Photo by Michael Lionstar

JANE HIRSHFIELD: THE BEAUTY OF MINDFULNESS AND POETRY

By Paul Freeman [March 2015 Interview]

Great poets can change the way we look at life.

New York City-born, Mill Valley-based poet Jane Hirshfield gently alters the perceptions of readers. In her latest collection, the thought-provoking and beautiful ďThe Beauty: PoemsĒ (Alfred A. Knopf), as she juxtaposes seemingly unrelated things, she points out the connectedness in everything.

After earning a degree from Princeton University, Hirshfield studied at the San Francisco Zen Center. During the most intensive part of her training there, she had to put all writing aside for three years. But there were great benefits to this part of her spiritual journey. It heightened her mindfulness.

Poet Rosanna Warren says, ďHirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature...Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfieldís poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.Ē

In addition to eight books of poetry, Hirshfield has written two books of essays and four tomes co-translating the works of poets from the past. In addition to ďThe Beauty,Ē she has just released ďTen Windows: How Great Poems Transform The World.Ē

The award-winning Hirshfield, who is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, frequently appears on public radio. She took time to share her insights with Pop Culture Classics.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
In ďBeauty,Ē is one of the connective threads the notion of the fleeting nature of beauty - and all facets of life, really?

JANE HIRSHFIELD:
Yes, very much so. Thereís a very famous quote from Wallace Stevens - ďDeath is the mother of beauty.Ē And it very much captures - Why do we like sunsets? Why do we like dawns? We like them because theyíre not only luminous and extraordinary, but somehow the gorgeousness is linked to the transience, that it doesnít stand still for a moment. And I think all of human life is like that. Nothing stands still for a moment. And yet - and forgive me, Iím not very good at quotable sound bytes - but in a way, Iíd almost flip the question and say - rather than does transience make beauty beautiful? - Iíd say instead that beauty makes transience bearable. And thatís what the book is about. The book is about, in some ways - not every poem, of course - but in some ways, we know weíre going to lose every single thing we love in this world. Weíre going to lose the world itself. Weíre going to lose everybody we love. Everything that we know and treasure will eventually disappear from our ability to know it. How can we bear that? We can bear it, because itís just so beautiful.

PCC:
So does that realization encourage a mindfulness?

HIRSHFIELD:
Yes. Rather than being buffeted by the winds of our lives, mindfulness is the way that you can step into life more deeply, and to have a deeper, more saturated sense of why it is worth it to be alive. Weíre so harried all of the time. Weíre so busy. Weíve got so many emails, so many bills. Weíre running around. Weíre stuck in traffic. And mindfulness can take any moment of that and change itÖ in one heartbeat.

PCC:
So is that one of the roles of poetry - and art in general - to take us out of that harried life for a moment?

HIRSHFIELD:
Yes, itís to offer a glimpse, a preservable glimpse, because art will always be there to be returned to. So itís a preservable glimpse of a different way of being in this world, which is something I have hungered for all of my lifeÖ and what drew me into the life of not only making it, of course, but participating in all of the art, all of the poems, all of the books, all of the symphony halls and museums that can serve as reminders - Oh, thatís how I want to be in the world! Thatís whatís possible. I think art expands our sense of possibilities. It has many roles, many purposes. It does many things. But one thing that ties that all of that together is you feel the possibility of the world differently, when youíre standing inside the awareness that art brings.

PCC:
So does there tend to be an under-appreciation for the arts - and poetry, in particular?

HIRSHFIELD:
Thatís an interesting question. Does the culture ignore these possibilities? I know the standard answer is to say, ďYes, of course. Poetry books sell few copies. Symphony halls are not bursting to the gills. And museums only get a lot of people for their blockbuster shows that get a lot of publicity. But Iím going to take the other side of this and say I donít know any human being who doesnít turn to art, when they need it in their lives. And you can include in that rap, pop songs - thatís art. And do you know anybody who doesnít live with music? I donít. And donít forget, the kind of poems I that write is called lyric poetry. And thatís because it was originally the words set to music. So every song that has words in it - poetry is there. Poetry is present. So I think poetry is omnipresent in peopleís lives. Itís everywhere. Yes, the arts are in everybodyís life all the time. So long as poems are read at weddings and funerals and turned to by young people when they fall in love, and by young people, when their hearts are broken, I think the life of poetry is fine. At moments of great transition, when people want to acknowledge a moment of meaning or have to do something with the immensity of their grief, thatís when they look for poems. And the rest of us, our job is just to make sure that poems are available to them, when they need it.

