Poet Jane Hirshfield talks to poet Mary Mackey about Craft and Inspiration in this People Who Make Books Happen Interview.
Jane Hirshfield is the author of eight books of poetry. She has edited and translated four books presenting the world of poets from the past and is the author of two major collections of essays. Her books have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Named best books of the year by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, and Financial Times, they have won the California Book Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, and the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. A resident of Northern California since 1974, she is a current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Mary Mackey: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Jane. March of this year saw the publication of two new books: The Beauty, your eighth collection of poetry, and your second book of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. Today I’d like to talk to you about craft and inspiration, but before we begin, could you please tell us something about The Beauty?
Jane Hirshfield: I write my poems one by one, not as books, and the very point of a poem is to be distinctive, one-of-a-kind, and beyond paraphrase. So all I can usually do is give some sense of poems’ terrain. In this book, though, the opening section of the book is more coherent. The poems have “My ” as the first word of the titles: “My Skeleton,” “My Corkboard,” “My Species,” “My Sandwich.” Each is its own investigation—but as a group, they also explore the shifting boundary of what we think of as the self and what we think of as non-self. To say “my” is to personalize, to make subjective, sometimes to own. Yet in the end we own nothing, not even our own ribs and wrist bones. These poems explore that paradox, they look both at the dearness of our lives and at their provisionality, permeability, perishability.
The Beauty has running through it as well the sense of stock-taking that arrives at a certain stage in a life. There’s the sense of a life’s shape, poems of mourning, poems of personal love and our broader interconnection. Like its predecessors, the book carries in certain poems the awareness that this country remains at war. It also dips its ink at times into the surreal; one poem is titled “Two Negative Numbers Multiplied by Rain.” Last, there’s a fair bit of science—proteins, the microbiome, references to physics. I hope this happens always in ways that serve poetry’s central reason for being: to enlarge and expand our sense of our own existence and the ways our lives are shared with others.
Mary Mackey: This seems like a good moment to ask you to say something about Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.
Jane Hirshfield: Ten Windows is an exploration of how it is good poems do what they do, and why that may matter to us. This book of essays came out eighteen years after the first one, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, which meanwhile seems to have become something of a small classic. Both books are a bloodhound-following of one scent: how is it that shaped words affect us they do?
The “how” in the subtitle matters. The book offers close readings of many individual poems, both to unfold their substance and to reveal some of the sleight-of-hand work by which they are made. Many things happen in poetry under the surface of the reader’s awareness—and those hidden elements of meaning are often the reason we find ourselves moved, though they are not what we consciously see. We see—as we should—the poem. We see its images, hear its musical depths and translucence, feel the spring of release into larger being without know what has unlatched us.
Some of the latch-springs looked at in Ten Windows are uncertainty, hiddenness, surprise, paradox, the way sometimes a work of literature is going along looking at one thing then looks at another— and that quick glance out the window changes everything in the poem or novel or play, exactly as putting an actual window into a room changes how we then see everything inside the room. That particular chapter, “Close Reading: Windows,” is one that writers beyond poets–novelists and non-fiction writers and playwrights–have been very excited about. They felt it named something they had not before been quite as consciously aware of. It’s not a device to use mechanically or all the time—but it is something to have in your toolbox of craft.
I hope both Nine Gates and Ten Windows are helpful to their readers as readers and also helpful to those who are writers as writers. They aren’t craft handbooks in any normal sense, but craft instruction is there, on virtually every page. They have each been called “life handbooks”— I like that. Literature is not an arcane activity or idle entertainment—it’s a way we can know our lives’ living-through more fully, opulently, broadly, and wildly.
Mary Mackey: How does your process of writing essays differ from your process of writing a poem?
Jane Hirshfield: This morning, in the midst of our fourth year of California drought, I went outside on waking and found the ground wet, with actual and entirely unexpected rain. The arrival of a poem feels something like that— beyond my control, a surprise that unlatches some new way of saying and feeling, some new way of knowing. Essay-writing is also a path toward discovering something I didn’t know before, but one that feels much more under the sway of intention. Usually I write an essay because I’ve been asked to teach, to give a lecture. Then I spend a long time trying to find some good and interesting question. Only after I’ve found a question worth exploring for a few months do I begin writing prose. With poems, it’s the opposite: I never know what a poem is going to be addressing until after it’s written. Poetry comes from a pre-Linnean world—you don’t know the name, you don’t know the species or genus, you just see something that seems to be alive and record what you see. The poem itself is both the creature and its name.
