finally came up with the ideas that underlie the sentence you’ve quoted. But it took the whole essay to spell out the recipe for elusiveness and necessity. All I can say briefly is what the essay’s title says: poetry’s perennial newness has something to do with discovering and then preserving, for perennial re-discovery, something surprising. This is done in the way a magician sustains the surprise of the rabbit, or the way a winding road preserves the shock of the glittering, tall city it leads to: the traveller cannot take the destination in ahead of time, because, while moving toward it, you can only see what is there, immediately around you. Poems are not lab notebooks—they are the experiment itself, which must be run completely each time, inside the reader. If a poem were some summarizable “conclusion,” we would not need the poem.

That’s probably all I can say, short of saying it all…

Ami: Let’s go on then to another subject. We are fortunate to live in a world where we can read the literature of many cultures, first written in many languages. Reading works from other traditions, you’ve said in your essay on translation in Nine Gates, enriches and informs our own. We must also celebrate the diversity of the many styles, schools and forms of poetry in existence, for surely the world is large enough to house them all. In your essay, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises,” you speak of the delicate balance between freedom and fidelity in translating. Could you elaborate on that thought, and also on the way that the practice of translation can change a writer’s relationship to her own work?

Jane: I always like to begin by acknowledging that there are different philosophies of translation. Walter Benjamin famously suggested that the qualities of the original language (not only its sounds, but also its idiosyncracies of grammar, word order, and so on) should be preserved in a translation. Other translators advocate the approach I’ve followed in my own translations, what Octavio Paz describes as “the same effects by different means.” You might at first think of these two approaches as “fidelity of surface” vs. “fidelity of sense,” but any time you divide poetry up so simply, you end up in trouble—the substance and meaning of any poem is in the physical sounds it makes as much as in its ideas. Word choices, rhythms, sentence structures, dipthongs, and trochees—what other body does a poem have? Poems are not ghosts: their feet are countable, and real.

A few translators of great genius, such as Richard Wilbur, manage to convey both sound and sense quite closely. A rhymed sonnet in French can become a rhymed sonnet in English. This is less easily done, though, in languages more diverse. A Japanese poem might have no specified grammatical voice; a Chinese poem might not indicate whether its verb tense is past, present, or future. In bringing such poems into English, you almost always have to make a choice. In such cases, certain kinds of freedom are in fact fidelity. The same holds for cultural background information that may not be in a poem’s words, but would be known to everyone in its home culture. Whether by footnote or adjective, that information needs to be given, if the reader is to have access to the full poem, and not be left standing outside a window, peering in at food she cannot eat and fire whose warmth she cannot feel. It’s the translator’s task to find a poem’s core heat, and to carry that embering coal across time and language unextinguished.

Translation is also (as you’ve alluded to in your question) the way that new modes and structures come into a poetic tradition. The sonnets of Keats and Donne and Millay and Gwendolyn Brooks came to us first in sonnets written in Italian. The imagism that changed American poetry so profoundly in the early 20th century came from long-standing poetic strategies of China and Japan. The Spanish poets gave American literature the “deep image” and surreal freedoms. Neruda and Ponge swung wide poetry’s embrace of everyday objects. It was the translated Bible that gave Whitman his armature, his embouchement, his praise of all being. The Urdu ghazal has influenced contemporary American poetry far more than is generally realized.  And that is how it should be. When new techniques of thought and feeling come into a language, if the graft takes at all, it will soon be indistinguishable as immigrant or native. The accent is recognizable perhaps for a generation, but the discovery becomes as common a heritage as bread or pizza.

For the question of translation’s effects on a poet who translates, practicing translation is not unlike practicing scales—inevitably, you internalize. Certain gestures and moods cannot help but enter your own lexicon of expression. Kenneth Rexroth’s essay on translating poetry is brilliant on this point, and on another as well: one reason to translate good poems, Rexroth says, is that it keeps you in such good company. For me, the year I spent translating the classical-era Japanese women’s poems that became The Ink Dark Moon felt like a love affair—it was an exhilarating and intimate encounter; my pulses would race when I turned to the poems each week. It also became an extended exercise in openness to alternative possibility, and left me a writer with a very different relationship to revision. The experience of translating a poem seven or ten different ways, and feeling how each can be faithful to the original in its own way, is revelatory. A cook never makes the same dish twice—the salt is different, the flame is different, even the water is different. And the tongue of the cook is different. Translating poems makes clear that the same is true of words. Put two of them next to each other a thousand times, they will say a thousand slightly different things. That discovery was deeply liberating for me as a writer, and it can be learned more freely in translating than in working with your own poems: in translating, the original remains reliably there, and cannot be lost or damaged, only served.

