About Jane Hirshfield: A Profile

by Peter Harris

There is a Zen saying, "Not knowing, we proceed." At some level this is true for us all. For Jane Hirshfield, such moving forward through enigma can be terrifying, but is also "the richest place to be." Having recently published a book of essays and a book of poems, she is now beginning a new collection; it's the stage she likes best, "before coherence and self-knowledge have announced themselves." When, however, her new work does announce its shape, there's little doubt it will take its inevitable-seeming place in a writing life that looks, from the outside, unusually surefooted and decisive.

Hirshfield's career might be said to have begun in first grade, when she wrote on a large sheet of lined paper: "I want to be a writer when I grow up." She had forgotten all about this youthful resolve until she published her first book of poems, whereupon her mother startled her by pulling it out of a drawer. Uncertainty aside, not many writers have had, by age six, such a clear inkling of their calling. And looking back, it seems quite right that the first book she bought, at age nine, was a collection of haiku. That attraction to things Japanese surfaced again, at Princeton, where as an undergraduate she created an independent major: creative writing and literature in translation.

If one's destiny is shaped by fateful detours, the next period in Hirshfield's life seems a particularly important swerve. Shortly after graduating from college, she won the poetry contest of The Nation for work written while still an undergraduate. But instead of getting an M.F.A., she decided that the best, perhaps the only, way for her to move forward was to study Zen. A few months were enough to teach her how little she knew, and after a year, she made the decision to enter monastic practice, during which time she knew she'd stop writing poetry altogether. "I had to be willing to walk away from poetry, perhaps forever, before I felt like I could do it at all." What began as a month's commitment turned into eight years of study with the San Francisco Zen Center, including three years at Tassajara, living in deep wilderness without electricity -- quite a change for someone born in Manhattan, in 1953, and raised on the Lower East Side.

After leaving formal Zen training, Hirshfield wrote two books of poetry, Alaya in the Quarterly Review of Literature series (1982) and Of Gravity & Angels from Wesleyan (1988). And she returned to the work, begun as an undergraduate, of translating Japanese women's poetry. With Mariko Aratani, she published The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Skikibu (Scribners, 1988; Vintage Classics, 1990). They are luminous English versions of two woman poets from ninth- and tenth-century Japan, a golden age for poetry, and the only one in which, Hirshfield says, "women writers were the predominant geniuses." More recently she has published, to considerable acclaim, two more collections: The October Palace (1994) and The Lives of the Heart (1997), both from HarperCollins.

To support herself as a poet, she has evolved what she calls a "tripod" of vocations: teacher, reader, and editor. Although she has chosen not to permanently institutionalize herself, Hirshfield has been a visiting poet at various universities, mostly recently Berkeley, and serves regularly on the staff of several writers' conferences. Because her poetry is pellucid and speaks directly to the heart, it is not surprising that readings, from Maine to California, have given her a second means of sustenance. Third, and not least, Hirshfield has a distinguished record of translation and editing. After The Ink Dark Moon had whetted her taste for recoveries of women's poetry, she gathered, and often created new English versions of, poems by sixty-six different figures, from ancient Sumeria to modern Korea, published as Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994). Moreover, she was deeply involved as an editor for three very successful spiritual guidebooks, Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart and Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul and Soul Mates.

The range of things to which she turns her mindfulness reminds one of a short poem she co-translates in Women in Praise of the Sacred. It is by Chiyo-ni, an eighteenth-century Buddhist: "From the mind / of a single, long vine, / one hundred opening lives." One of the most refreshing elements of Hirshfield's long vine is that its blossoms are colored by an astonishing variety of sources. Like many of her contemporaries, she writes free verse in American diction, and she loves Whitman, Dickinson, Kinnell, Bishop, Snyder, and Hass -- not to mention those other "American" influences, Neruda, Rilke, Milosz -- but it is her acquaintance with profoundly exotic sensibilities -- from India, China, and especially Japan -- that lend her work a distinct depth and air. Her recent book of essays on poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, does for poetry what Pound intended to do at the turn of the century: through juxtaposition of the familiar and the unknown, it reinvigorates our thinking about the possibilities of the art. One difference is that Hirshfield's remarks are more fully considered. Twelve years in gestation, two years in the writing, Nine Gates is surely one of the most eloquent books ever written about poetry. And even if it weren't, the range of its apposite allusions would set it apart. For example, in the essay "Poetry and the Mind of Indirection," there are references we might expect to Joyce, Hass, Zbigniew Herbert, but they are made vivid and fresh in part because they are weighed in the same balance as allusions to Izumi Shikibu, Bash¯o, and Chuang-tzu.

As to Hirshfield's own poetry and its influences, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Zen Buddhism can feel, and savor, its organic incorporation into her work. Thematically, for instance, the emphases on compassion, on the preexistent unity of subject and object, on nature, on the self-sufficient suchness of being, on the daunting challenge of accepting transitoriness -- all are central to Buddhism. Of course, every American poet after Pound and Williams owes a debt to the image-centered poetics of Japanese and Chinese verse. Hirshfield herself resists, rightly, being labeled a "Buddhist poet." Unlike, say, Gary Snyder, who consciously foregrounds Zen, she makes only a few allusions in her work to the literature of Zen. One of the attractions for her of Zen monasticism was that the stage of sequestered, intensive study is designed to come to an end. Just as Zen itself merges with the ordinary, its students reenter the world. At a certain point in one's practice, Hirshfield says, "there is no Zen, only life." Thus, the path she has chosen for herself is the one least obviously Buddhist; it is called, in Japan, "teahouse practice." In this analogy, there is a teahouse, run by an old lady who is quietly wise in the dharma, alongside a dusty road. "Nobody," Hirshfield says, "knows why they like to go in there to get their tea. But they do. That kind of unobtrusive awareness is what I want to bring to my poems." The Zen is not obviously apparent, but she assumes "it gets in the tea somehow."