PCC:
Is there always a sense of rhythm in your head as youíre writing?

HIRSHFIELD:
Yeah, I think one thing which makes words turn into poems is that, however subtle, even if theyíre not in classic forms of rhyme and meter, however subtle, if thereís no musical necessity to why these words in this order, no sense of the tone and the drumbeat of your own pulses and the variations from that, if thatís not there, itís not a poem. Poems think differently, because they think musically. And they let you have different thoughts, in part, because youíre always aware of the slip of consonant against vowel and of a syllable that has a stress against the light ones that glide by in between.

PCC:
When your poems juxtapose seemingly unrelated things, does that actually point out the connectedness in everything?

HIRSHFIELD:
Thatís such a good question. Yes, it does [laughs]. And the leap of mind that any simple metaphor - the moonlight is white milk pouring down - I mean, I donít have a poem that says such a thing, Iím just making it up from scratch, the simplest of possible metaphors. The moon is not milk. Milk is not a moon. And yet that shared whiteness shows how anything can sit next to anythingÖ and both things be larger for that. It changes the milk. It changes the moon.

PCC:
And, in presenting that, are you hoping the reader will open up to new perspectives?

HIRSHFIELD:
Iím hoping they will feel their own life more largelyÖ in the way that I would like to feel my own life more largely. So I do think, when you bring in the connection of everything, I happen to think that is true. I think that poems make us more intimately connected to other people, to objects, to ideas. And I think they make human beings more compassionate, because, when you recognize that youíre not separate from anything else, the upwelling of that is a sense of shared fate. And a sense of shared fate is the seed of compassion. You can find so many examples to the contrary. You can find mean poets. You can find angry poems. And still I believe this is true.

PCC:
Your studies at the Zen Center, did you go into that experience hoping to expand your palette as a writer? How did those studies end up affecting your poetry long-term?

HIRSHFIELD:
Well, it was almost the opposite. I stepped away from poetry to practice Zen, in part because I realized that I needed to know more about what it meant to be a human being. And if I didnít find a way to learn that and learn how to be more vulnerable to my own experience, I would never be much of a poet anyhow. So I didnít know, when I entered Zen practice that I would return to poetry. I didnít think I was abandoning it, but I knew I was doing something else for quite a few years. And I was very happy, when poetry was there for me at the other end of that period of intense practice and training.

PCC:
Was that a gradual realization? Or was there a sudden awakening - poetry is where I belong again?

HIRSHFIELD:
During the years when I was in the monastery, down at Tassajara [in the Ventana Wilderness area of the Los Padres National Forest], we were told, ďDo nothing but Zen.Ē And so I wasnít supposed to write poems. And for the three years that I was doing that very strict part of my Zen training, I wrote one haiku. We werenít supposed to write poems; I didnít write poems. But when I left that place where you werenít supposed to write poems, poetry simply returned to me. It was what I was doing before. It was what Iíd been doing since early childhood. And poems came back.

PCC:
In a different way? Or as a continuation?

HIRSHFIELD:
Well, itís always a different way. The poem I write tomorrow will be different from the poem I write today.

PCC:
So is it constantly teaching you about yourself, as well as the world around you?

HIRSHFIELD:
You could say teaching. I feel it more as an instrument of discovery. Itís as though there were a cello you could be playing that would always surprise you by offering notes youíd never heard before or never quite knew existed.

PCC:
So it offers discovery for the writer and the reader?

