Hirshfield, Jane (B.)

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Nationality: American. Born: New York, New York, 24 February 1953. Education: Princeton University, New Jersey, A.B. (magna cum laude) 1973. Career: Visiting poet, Wyoming Poets in the Schools, 1987; master artist, Chevron Foundation Artist in the Schools Program, 1982–84; California Poets in the Schools, 1980–85; faculty, Napa Valley Poetry Conference, 1984, 1985, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999; faculty, Port Townsend Writers Conference, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1994; faculty member, Foothills College Writers Conference, 1989–97; lecturer, University of San Francisco, 1991–98; Truckee Meadows Writers Conference, Reno, Nevada, 1991, 1994; faculty, Squaw Valley Art of the Wild Writers Conference, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997; visiting poet, University of Alaska, Fair-banks, 1993; adjunct professor, Northern Michigan University, 1994; faculty, University of Minnesota Split Rock Summer Arts Seminars, 1995, 1998; visiting associate professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1995; Elliston Visiting Poet, University of Cincinnati, 2000. Since 1983 freelance editor and assistant to literary agent Michael Katz. Associate faculty, 1995, and since 1999 faculty, Bennington College Writing Seminars. Awards: Poetry Competition prize (later named The Discovery award), The Nation, 1973; Poetry prize, Quarterly Review of Literature, 1982; Yaddo fellowship, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1996; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; The Joseph Henry Jackson award, The San Francisco Foundation, 1986; Gordon Barber award, Poetry Society of America, 1987; Columbia University Translation Center award, 1987, for The Ink Dark Moon; Djerassi Foundation artist-in-residence, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990; Commonwealth Club of California Poetry medal, 1988, for Of Gravity & Angels; Cecil Hemley award, Poetry Society of America, 1988; Pushcart prize, 1988; Dewar's Young Artist Recognition award in poetry, 1990; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1994; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, Bellagio Study Center, 1995; Bay Area Book Reviewers award in poetry, 1995, for The October Palace; Best American Poems selection, 1999. Address: c/o Harper Collins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.



Alaya. Princeton, New Jersey, Quarterly Review of Literature, 1982.

Of Gravity & Angels. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

The October Palace. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.

The Lives of the Heart. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.


Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

Editor and translator, with Mariko Aratani, The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems, by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. New York, Vintage Classics, 1990.

Editor and translator, Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.


Critical Studies: "The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation" by the author, in Georgia Review (Athens, Georgia), 45 (1), spring 1991; "Necessary Angels: Jane Hirshfield and Karen Fish" by Jo Brantley Berryman, in Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), 48 (3), summer 1990.

Jane Hirshfield comments:

My primary reason for writing has always been the attempt to understand and deepen experience by bringing it into words. Poetry, for me, is an instrument of investigation and a mode of perception, a way of knowing and feeling both self and world, and I believe that a good poem not only holds experience but creates it by allowing reader or writer to step into that place at the center where all things rise newly into being. I write, then, as a way to attend with deeper accuracy to the difficult business of being a human being in the world. But poetry is also a mode of being in which subjective and objective can approach and become each other; outer description holds inner being, and the most seemingly subjective expression touches universal experiences of passion, grief, love, loss, and the subtler experiences of both daily life and what, for lack of any better term, I will call metaphysical inquiry.

The speaking voice of a poem during its composition is intensely private for me, but the finished work is nonetheless a way of bringing fruit of inner thinking to others. Technically I am interested in making poems that find a clarity without simplicity, in a way of thinking and speaking that does not exclude complexity but also does not obscure, in poems that know the world in many ways at once—heart, mind, voice, and body. There are many kinds of poem making that seem like valid roads to me, but all encompass both word and world.

My "lineage" as a poet includes both the Western and Eastern traditions. Greek and Roman lyrics, the English sonnet, those foundation stones of American poetry Whitman and Dickinson, modern poets from Eliot to Akhmatova to Cavafy to Neruda—all have added something to my knowledge of what is possible in poetry. But equally important to me have been the classical Chinese poets such as Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, and Han Shan and the classical Japanese poets, particularly the two foremost women poets of the Heian era, Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, whom I translated in The Ink Dark Moon. I am also interested in the lesser known traditions—Eskimo poetry, Nahuatl poetry. I believe that full realizations of the lyric impulse can be found in every tradition and culture, and I have tried to draw on as wide a range as possible in the various essays and craft lectures I have written. The two books I have edited, The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems and Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, were each undertaken in the effort to make more widely known the work of historical women poets whose words I found both memorable and moving, able to enlarge our understanding of what it is to be human as well as to counteract the lingering myth that there were no historical women writers of significance.

*  *  *

In the afterword to Alaya, her first collection of poems, Jane Hirshfield notes that her intent is "to find the level of truth in a situation which is incontrovertible, as a dream is, by reason of its particularity." What emerges most clearly in this volume, which collects poems written between the poet's eighteenth and twenty-seventh years, is the first appearance of themes to be developed at greater length and with greater individual style and skill in later volumes. That she regards poetry as a kind of gift of perception and sensibility distilled into language is clear from the first poem, "How To Give," which suggests that ordinary moments can compensate for the loss of monuments of greater cultural or historical magnitude:

   The only life to be had starts here:
   without seams,
   this daily life a coming ordinariness,
   a mine to replace the chameleon history of power,
   a power to replace that other power—
   things shining, & things growing dark,
   loud with crickets,
   with bees,
   the patina of use,
   the habit of care.

