In this interview, Columbia Journal online arts editor Jai Hamid Bashir talks to poet Jane Hirshfield about her ninth poetry collection Ledger (Knopf, March 10, 2020), a deeply observant and stunning text about our species relationship with this Earth, beauty, and ourselves.
Her nine poetry books include The Beauty, long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award; Given Sugar, Given Salt, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award; and After, short-listed for England’s T.S. Eliot Award and named a “best book of 2006” by The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and England’s Financial Times. Her two collections of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry ( 1997) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (2015), have become classics in their field, as have her four books collecting and co-translating the work of world poets from the past: The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Komachi & Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Japanese Court; Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women; Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems; and The Heart of Haiku, on Matsuo Basho, named an Amazon Best Book of 2011.
Hirshfield’s other honors include The Poetry Center Book Award; fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets; Columbia University’s Translation Center Award; The California Book Award, Northern California Book Reviewers Award, and the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry.
While reading Ledger, I was struck by the many mentions of loss and grief. The title itself seems to be signaling towards something that functions materially or symbolically as an elegy. Did climate emergency inform your writing process and themes, and if so, how? And were you thinking about the more-than-human world in different ways in this text versus other collections?
This book’s poems are indeed a stocktaking of much loss… tempered, I hope, by the recognition and praise of all that’s still here. You cannot subtract from nothing. You cannot feel as loss what you did not love. The poems keep doing the sums, testing the balance.
These past years have felt an avalanche of crises of every kind—of social justice, environment, and climate; of mutual compact, trust, mind, and heart. And still, as I type this, a flock of cedar waxwings is feasting on the red berries of the cotoneaster out my window; near them, a wild plum is blooming. We who have now waded through floodwaters and breathed the smoke of the fires already upon us know there can be no assuming that this world’s beauty will continue. The mountain out my window will likely continue for some time. But the berries, the birds? The birds are already fewer, by two billion, researchers say.
Issues of refugees and war are also in this book, and more personal losses. Two of the early poems speak of my sister, who died in 2004. A later section holds the “Little Soul” poems, a phrase borrowed from Hadrian, written in the knowledge of the dying and then death of a friend of over forty years.
What is the role of beauty in conjunction or apart from grief?
Beauty unweights the iron bell of abyss, letting a person hear that even that iron bell, lifted from ground-level, can make a sound our human ears thirst to know. Creative imagination’s promise is that resilience is always available. We turn toward poems in loss or despair, toward their writing or their reading, because even poems that face darkness carry the beauty and resilience of original seeing. A good poem is possibility’s presence made visible. That restoration of faith in continuance is something we need.
One poem in Ledger is “Ghazal for the End of Time,” a poem entirely of grief before unchecked climate change. An “American” ghazal, it follows the Persian form loosely; but its divergences are taken for reason. The form breaks under stress as the natural world is now breaking. In the place where the poet’s name would usually appear in the final couplet, for instance, it has instead: “Burning Ones.” It catalogs vanishings: “Fish vanished. Bees vanished. Bats whitened. Arctic ice opened.” It proposes Death itself as orphaned when there is no one and nothing left to die—a thought unimaginably dark. But the poem’s sound work, I hope carries beauty, and its words speak of things that carry beauty—pianos, cellos, a human voice singing. The existence of music, the existence of poetry, these are counterforce to abyss, chaos, dismantling.
This poem frightened me when I wrote it, and frightens me still. It also led to a realization: that it is, not least, simply rude to overlook the abundance of existence still here. I then wrote what became the book’s final poem, “My Debt,” as a direct apology for having written so much “in such black ink.” This world has not yet become ash. All elegies are also poems of praise.
I tell the story of these two poems to say that beauty – the recognition of it, the desire for it, the continuing praise of it – offers a rescue of the spirit when spirit is under the greatest duress. And only a rescued spirit – one that remembers largeness – is able to continue to act on behalf of what it loves, toward stopping our current velocities of self-destruction.
And how do you see the role of the creative as offering something of use in this time of global uncertainty?
One of poetry’s central tasks is to acknowledge uncertainty, without hurrying to falsely erase it. Humility is also helpful. I can’t know what will happen next moment, let alone in the next ten, twenty, fifty years. This is always true, but sometimes we’re driven to recognize existence’s fundamental uncertainty more clearly, and this is such a moment.