Hirshfield has faith that "everything" gets in the tea somehow. She finds numinosity in the words "wholeness" and "interconnectedness." Hirshfield sees all imaginative writers, even apparently ego-centered ones, even Norman Mailer, as liminal or threshold characters, with boundary-crossing proclivities. Writers in the act of writing become permeable to the world. "When novelists describe a room," she says, "they are speaking for the paint, for the window, for the couch, for reality. Even though self is where style resides, at the moment you are writing, the self becomes transparent or translucent."

Unusual as it may sound to say that a writer speaks for paint, it is a proposition entirely consistent with Hirshfield's outlook: in fact, we cannot avoid the pigmentation of the world. "We are continuous with everything around us." Wholeness, in her view, is not just an aesthetic category or a psychological state, implying integration. Wholeness is our intrinsic condition, the condition of the world. "Poetry's job," she says, "is to discover wholeness and create wholeness, including the wholeness of the fragmentary and the broken." In Hirshfield's poems, one of the happy corollaries of accepting the unified manifold of experience is the impression they give of serenity, of radiance. For example, while stuck inside on a rainy day, the speaker in "Percolation," a poem included in The October Palace, meditates herself beyond stuckness into the conviction that:

Surely all Being at bottom is happy:
soaked to the bone, sopped at the root,
fenny, seeped through, yielding as coffee grounds
yield to their percolation, blushing, completely seduced,
assenting as they give in to the downrushing water,
the murmur of falling, the fluvial, purling wash
of all the ways matter loves matter --

But just because the world, in an absolute sense, soaks us does not mean it is easy to accept a condition that may feel like drownedness. On the contrary, for Hirshfield such acceptance presents a profound challenge. She says Zen does not end suffering: "It hasn't made me immune to anything. Life, for me, continues to feel tremendously hard." Good literature, she feels, verges on a dark precipice. The job of poetry "is not to shine a light which causes darkness to diminish or vanish; it is to bring even darkness into visibility. My poems are not just affirmations, but what I hope are visibly hard-won affirmations. Affirmations that don't negate the despair out of which they very often come." An example might be the opening of "Mule Heart" from The Lives of the Heart:


On the days when the rest
have failed you,
let this much be yours --
flies, dust, an unnameable odor,
the two waiting baskets:
one for the lemons and passion,
the other for all you have lost.

When asked about the respective roles of nature and politics in her poetry, Hirshfield characteristically sees the two realms as related. Or rather, she proffers, then erases, a distinction between the natural and what she has called the "chronicled world": "One of the marks of being human is that we reside amidst all of the stories that we have created to examine our existence more thoroughly-scientific, political, historical, psychological, mythic. At the same time we exist in a continuum with non-human being." One of the effects of Zen training has been to de-center her inherited Western worldview. "I am actually not all that human-centered. I know that many, many people would disagree with this stance. Both the Judeo-Christian and the Marxist worlds would disagree." But for her, the natural and political are, in an absolute sense, not distinct. "If you exploit nature you will exploit people. If you find somehow at the most fundamental level of being that your relationship to other people, other things, other animals, is a relationship of kinship then you perhaps will behave ethically in the world." Because she dwells with this radical vision of kinship, her poems are only infrequently political, but hearteningly compassionate. Like Milosz, whom she sees as the greatest living poet, she refrains from accusations. Perhaps the closest she comes is "The Ritual," in The October Palace, a response to Tiananmen Square. She begins indirectly by considering the fate of Wu Feng, two centuries removed. An emissary from China to Formosa, Wu Feng lived with the Formosan mountain tribes, but was troubled by their rituals of human sacrifice. Unable to persuade them to stop, he disguised himself, offered himself as a victim, and was sacrificed. This supreme act of compassion shocked and shamed the elders into stopping the practice. Only after presenting us with the case of Wu Feng does Hirshfield turn in "The Ritual" to the events of our own time. She ends the poem with three questions:

                        Did the student-scholars know of him,
the ones who, so much younger, gave the same?
Did they use chops like his to sign their names,
an equally brilliant Chinese red surrounding the carved-out absence?
And the elders, these new elders -- what of them?

The question, which hangs eloquently in the silence at the end of the poem, leaves open the possibility that the new elders may be unshameable. Hirshfield leaves us with a yang-yin image: a bright red signature emblematic of sacrifice, inside of which is a carved-out absence that includes the elders. But if, as she believes, "we are continuous with everything," has Hirshfield not reminded us that we are all part of both the circular signature and the emptiness inside?

Peter Harris is the director of the creative writing program at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He is the author of a book of poems, Blue Hallelujahs, and he has written the "Poetry Chronicle" column for The Virginia Quarterly Review for the past decade.

Copyright © Peter Harris

Spring 1998 Cover
Cover art by Christina Lanzl
Poetry & Fiction

Guest-edited by:
Stuart Dybek
Photo by Christina Lanzl
Stuart Dybek Guest-edited by:
Jane Hirshfield
Photo by Christina Lanzl
Jane Hirshfield