Hirshfield, Jane 1953- (Jane B. Hirshfield)

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Hirshfield, Jane 1953- (Jane B. Hirshfield)


Born February 24, 1953, in New York, NY; daughter of Robert L. (a clothing manufacturer) and Harriet (a secretary) Hirshfield. Education: Princeton University, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1973. Religion: Zen Buddhist. Hobbies and other interests: Horses, gardening, wilderness.


Office—c/o Michael Katz, 367 Molino Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, editor, and educator. Freelance editor, 1983—, and translator. University of San Francisco, lecturer in creative writing, 1991-98; Northern Michigan University, Marquette, adjunct professor, 1994; University of Minnesota, Duluth, adjunct professor, 1995; University of California—Berkeley, visiting associate professor, 1995; University of Cincinnati, Elliston Visiting Poetry Professor, 2000; Bennington College M.F.A. Writing Seminars faculty, 1999-2004. Faculty member of numerous writers conferences and in-school programs, including California Poets in the Schools, 1979-85, Squaw Valley Art of the Wild Writers Conference, 1992—, and Port Townsend and Napa Valley Writers Conferences. Djerassi Resident Artists Program, board director; board member of Marin Arts Council and Marin Poetry Center.


PEN, Authors Guild, Poetry Society of America, Associated Writing Programs, Lindisfarne Association (fellow), Phi Beta Kappa.


Poetry competition prize, Nation, 1973; poetry prize, Quarterly Review of Literature, 1982, for Alaya; Yaddo fellowships, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1996; Guggenheim fellowship, 1985; Joseph Henry Jackson Award, San Francisco Foundation, 1986; Poetry Society of America, Gordon Barber Award, 1987, Cecil Hemley Award, 1988; award from Columbia University Translation Center, 1988, for The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan; Poetry Medal, Commonwealth Club of California, 1988, for Of Gravity & Angels, and 1994, for The October Palace; Pushcart Prize, 1988, for Of Gravity & Angels, and 2002, for Given Sugar, Given Salt; Marin Arts Council grant, 1990; Dewar's Young Artists Recognition Award in Poetry, 1990; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1994; Poetry Center Book Award, 1994, for The October Palace; Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, 1995, for The October Palace; Rockefeller Foundation fellow at Bellagio Study Center, 1995; Bay Area Book Reviewers Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, both 2001, both for Given Sugar, Given Salt; Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement, Academy of American Poets, 2004; fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 2005.



Alaya, Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series (Princeton, NJ), 1982.

Of Gravity & Angels, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1988.

The October Palace, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.

The Lives of the Heart, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.

Given Sugar, Given Salt, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.

(With Roberty Bly) Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2004.

After: Poems, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.

Work represented in anthologies, including What Will Suffice: Contemporary American Poets on the Art of Poetry, Gibbs-Smith, 1997; Poetry: An Introduction, Bedford Books, 1997; Wild Song: Poems of the Natural World, University of Georgia Press, 1998; Best American Poems, Scribner (New York, NY), 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, and 2007; and The Pushcart Prize XXVI: Best of the Small Presses, Pushcart Press, 2001. Contributor to periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Five Points, New Republic, Georgia Review, Nation, New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Times Literary Supplement.


(Editor and translator, with Mariko Aratani) The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, Scribner (New York, NY), 1988, expanded edition, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor and translator) Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.

(Translator, with Oliver Davies) Aaron Jay Kernis, Ecstatic Meditations: For SSAATTBB Choir A Capella, texts by Mechtild of Magdeburgh, Associated Music Publishers (New York, NY), 1998.


Award-winning poet and translator Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, many of which are influenced by her Zen Buddhist practice and her knowledge of classical Japanese verse. In addition to her own published collections, which include Of Gravity & Angels and The Lives of the Heart, Hirshfield has translated works by early women poets in The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan and in Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women. The Eastern and Western poetry that often inspires Hirshfield are short forms with a turning point or moment of insight. "Such moments arise in Hirshfield's own poetry," asserted Common Boundary reviewer Rose Solari. "There is a wholeness, a sense of completeness in her work."

Hirshfield published her first poem in 1973, shortly after graduating from Princeton University as part of that institution's first graduating class to include women. She then put aside her writing for nearly eight years to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. "I felt that I'd never make much of a poet if I didn't know more than I knew at that time about what it means to be a human being," the poet told Solari. "I don't think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn't just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live." While Hirshfield does not use Zen terminology in her verse, she once told CA that "it is my hope that the experience of that practice underlies and informs it as a whole. My feeling is that the paths of poetry and of meditation are closely linked—one is an attentiveness and awareness that exists in language, the other an attentiveness and awareness that exists in silence, but each is a way to attempt to penetrate experience thoroughly, to its core."