HIRSHFIELD:
Absolutely. The discoveries can be small, subtle. Sometimes itís big, sometimes itís little. Sometimes itís things you knew before, but you canít hang onto, because theyíre so volatile; theyíre so counterintuitive. Many of the deeper truths of being a human being are completely counter to the mind frame we have to have, when we lead our ordinary and normal lives. Thereís a little poem in the book - and forgive me, my bad memory means I canít even quote my own poems accurately, necessarily - but itís the one, ďI sat in the sun. I moved my chair into the sun the way hunger is moved when called fasting.Ē Thatís very much about how, in the way we feel our lives, everything changes. If youíre just hungry, youíre cranky and you would like to go get a cookie or popcorn or whatever at the soonest possible chance. If youíre fasting, your hunger has a completely different meaning. Often that can be a sacred meaning. Sometimes it can mean, when I was in college, I fasted a week and sent my food money off to help the starving people in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. It made hunger an entirely different experience, when that hunger was towards a meaning and towards a purpose that had nothing to do with my own sort of ďOh, Iím cranky, Iím hungryĒ experience. And I experienced the awareness of that. Thatís exactly what poems are always about is finding whatís the changed awareness thatís possibleÖ in anything that we do.

PCC:
The gift for seeing things in a different light, is that something youíve cultivated? Or is that inherent in you?

HIRSHFIELD:
Itís something I have always been hungry for. And so Iíve found ways in my life to cultivate it. I think the desire for a life of more depth and more meaning and more connection and more intimacy must have come first. And when I found poetry as a young woman, it immediately offered itself to me - ďAh, this is a way. This is a path I can walk.Ē And for other people, it could be music, it could be dance. It could be simply ways of having meaningful conversations with other people. It can be anything. It could be gardening. For me, it was words.

PCC:
Do you view a poem as a living entity?

HIRSHFIELD:
Another great question. Yes. And I donít think Iíve ever thought of it that way before, not in that precise term. But yeah, a poem is a dialogue with the self you bring to the poem, which is alive and different every time you read it. Even if itís the same poem, there will be a slightly different reading experience, because it only takes place in a living, breathing, present moment, in which both you and the poem will be changed every time.

PCC:
So when you finish a poem, are you hoping thereís a particular feeling or idea that gets across to the reader? Or are you happy with any interpretation?

HIRSHFIELD:
I would like it, if the experience that I found myself, writing the poem, had some resemblance to the experience that the reader has, when they read the poem. But Iíve also found - and I think every writer who ever hears other peopleís response to their work has had the same thing happen - sometimes people hear something in your poem you didnít know you put there, but when you hear it, you go, ďItís a better poem for that.Ē For me, the prime example of this was a poem from an earlier book. Its title is ďAgainst Certainty.Ē And I thought I had some things in mind, when I wrote that poem. I was thinking about, whenever I get adamant or certain of things, it makes you rigid in ways that donít make you feel in the end. Certainty itís reifying. It turns you into a rock, which is not the best way to be a human being. And I was also thinking very much at the same time about political certainty and fundamentalism and all of these things, I think, are causes of great suffering in the world. So I will sometimes say with ironic certainty that I think that certainty is one of the worst things a human being can feel. But then the poet Stanley Kunitz, who was 100 years old when he died, it turned out, at the very end of his life, his relationship to poems was that he would read them out loud to his assistant Genine Lentine. Thatís how he would inhabit poems is he would pick up a poem and he would read it out loud over a day or a few days, just to be with it and to dwell inside of it. And the last poem in his life, the last good day of his life, it was that poem that he was saying out loud. And Genine taped it for me and sent it to me. And when I listened to it, I understood that, for Stanley, this was a poem about standing at the gates of death. And I thought, ďThat is a greater poem than the poem I wrote.Ē

PCC:
When you were first discovering that poetry held this magic for you, were there poets or poets who particularly inspired you?

HIRSHFIELD:
The very first book I bought, when I was eight years old, was a translated collection of Japanese haiku. At the time, of course, I had no idea I would go on to co-translate Japanese poetry or have a relationship to the ideas that stand behind that poetry, to the life that stands behind that poetry. But I have fallen in love with so many poets over the course of my life that it would be ridiculous list to just start naming names.

PCC:
When you begin to write a poem, is there a usual way of finding that kernel of an idea? Or does it come in many different ways?

HIRSHFIELD:
It comes in many different ways, but I would say more often than not, I am listening for a different quality of inner voice. And itís an active listening. And then the phrase will come. And from that phrase, meaning will begin to appear. Itís not as unconscious as dreaming, where weíre not in control, the mind is manifesting its own story and images and plotline, coherence or incoherence. So somewhere between deliberate thought and dream thought is the way words come to me, when I begin a poem.