Those who try to evade uncertainty make predictions and empty promises. Those who prefer to enter uncertainty might make poems, whose provisional responses to unsolvable questions at least recognize that they are provisional, momentary, a way to encourage the eyes to open again each time they are closed. There’s an essay about poetry and uncertainty in my second book of essays, Ten Windows. It proposes that not-knowing is something any good poem includes, if sometimes in ways deeply disguised. Adamance is off-putting, bullying. Certainty raises walls. Good poems are permeable, vulnerable, ecosystems, countries without fixed borders, crossable and inhabitable by multiple thoughts and feelings at once.
In other interviews, I’ve read you speaking about the relationship between Zen practice and poetry. Ideas of reciprocity and currents of empathy run through this book, as, for example, in the incantatory and necessary-for-our-time poem, “Spell to be Said Against Hatred.” Do you feel that this socio-political time has affected the way you practice meditation?
First, let me say that I write, and want my poems read, as poems simply human. If the perceptions that come from Zen, or from meditation, or from any other form of concentrated awareness, aren’t there to be seen by any person at any time, how can they reflect the actualities of our shared lives? Zen practice is simply the inhabitance of ordinary life with awareness, openness, curiosity, vulnerability to the actual experience of being alive in this world, as it is. Like good poetry, it’s the opposite of living by idea or label.
That said… meditation is meditation. Its bedrock experience isn’t changed by outer events. That is part of its instruction and bestowal. The expression of that experience, though, is responsive and current. This is a time when the non-self-centeredness and compassion that arise in meditation are urgently needed, and a time that clamors for outer, visible forms of activism. One supports the other. There are enough hours in the day both to step into the deep concentration of meditation—or of writing a poem—and to take, as I do every day, some outer-facing action addressing the brokenness of our current age and hearts.
I’m also interested in knowing if you feel that poetry reading or writing can be a type of meditation—or, as the title of the aforementioned poem suggests, a type of magic?
Meditation and the writing of poems are each practices of awareness, of openness in directions both interior and outer. Both recognize that each moment brings different perceptions, that our lives are not fixities or solids, that our fates aren’t special or separable from the fates of others— not from the fates of rocks, not from bees, not from other people. One poem in the book that holds this non-separation is “Like Others”:
In the end,
I was like others.
When “Fire!” was shouted,
some ran toward it,
I neck-deep among them.
“Spell to be Said Against Hatred” is another, and I thank you for your response to it. Its counter to hatred is made by thinking about grammar— which, as most readers likely already know, shares in Old English the same root as “glamour,” in glamour’s original meaning of “magic”:
Until by “we” we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by “I” we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and sounding and
Until by “until” we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger,
the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.
Within the rhetoric, understanding, and experience of writing and reading, any part of speech can mean any other part of speech. Any metaphor holds the psyche’s understanding that the barking dog and the self are one. The experience and craft of meditation and the experience and craft of writing poems, fiction, sometimes even non-fiction, are continual remindings that our lives aren’t separate selves, they’re communities of existence. An earlier book’s poem, “My Proteins,” speaks of the millions of molecules and microbes within each of our bodies whose conditions of being create our own.
Studies have shown that reading increases empathy—but we who love reading did not need neuroscience to tell us that.
How does this relate to our own deeply-vexed socio-political time? It may be that art’s particular answer to our current state of impasse and blindness is its ability to move us, as individuals and as beings who share a fragile and limited planet, beyond self-interest, its limits and damage. Self’s barricades grow permeable when we enter the experience of art. Art seduces us into the large. What we know ourselves part of, we will treat differently. When we feel ourselves as we are, living within undeniable interconnection, inequality, and cruelty and an ideology and economy of endless extraction become impossible to bear.
Do you think poems have lives of their own? If so, what are some personal examples?
Oh yes, a poem will always have its own life. Even a first draft is, like a newborn person, already an independent entity, with its own hungers and wishes and fate. The poet serves the poem, not the other way around, and must allow it its own life, in the writing and revising, and also after.
In 1982, I wrote a poem devastated by heartbreak. Six months after it appeared in The American Poetry Review, someone came up to thank me for it: “For What Binds Us” had been read at their wedding.