After completing her studies in Zen in the early 1980s, Hirshfield began to write and teach, earning numerous grants and awards throughout the remainder of the decade. Her work has been inspired by a series of new influences, in both the Eastern and Western traditions: "Greek and Roman lyrics, the English sonnet, those foundation stones of American poetry Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, ‘modern’ poets from T.S. Eliot to Anna Akhmatova to C.P. Cavafy to Pablo Neruda—all have added something to my knowledge of what is possible in poetry," Hirshfield explained to CA. Equally influential have been classical Chinese poets Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, and Han Shan; classical Japanese Heian-Era poets Komachi and Shikibu; and such lesser known traditions as Eskimo and Nahuatl poetry.

The poems that comprise Hirshfield's collection Of Gravity & Angels most often depict nature. "The beauty and reassurance of the natural world constantly infuses Hirshfield's work with freshness," remarked Frances Mayes in the San Jose Mercury News. A Contemporary Women Poets, essayist also commented on the influence of poet James Wright on Hirshfield's work, particularly the poem "After Work." Several other critics remarked on the theme of transcendence in Hirshfield's verse. "Lyrical, attentive to color and light, precise in focus and in naming, this godless but holy book sanctifies the homely and the here-and-now," wrote poet Emily Leider in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Concrete and wedded to the tactile world, the poems give off an other-worldly beauty and resonance." Mayes commented: "Hirshfield is a strong new talent. Her sensibility is lyric, and her intellect is as sharp as any ax in her toolshed."

In 1987 Hirshfield began collecting sacred verse by women after the poet and translator Stephen Mitchell asked for her help in compiling his anthology of sacred verse. "I had a feeling that women had always written about these things and that it was just a matter of find- ing them," she explained to Joan Smith of the San Francisco Examiner. "It was like a treasure hunt." The result of Hirshfield's research appeared in 1994 as Women in Praise of the Sacred, a collection that spans the centuries from 2300 B.C. to the early 1900s and includes the work of seventy poets from many cultures, spiritual traditions, and social classes. "The Ink Dark Moon and Women in Praise of the Sacred were each done 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," Hirshfield explained to CA. "They were also done to help counteract the lingering myth that there were no historical women writers of significance."

The poetry collection The October Palace encompasses an even more vast expanse of references than her previous collections and includes works from Zen monks to modernist painters. Hirshfield's "knowledge never seems donned like a valedictory robe, … but [instead] serves to illuminate recesses of thought," according to a Contemporary Women Poets, contributor. "I chose the word October because for me it means transience," Hirshfield told San Francisco Review of Books contributor Pam Houston. "I think the hardest thing people have to deal with in their lives is that everything changes." The poet viewed The October Palace as a response to the pressures of everyday life. "You can either fall into total grief or total joy—you never know which way it is going to go. The effort of this book is to accept the terms of the world, but it's not easy; it's never easy." Summing up The October Palace, Houston wrote that the author's "poems are honest and beautiful, sensuous and clean, as full of passion as they are full of grace, as risky as they are wise."

In Hirshfield's collection The Lives of the Heart, as Donna Seaman noted in Booklist, "her imagery is simple in form but iridescent in implication; her meditative focus on stillness is curiously provocative and illuminating." Several other reviewers noted the significant influence of Zen Buddhism on this volume of poetry. Ellen Kaufman, commenting in the Library Journal, wrote: "The poems are of the moment—each a single gesture encompassing the dichotomies of presence and absence, life and death, being and not-being." In a review in the Women's Review of Books, Adrian Oktenberg concluded: "If the grit and clash of life have been shorn away in this work, it is not by a false effort at smoothing over, but by honesty, lucidity and patience."

Given Sugar, Given Salt, Hirshfield's fifth book of poetry, is, Ellen Kaufman wrote in the Library Journal, "infused … with the pensiveness of middle age." Hirshfield also writes about the aspects of her life that she highly values, such as solitude, which she writes about in the poem "Only When I Am Quiet and Do Not Speak." "These are assured, controlled poems that tread carefully where others have trampled," wrote Kaufman. Writing in the Women's Review of Books, Miriam Sagan noted that these "new poems are notably different in tone from her earlier ones." Sagan went on to comment that, in her view, the difference lies in the poems' "sense of loss and change, not grief but acceptance of the uncertain nature of life." Sagan also found that the poems "do some of the basic work of lyric poetry: they express one heart and make the reader examine her or his self afresh."