PCC:
So if thereís a subconscious or unconscious element, do you still tend to agonize over every word or space on the page? Or do you try to just let it come, let it happen?

HIRSHFIELD:
I certainly look at every word, line break, punctuation mark, piece of grammar, before the poem is finished. When Iím revising it, Iím reading it over very closely, sometimes with the mind it came from and the emotions that it came from and sometimes with the great skepticism of - What would this mean to somebody who had never seen it before? Would they understand it? When Iím writing the poem, whatís very funny is mostly that editorial mind is set aside. You donít want to stomp on the first draft. Itís too subtle. Itís too new. Itís just coming out of the chrysalis. And yet, to me, one of the oddest paradoxes in the writing process is, sometimes when Iím writing a poem, a line will come or a word will come and I donít even know what the poem is about yet and still, I immediately know itís wrong. And I cross it off and try again [laughs]. So itís as if the poem knows more than I do at that moment. It knows that Iíve gone awry, but nothing in my conscious self could tell you why I know that isnít where it wants to go. Itís very strange.

PCC:
So there is a right or wrong within the writing?

HIRSHFIELD:
There is a kinesthetic sense and it really does feel physical, more than purely mental. Itís as if you were walking in the woods and you had two trails and you turned left and one of them, a few steps down the trail, you can see it just turns into thicket and brush and thereís nowhere to go. Itís more like that.

PCC:
So the process, as a whole, does it tend to be more joyful or torturous?

HIRSHFIELD:
It can be either of those two. There have been poems that have just been truly awful to write. So hard, so painful. And yet there was something that I knew had to be done and so I just kept struggling on it. There have been poems which pour forth and donít change that much in revision. Pretty much what went onto the page is what stays on the page. But I would almost say that while youíre actually writing, you donít feel either joyful or tortured. Youíre simply immersed. Thereís really great a idea and a book that made a big splash a long time ago, when it first came out, a Czech psychologist, who lives in America, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote a book called ďFlow.Ē And in that book, he talks about there being a flow state and it appears in sports, it appears in problem-solving, it appears in art-making, it appears in the experiencing of art - the pianist playing a piece that they didnít write or the composer writing it. And basically, he says this is the greatest human happiness, is to enter the flow state. And in the flow state, youíre just inside what youíre doing. And when the baseball player talks about time slows down and he can see the seams of the baseball coming towards him, thatís the flow state. And youíre not joyous, youíre not tortured. Itís just the seams of the baseball are visible to you as you come forward. So maybe if I had to put an adjective on it, it might almost be that youíre under the water and somewhere far above you, you do know that thereís sunlight glinting on the top of the water, which is quite beautiful. But mostly your sense is astonishment, just the astonishment of existence. But youíre so inside of it, itís an emotion that is almost deeper than emotion.

PCC:
So when you set out to write, do you rely on the muse? Or is self-discipline a big requirement?

HIRSHFIELD:
I require the muse. And I always remember [laughs], when I was returning to poetry after the years in the monastery, I never went to grad school. I took one adult ed workshop that was being offered at U.C. Berkeley at night. And Iíve always remembered that the man who taught that workshop said, ďAh, young poets can rely on inspiration, but youíll never get through a lifetime that way.Ē And I heard that and I was appalled. I always relied on inspiration. And now, however many decades later this is, Iím still relying on inspiration. And Iím still wondering, ďWas he right? What will happen, when inspiration abandons me?Ē And I guess what will happen is Iíll have to do something else. [Laughs]

PCC:
Over the years, have you found ways to spark the museís arrival, through your surroundings or your mind space or whatever?

HIRSHFIELD:
Yes, absolutely. And I think in retrospect, I can say that the years of Zen training were very helpful for that, because what year after year after year of sitting down on the meditation cushion teaches you is that it is possible to invite concentrated awareness into your experience and your body and your mind and your heart. Now, in Zen meditation, I was not writing poems, but something akin to that happens, when you write a poem, in that you have to go from one condition of awareness into another. And so, having learned that invitation is possible, I think was very useful. And for me now, itís a pretty simple set of requirements. I need silence. I need non-disturbance. Iím not the kind of person who can sit down in a coffee shop and write. Other people, thatís what they need. People need different things. But for me, what I need is to be in a situation that feels sufficiently protected from outside buffeting, from something else that needs my attention, that I can, in fact, take off layer after layer after layer of ordinary mindís stance in the world. Itís sort of like, you wouldnít get on a New York subway train naked. But in the shower, you can take your clothes off and feel pretty safe.

