In addition to her eight books of poetry, Jane Hirshfield has published several anthologies, books of essays, and translations from the Japanese. Her most recent book, The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), which focuses on easily-overlooked moments and objects in order to magnify the pulse of existence, was long-listed for the National Book Award. Hirshfield has traveled near and far, from her native California to the far-flung cities of China, to discuss her poetic craft. Her many awards include fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundations.

Hirshfield came to read at Vanderbilt in April 2015. It was her first time in Nashville, so I gave her a short driving tour of the city. Hirshfield’s work takes a great interest in cultural exchanges, and she was especially intrigued by Nashville’s Parthenon, which is a full-scale concrete replica of the Parthenon in Athens. Hirshfield met with students in the afternoon to talk about her craft, and she gave a compelling reading later that night. Over the next few weeks, we corresponded by email, and she answered the following questions.


Interviewer: What is one experience you’ve had while traveling which you’d like to write about but haven’t yet?

Jane Hirshfield: I’m not a good “tourist poet,” and I can never predict what, of all I see and experience, will come into a poem, or when. Some images in my poems draw from things seen years before. Some things affect the poems in ways I know but anyone else would not.

Perhaps the most extraordinary experience I’ve had as a poet was the trip made, with a few other writers, through Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, and Turkey, in 2007. In the middle of the trip, we met with a larger number of writers from all over the world, on the island of Paros, in Greece, for a symposium on justice. This was organized by the International Writers Program, in Iowa. A very few things from that trip have entered my work in visible ways. The morning prayers in Istanbul, references to bazaars and souk, to the distinctive designs of Izmir. In an “About the Poem” sidebar in The American Poetry Review, I wrote the story of a young Palestinian woman attending Birzeit University in Ramallah, who had to cross the border each day, since she lived in East Jerusalem. She said: “I feel sorry for the soldiers.” This was soldiers at the crossing, who spat on her, shouted at her in a language she didn’t speak, threw things at her, kept her in the border crossing area for up to eight hours, so she never knew if she would make her classes or not. I asked her how that could be, and she replied, “Because I know what is being done to me but they don’t know what is being done to them.”

The trip was life altering. But its full presence in my work is mostly hidden and under the surface. In, say, a poem about an artichoke and war-grief, “My Species,” in The Beauty. In the new book of essays, Ten Windows, I wrote about Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” That poem, I am quite sure, has behind it, unspoken of, Auden’s years living in Germany during the 1930s, seeing the start of all that would soon happen. One remarkable thing about poetry is how much can be present that can’t be seen directly. This is how poems say so much in so little ink.

When you were here in Nashville, you mentioned the drought in your home state of California. Have you ever had a drought of the mind–a time when you were unable to write poems? If so, how did you manage to move past it? What sustains your writing?

I am a writer who has always had long droughts. Even in childhood. In young adulthood, I stopped writing for three years, and knew in advance that I would. I had no idea whether poetry would return or not. It did. These many previous silences sustain me during the quiet times. Someday poetry may not return, I know. But usually, after however long, I begin to long for it the way you would long for a missing lover. So far, in my experience, the longing has always called the writing back.

Once, when the silence was from a rather large blow in my life, I did begin to worry. I felt that every conduit to my unconscious had closed. That time, I started keeping a dream notebook–something I’d done for years when I was in college, after taking a course in the psychology of dreaming. Even after writing returned, I kept the notebook going for years. Then one day, I simply stopped.

I am not a creature of regular habits. I don’t write daily unless I am at an artists’ colony. Then, daily writing is my vow, and possible because every condition of life supports it. I have enough silence. I have enough solitude. I have entered, for that brief time, a period outside of other obligations. Permeability is possible. Concentration is possible. I would not want to waste such a chance. But at home, for me, the muse is feral. She does not come when called.

Louise Glück, I’ve heard, is like this, writing rarely and with long silences between. The company of her example gives me comfort. But really, who could write 365 good poems in a year? Even Dickinson, in her fire storm period, did not meet that bar. I’ve always liked something that the poet Carol Snow told me that Bob Hass had told her: you don’t need to write every day, but it might be good if every day you did something that connects you to the life of poems.

Name a piece of advice you’ve received but do not follow. Why have you chosen not to follow that suggestion?

Following from the above, I suppose I’ve heard throughout my life the advice to write daily, to keep a notebook, to not depend on inspiration, to never throw anything away because there might be something of value you’ll find if you go back to it…I’ve ignored all these excellent counsels. For me, a bound notebook isn’t a place for informal jottings. It’s freezingly permanent, and makes me self-conscious. For years, I’ve written on scraps of paper, the reverse side of previous drafts. I require the self-granted permission to throw bad work away. If the trash can isn’t good enough, there’s always the wood stove. If you don’t feel free to write wildly, embarrassingly, poorly, you will never take the risk of discovering something that, even if the poem you discover it in might be what I think of as a ‘noble failure,’ may infuse the next poem with a changed voice or gesture.