In 1999, I wrote “Optimism,” out of both my own need for that quality and the thought of ecological resilience. A few years later I was told that poem was being put up in hospices all over the country. Later still, I received a request for it to be used as an epigraph for the fiction writer Petina Gappah’s first book of short stories. I asked why it had come to be chosen, and heard back, “Because it embodies so perfectly the spirit of the Zimbabwean people.”
In 2002, I wrote “Against Certainty,” with issues of politics and the misuse of power in mind. It was the final poem that the poet Stanley Kunitz recited aloud, in 2006, two days before he died, at age one hundred. His assistant, Genine Lentine, sent me the audio file, and I understood immediately, hearing his voice, that for Stanley it was a poem about entering the unknowabilities of death. His spirit had made it a larger poem. Both readings now continue to travel inside it.
All poems have lives their writers could not have foreseen. Some people read Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” or William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” as poems of failed marriages and cold wives. I read them as poems holding the almost-mystical wonder of things as they are. To hold in winter, as Stevens proposes, the mind of winter, seems to me akin to certain images and teachings in Zen: the image of “snow in a silver bowl,” the teaching, “in winter, be cold; in summer, be hot.” And Williams’s cold, delicious plums— you can taste their original sweetness again in each reading. This is more than fair trade for the transient, eaten, real ones. I find this poem a love gift, not a passive-aggressive complaint. I may be wrong. I can’t know the poets’ intentions. But all these multiple understandings and uses are exactly how poems lead lives of their own… Poems multiply and expand inside our personal, idiosyncratic, revelatory, sometimes rebellious readings of them.
Wonder often strikes me as the emotional antonym to pessimism. Wonder and awe are often found in your poems in relationship to quotidian and more-than-human images and moments. Can you say something about how we might practice wonder and what can we do with it once it arrives in us?
John Muir once wrote of the “flesh-and-bone tabernacle” of the body. Those words, for me, are a plunge into the condition of wonder; my existence changes within their description. Anything, really, can serve as an entrance to wonder and awe. A forest, a phrase. Wonder is a natural condition in very young children. In age, we stiffen against it, beleaguered by ego, practicality, all the exigencies given our lives by evolution’s command of survival. Still, to remember that wonder is possible is already to move a little more toward it. Its discovering is as limitless and varied as wonder itself is. All we need to do is step out of the way to truly hear one note of a cello, or see the iridescence on the back of a beetle, the night sky whipping overhead the bright green scarf of aurora borealis. Wonder is scale-less, immeasurable, and so, immense.
Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a set of stepping stones and a map into wonder. Borges’s fictions and Calvino’s cities arrive at imaginary wonders. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow is a psychologist’s description of how self-vanishing can overtake us at any time, how we can disappear into a task we’ve given ourselves to fully—an experience of wonder retroactive, recognized on emergence.
Fireflies seem to me particularly skilled carriers of wonder, though from their own point of view, that’s not what’s happening at all. Wonder drops ‘point of view.’ It is selfless and pointless and changes a life. It recalibrates the scales of who we are by immersion in who we are not.
Wonder also has something to do with surprise: it isn’t subject to will, and expectation forestalls it. And so, there is, in Ledger, a poem titled “I wanted to be surprised.” In it, I’m surprised by some big spiders, a sandwich, a composer, and a library without overdue fines. What could be more wondrous than that act of trust? You can walk out of the oldest public library in America (in Peterborough, New Hampshire) with a book, and pay no penalty for needing some extra time with its pages.
A person can spend a lifetime being dumbstruck by sunsets, clouds, ripe peaches. We don’t need to do anything with that. But if that person’s a writer, they might at some point want to say, Look! Isn’t life worth everything it asks of us?
We can do worse with our lives than wonder at the world’s abundance. There are other tasks, there is other work to be done, but what, after all, is the hard work of justice and of world-caring-for for, if not to free lives to unfold in connection, to experience, at least sometimes, the wonder of that, and the sheer joy of making, rather than fear, hunger, disrespect, lack? Art is one way to alter the directions of experience’s compass. Think of those iconic books about cod, or pencils, or library catalogs. How any part of existence leads to everything else. How anything you look at becomes more and more interesting, the deeper you look.