James Wright's influence on Hirshfield can be detected in the opening poem of her second collection, the title of which, Of Gravity & Angels, aptly encapsulates the twin pulls in her work. "After Work" echoes the imagery and flow of Wright's "A Blessing"; like Wright, Hirshfield stops by a pasture at evening and, in this case, whistles the horses close to accept her gift of corncobs:

   They come, deepened and muscular movements
   conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
   heavy with earth, simple beyond communion …
   … and in the night, their mares' eyes shine, reflecting stars,
   the entire, outer light of the world here.

The second section of the book, however, presents a clear departure, gathering poems often explicit in their erotic imagery. The title poem begins with the speaker telling her lover that she "want[s] the long road of your thigh /under my hand, your well-traveled thigh, /your salt-slicked & come-slicked thigh …." Yet this sexual situationopens to a sense of erotic joining in a larger sense:

   … all fontanel, all desire, the whole thing beginning
   for the first time again, the first,
   until I wonder then how is it
   we even know which part we are,
   even know the ground that lifts us, raucous,
   out of ourselves,
   as the rising sound of a summer dawn
   when all of it joins in.

If an erection signals a kind of rising counter to the ordinary heaviness of things, it also reflects the intrinsic impulse to rise against the tug of other forces.

In The October Palace Hirshfield widens her net to gather Zen monks, Cycladic figures, modernist painters, Praxilla, Grant's Common Birds and How To Know Them, and a car named Big Mama Tomato. Such references allow her, as she writes in "The Wedding," to "think of world /in which nothing is lost, its heaped paintings, /the studded statues keeping their jewels."

Her knowledge never seems donned like a valedictory robe, however, but serves to illuminate recesses of thought. It does not rest on elegant surfaces, for, as she begins "Perceptibility Is a Kind of Attentiveness,"

   It is not enough
   to see only the beauty,
   this light
   that pools aluminum
   in the winter branches of apple—
   it is only a sign
   of the tree looking out
   from the tree,
   of the light looking
   back at the light,
   the long-called attention.

But the things of this world do not serve only to "distract /in their sweetness and rustling." The body is also a "net," "the one /we willingly give ourselves to … /each knot so carefully made, the curved /plate of the sternum tied to the shape of breath, /the perfect hinge of knee …" ("Of the Body"). What Hirshfield hopes to help us see is a way of, as she titles one poem, "Meeting the Light Completely." The goal of Zen practice is to see the world as it is, just as it is, not other than an ideal world of enlightened experience, not quite the same. "Not one, not two," a Zen saying insists. But in the details, banal as "the chipped lip /of a blue-glazed cup," we see the beauty of "the found world," which surprises as profoundly as being able, in those odd moments when we are truly present, to recognize the former "unrecognized stranger" in "the long beloved," leading us to say with "all lovers," "What fools we were, not to have seen."

Hirshfield's collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, provides insight into her process as a writer. Of particular note is "The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation," in which Hirshfield argues that translation "play[s] an essential role in the innumerable conversations between familiar and strange, native and import, past and future, by which history and culture are made." Given the erotic (in the fullest sense) nature of the act, the poet/translator bears considerable responsibility, not the least of which is "to convey each poem's particular strength." This challenge increases in proportion to the poem's distance across culture or time:

An older poem's increasing strangeness of language is part of its beauty, in the same way that the cracks and darkening of an old painting become part of its luminosity in the viewer's mind: they enter not only the physical painting, but our vision of it as well. This is why seeing an old painting suddenly "restored" can be unnerving & shy; we recognize a tampering with its relationship to time, miss the scented smoke of the centuries' passage.

The second half of the essay details the ways in which her own process in bringing the works of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu (in The Ink Dark Moon, with Mariko Aratani) reveal the challenges and rewards of this labor.

Hirshfield concurrently published her collection of poems The Lives of the Heart. While these poems show a maturation of craft, the specificity and delicacy of focus, particularly on the natural world, remain consistent. If the poems display a little less erudition than those in The October Palace, the gain is an intensified presence and increased acuity of metaphor. Hirshfield's poems, however, too often leave out the shared quotidian, the hallmark of Issa's haiku. As with a still life painter who includes fruit and flowers—not necessarily rare beauties; day lilies and asters will do—the sense of the disarray of human use is often lost. Hirshfield articulates an awareness of this in "Letter to Hugo from Later," a form appropriate to her recognition:

   I envy the way you managed to pack so many parts of the world
   in such a little space, the way you'd go from pouring a glass
   of beer to something American and huge. I don't write much
   about America, or even people. For you, people were what there was:
   you talked with and about them and stayed up late
   to love those high-lobbed lives. I'd often enough rather
   talk to horses.

It is interesting that, in using the shape of Hugo's letter poems, Hirshfield imitates as well the too often dull prosody, the lapse into prose energized, when at all, by sentiment rather than emotion. The danger for Hirshfield if, as this poem suggests, she hopes to find a way to incorporate more of this world within her poems, is to get the force of contingency without the slackening of acuity.

—Allen Hoey