What is one line of poetry–either yours or another poet’s–which remains present in your thoughts? Why has it stayed with you?

There are many such, and each has its own ecosystem for recollection. It is for me no small part of poetry’s task in a life to give you such lines, which function as life ropes.

In the realm of poetic craft, one comes from Czeslaw Milosz’s “Ars Poetica?”, its opening line (“I have always hungered for a more spacious form”). I think of it surprisingly often. But also several other places over that poem’s course, which run for more than a single line, but are single thoughts…“The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

In the realm of life, and moments of severest need, there are also multiple lines I require, lines that come. There is the central thought of Galway Kinnell’s brief “Prayer”: “Whatever what is is is what I want.” There is the Japanese classical era woman poet, Izumi Shikibu, a tanka that has become a life companion for me: “Although the wind blows terribly here, the moonlight also leaks between the roofplanks of this ruined house.” I also quite often recall Hopkins’s “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall.” And then, just a few days ago, someone told me lines I’ve been passing on to everyone I meet, the close of Patrick Kavanagh’s “Prelude”–“Ignore power’s schismatic sect. / Lovers alone lovers protect.” Isn’t that marvelous? I’ve been thinking of it in terms of climate change activism.

Of my own lines, one that comes surprisingly often to mind, both in my own life and as I witness the lives of others, is from “The Weighing”: “The world asks of us only the strength we have, / and we give it. / Then it asks more, and we give it.”

But all these are somewhat didactic. (I do think the disdain so often given didactic poetry is misguided. So many of the lines people most quote are didactic.) Equally recurrent for me are various lines less explicit, of more seemingly casual moment. Issa’s “Don’t worry, spider, I keep house casually” and Basho’s “Friend sparrow, don’t eat him–horsefly among the blossoms” are both poems that carry the fundamental friendliness between beings, that convey it with unparalleled lightness.

The size and shape of your poems vary wildly–from your “pebbles” to whole-page swaths. What are your measures for determining the form of a poem?

The muse measures. I wear what she gives me.

There are poets who keep generally to some basic form and length. Think of a Philip Levine poem, a Kay Ryan poem, and you’ve got a good idea what that looks like. Others poets are more various–Whitman wrote at length and briefly both, wrote long lines and short lines as well. I’m not sure a person gets to choose whether consistency or “spacious form” will be theirs. Either is fine. For a long time, my “home” form was a lyric a little longer than a sonnet but well under a page–maybe 24 to 36 lines or so. But now, I never know what to expect. The shortest poem in The Beauty is two words and a title. I rarely have written a poem that goes more than two or three pages. When I was 17 and then 18, I wrote two 300-line poems. The second one, I ended up taking out the final stanza and making that into a lyric on its own. It won what became the next year The Discovery Award.

Both The Beauty and Come, Thief begin with poems about music. What role does music play in your writing process or in your work as a whole?

Without the awareness of music, language cannot, I don’t think, cross the threshold into what we call poetry. The few times I’ve written lines that came only from the mind, and not also in some recognizable music awareness, what I’ve found on the page was thinking, but not yet a poem. Even prose poems have a signature and audible music–otherwise they would be simply prose. At times my poems’ music is close to a Quaker spareness. But that is still music. As John Cage famously proved, silence itself, filled with random rustlings and coughs, can be music, if put under music’s own pressure of concentration and request of a changed comprehension.

The two poems you refer to are of course speaking of music in the more usual sense; one holds the Portuguese fado, the other a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This is the kind of music I hear but don’t make. I know no one who doesn’t listen to some form or other of music. Even Trappist monks have bells, have liturgical chanting and prayer. Music, like poetry, is a vessel for transformation, and they go hand in hand. Its evocation inside a poem is stepping stone, ladder, cooking pot, boat.

When I was young, I wrote to music. Then I lived three years with no music at all, other than time drum and bells, and after that, I could only write within silence. The music that used to mask the world’s disruptions became itself a competition for my listening ears. I could no longer relegate it to background. I hear the words of a poem arriving more than I think them, and they need to hear their own music before they will speak.

People have often asked if I play an instrument, since there’s so much reference to music in my work. I don’t. Nor can I sing. But I can listen. And listening is poetry’s first act. Speech comes second, just as you need to draw in the breath before you can awaken the notes inside an oboe.