According to a Publishers Weekly contributor, Hirshfield's 2006 collection After "continues the meditative direction established in 2001's well-received Given Sugar, Given Salt. Several of the poems in this collection are subtitled "An Assay," referring to "a trial or attempt, a study of characteristics, an analysis to determine the presence or absence of certain components," as Donna Seaman noted in Booklist. Once again many of the author's poems reflect her interest in Zen Buddhism and in Japanese writings. For example, "Seventeen Pebbles" is a series of poems that individually resemble a Japanese haiku. Diane Scharper, writing in the Library Journal, called the poems "conversational yet metaphysical." Scharper went on to write that the poems are imbued with "vivid imagery, understatement, and a tone that is emotionally distant but not removed."

In addition to her verse publications, Hirshfield also wrote Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a collection of prose pieces. Based on her lectures before writing conferences or adapted from essays published in literary journals, Hirshfield's essays touch upon such subjects as originality, the nature of metaphoric mind, translation, and the psychological shadow. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman praised the work as an "enlightening volume [that] does exactly what Hirshfield hoped it would: it intensifies our response to poetry, hence to life." The nine essays cite numerous examples from familiar works written in English, as well as from a wide variety of poems in translation. "With her feet firmly planted in both the Western and Eastern canons, Hirshfield delivers a thorough and timely collection on our relationships to poetry, our relationship to the world, and everything in between," maintained a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Hirshfield once told CA: "My primary interest 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. In one sense, then, I write for myself; but poetry is also a mode of being in which subjective and objective can approach and become each other—in the lyric poem, choices of outer description inevitably reveal inner being, while the most seemingly subjective expression touches the 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, but the finished work is nonetheless a way of bringing the fruit of my innermost thinking to others. I am interested in 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."



Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.


Bloomsbury Review, July-August, 2001, interview by Leza Lowitz, pp. 9-10.

Booklist, September 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, reviews of The Lives of the Heart and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p. 53; February 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of After: Poems, p. 17.

Common Boundary, March, 1994, article by Rose Solari, pp. 33-34, 39.

Hungry Mind Review, winter, 1994, review of The October Palace, p. 54; winter, 1997-98, review of Nine Gates, p. 34.

Library Journal, October 1, 1997, Ellen Kaufman, review of The Lives of the Heart, p. 86; February 15, 2001, Ellen Kaufman, review of Given Sugar, Given Salt, p. 172; January 1, 2006, Diane Scharper, review of After, p. 122.

New Mexican, April 15, 2001, Miriam Sagan, review of Given Sugar, Given Salt, p. F2.

New York Times Book Review, July 3, 1994, Carol Muske, reviews of Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women and The October Palace, p. 19.

O, March, 2001, Pam Houston, review of Given Sugar, Given Salt, p. 155.

Ploughshares, spring, 1998, Peter Harris, "About Jane Hirshfield," pp. 119-205.

Publishers Weekly, August 11, 1997, review of Nine Gates, p. 394; December 5, 2005, review of After, p. 32.

Ruminator Review, spring, 2001, Thomas R. Smith, review of Given Sugar, Given Salt, p. 49.

San Diego Reader, February 15, 2001, Judith Moore, review of Given Sugar, Given Salt, pp. 64-67.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 1988, Emily Leider, review of Of Gravity & Angels; April 29, 2001, Carmella Cíuraru, review of Given Sugar, Given Salt.

San Francisco Examiner, May 4, 1994, article by Joan Smith, pp. C1, C4.

San Francisco Review of Books, April-May, 1994, Pam Houston, review of The October Palace, pp. 18-20.

San Jose Mercury News, January 22, 1989, Frances Mayes, review of Of Gravity & Angels.

Village Voice, August 26, 1997, Barbara O'Dair, review of Nine Gates, p. 60.

Women's Review of Books, July, 1998, Adrian Oktenberg, review of The Lives of the Heart, p. 16; July 2001, Miriam Sagan, review of Given Sugar, Given Salt, p. 41.


Poets.org,http://www.poets.org/ (April 4, 2007), author profile.

Steven Barclay Agency Web site,http://www.barclayagency.com/ (April 4, 2007), author profile.