Ami: One final question.  In the chapter of Nine Gates called “Facing the Lion,” about a poet’s relationship to difficulty, pain, and “shadow” (in the Jungian sense), you wrote: “The trick , then, is to let the lion into the house without abandoning one’s allegiance to the world of the living: to live amid the overpowering scent of its knowledge, yet not be dragged down entirely into its realm. This is the reason Dante is forbidden pity when he looks upon the damned—to feel their fate too intimately would put his own salvation at risk. What is required is a certain distance—made, in part, through the mind of art itself. Every poet is a Scheherazade, acceding to fate while at the same time delaying it. And Scheherazade’s salvation, not unlike Dante’s, is accomplished by abundance and imagination, by her offering the cruel king the one thing he cannot do without: a story worth hearing. For it is not our death the lion wants to eat, but our lives. In the difference lies one of the great source-springs of poetic power.”  Could you share with us something more about this idea of the poet as a Scheherazade?

Jane: Scheherazade, of course, is the young woman who narrates the stories we have come to know as The 1001 Nights. The underlying movement of those tales, which most of us learn so young that we are unable to see them for what they are, is the story of the reassembling and cure of a broken heart and psyche. That is of course the King’s—a man who, betrayed by his wife, will not risk his heart again. He decides to sleep each night with a new virgin, who is slaughtered at dawn. Many have died when Scheherazade, the King’s vizier’s daughter, volunteers for her turn in his bed, but with a plan—once the King has had his way with her, she begs permission to tell her younger sister one final bedtime story, which dawn interrupts. The King, who has been listening, keeps her alive for one more night, to hear its end. But one story leads to the next, each interrupted. This goes on for 1000 nights, until the King has both fallen in love with the teller and, equally important, has come to understand that his own story is not exceptional, but part of the common lot.  Trickery, lust, betrayal come to all.  Laughter is a saving grace. Perspective and wisdom are possible. Connection, risk, desire, and ingenuity enlarge life; anger, coldness, and separation foreclose it. And so by the time Scheherazade completes her last tale, the King has been restored to an unfractured existence by his acknowledgment that life will be what it will be for us all. Words have reawakened first his curiosity, then his willingness to live.

Poems, Robert Frost wrote, are a momentary stay against confusion, beginning in delight and ending in wisdom. That progression is a good description of Scheherazade’s task—to take a person who has lost his ground of humanity and compassion, and, through the experience of moment by moment delight, through the lure of narrative skill and the evocation of life’s range, absurdity, and beauty, restore him to his wisdom and wholeness.

Poems are one way we relearn the capacity to go on, no matter what happens to us in the course of a life. Scheherazade does not fear death, nor does she court it—but she risks it, she moves toward it rather than away. Her one defense against the King’s ruined pride and ruinous power is a set of seductions: the seduction of well-crafted art, the seduction of human commonality, and (not to be underestimated) the seduction of her own presence, fully and vulnerably offered. All this seems to me to model something of direct use to aspiring poets.

Pirene’s Fountain is deeply indebted to Ms. Jane Hirshfield for her gracious participation in this illuminating conversation. With sincere gratitude, we also acknowledge her publishers for the works and extracts in the conversation above: The American Poetry Review, the AWP Chronicle, and HarperCollins for “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.” The materials and quotations from Jane Hirshfield’s works are used by permission of the author.  Please visit our Showcase to read more about this remarkable poet.

Also see the excellent Poetry Foundation biography on Jane Hirshfield, including poems, articles and more; Interview from FROGPOND with Jane Hirshfield on The Heart of Haiku; and What Rainer Maria Rilke inscribed on the copy of The Duino Elegies he gave his Polish translator.


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