PCC:
So some sense of safety is needed, to be able to create?

HIRSHFIELD:
You have to feel safe enough to become, I suppose the real word here is ďpermeable.Ē If I were to describe, whatís the quality of awareness that invites a poem, invites the muse, invites inspiration, itís permeability. Itís permeability that goes in every possible direction - into my own life and experience, but also out the window to the mountains, to the newspaper, to everything that I have known or experienced in my life. I have to be a kind of 360-degree open window, because I donít know what, of all of that, is whatís going to be needed to step onto the page, to say whatever it is that wants saying through me, through my tongue, through my language, through my particular existence in this world, in this time. Poets always draw on their own age, their own existence. You canít help but be who you are. And yet, through that very specificity, a woman poet, who lived in Japan in the year 1000 could write poems that, when I was 18 years old, I read them and was absolutely undone, because here, in 31 syllables, was my own life being presented to me, more deeply.

PCC:
Do you feel that writing poetry is something you want to do? Or something you have to do?

HIRSHFIELD:
Both. Itís the mostÖ language is so inadequate sometimes. One of the reasons I write, rather than talk, is, if I sat down for 15 minutes, I might find the adjective Iím looking for here. ďFulfillingĒ feels awfully superficial. ďSatisfyingĒ feels terribly superficial. Give me 15 minutes alone and Iíll find the word Iím looking for about why writing poetry is what I want. And then give me another 15 minutes and Iíll find the words which will tell you why writing poetry is what I have to do. Because, in some sense, we talk about joy and we talk about torture, but each individual poem, in a way, is a small or large desperation. You donít write poems because everything feels to you sufficiently known and understood and in balance before you wrote the poem. You write the poem, because something needs to be brought into - even if itís provincial, even if it lasts only for a moment - some sense of the world is sufficient right now, I comprehend my life. So you write because thereís a tear in the fabric of the world. And writing the poem is what I do, the way a spider with a torn limb will hurry to reweave that section of it.

PCC:
While youíre writing, is it just about self-expression? Or do you think about how about it might live on and one day affect others, the way the Japanese haiku poets affected you 1000 years after they created their work?

HIRSHFIELD:
While Iím writing, none of that is present. While Iím writing I am only writing. I think that ambition for either of those things - the ambition for self-expression or the ambition to speak to others - just feel to me that they would be distractions. Those would be so extraneous to the actual searching for the word, searching for the phrase, searching for the poem, that how could I be that permeable to the immediate thing I need, if I was distracted by, ďOh, am I expressing myself?Ē

PCC:
So the reward is in the search itself?

HIRSHFIELD:
The reward is in the search itself. Once you being to publish, you can no longer be completely oblivious to whether or not people respond to what you have put out in the world. But thatís a different room of the house than the actual writing. And again, I am so aware that people are different. There are poets who are superbly good poets, whose work means the world to me, who wrote partly because they wanted to say something to their community, they wanted speak to others. They had an offering. Walt Whitman was such poet. He very deliberately set out to create a poetry for his new country, poetry that he thought was needed and didnít exist. So completely different from me. Emily Dickinson - more like me. She published five poems in her lifetime and then stopped, because people didnít understand them, as she wrote them. So for me, I believe that if you put me on the proverbial desert island, and all I could do was write in the sand and every night the tide would come in and take the poem away, that I would still have the absolute necessity and burning desire to know the world in this way. For other people, it would make no sense at all.

PCC:
Well, thank goodness it does make sense to you, because we can all benefit from your work.

HIRSHFIELD:
Well, thatís the sort of happy luck of it, that what I do, because I have to do it, has turned out to be something that other people find helpful. The other thing related to this that I often think is the great irony, that something I began doing in solitude, hiding under my mattress, has led a person who is by nature a profound introvert into a life where Iím always running around the world, talking to other people. [Laughs]

PCC:
It must be a wonderful feeling, when you travel and meet people who have felt an intimate, profound connection to what you have written, people who have been struck by your words and moved by them.

HIRSHFIELD:
I always feel both grateful and astonished.