I do think there are ways that essays and poems share a process. I write the first drafts of both forms by intuition, but intuition guided by the demands of shapeliness. And I revise both poems and essays keeping in mind that compass-sense, and the magnet of arrival, and the effort to offer for every moment of a reader’s attention something worthy of that exchange.
Mary Mackey: What are the primary sources of inspiration for your poetry?
Jane Hirshfield: Each poem’s source is sui generis. What I can name, perhaps, are some of the conditions of inspiration. Life itself brings something that demands a poem. A death, the multiple swerves of love, some more subtle fracturing. I don’t think anyone has ever written a good poem out of a sense of complacency, out of mere desire for self-display, or out of idle gamesmanship—even if you tried to, if the poem finds its life, something else inevitably shoulders its way in. Hunger, tilt, the burr of empathy, grief, or bewilderment— in these are the beginning of poems.
Mary Mackey: What can poets do to nourish and encourage inspiration?
Jane Hirshfield: Part of a young writer’s task is to find what it is that nourishes and encourages them. We are each unique in our needs. For me, part of finding a new poem has to do with entering a deepened silence and so a deepened listening. To be undistracted and permeable, to be vulnerable, to feel safe enough to invite unsafety into the room. Poems are risky. They undo who you are, what you thought you thought.
And then, there is this: if you are going to have something to write about, you must be fully exposed to the world, to other people and beings and weathers. Even a poet as sequestered as Emily Dickinson had a family, correspondents, a dog, a garden, a library. The Chinese recluse poet Han Shan had the wildness of his mountain home, and a friend, Shih Te, who would come to visit. The Turkish poet Hikmet, in prison, had his life before prison, his fully developed heart and mind, his sense that his words would find readers who would need them. We are part of the largeness of existence, and can’t write without its full collaborative presence. No world, no words.
Mary Mackey: Besides reading all the poems of Jane Hirshfield, which I heartily recommend, what five additional poets should people read in order to learn how to write well-crafted poetry?
Jane Hirshfield: I’m afraid an adequate list would run closer to fifty, to five hundred. I’ve learned craft from reading the English-language tradition (a phrase I use in the broadest possible sense, not only what was meant by that word in the 10th grade English classes of my youth, though those poets, too, are indispensable), but also in translation. Polish poets, Spanish and Portuguese poets, Greek poets, Japanese and Chinese poets, Russian poets, Indian poets, Scandinavian. Much of my craft knowledge comes from studying Latin for five years when I was young—I learned to scan meters, I learned the awareness of rhetoric, both in the larger sense and in terms of shapely and memorable turns of phrase. I acquired an abiding love for the poems of Horace.
I don’t think I can argue for readers of this conversation to all start studying Latin and Greek, or Sanskrit, or the Malay languages, or Arabic. I do think that translating teaches you to read poems closely, for their craft and for the grain of their heart-wood. Translation forces you to grapple with the particulars and nuances of meaning and it awakens you to the subtleties of grammar, which are in truth the possibilities of existence. Think about what the future perfect tense really means—the sheer chutzpah and optimism of it: “By next month, she will have married.” Such a verb tense tempts fate… yet we cannot abstain from its promise.
Mary Mackey: What can creative writing teachers do to nourish and encourage inspiration in their students? Can inspiration be taught or is it an innate talent?
Jane Hirshfield: There’s a line I love by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski: “Rivers from rivers, paintings from paintings, poems from poems.” Surely the first inspiration must be lullabies, nursery rhymes, skipping rope songs. Later, someone—parent, teacher, or friend—offers a doorway into other poems already written. It matters that imagination be welcomed rather than discouraged, that experimentation be honored even when it doesn’t quite succeed. The desire of a young person to express herself, to be seen for who he is, is such a fragile ember. Innate talent surely matters, but it can be fanned by one wind, put out by another. The teacher’s job is to know how to foster and not to throttle. To demonstrate the love of art and what it brings, and to craft invitations that lead to a full attendance. And finally, the teacher’s job is surely to make themselves dispensable, so the student can go on to become her or his own authority, to write what that person alone can write.
I taught for five years in the California Poets in the Schools program, and saw the effects of that way of teaching—expose young people to good poems, give them the chance to participate from the inside by writing their own, and lives change. I wish every student in the country could have such an experience of words made their own lives’ shapeable clay.
Mary Mackey: All your poems without exception are beautifully crafted. I know from personal experience that learning the craft of poetry is a long, complex process. Could you please briefly take us through one poem from The Beauty, and speak a little of its journey from inspiration to final draft? Here is the one I have in mind:
A Cottony Fate
Long ago, someone
told me: avoid or.
It troubles the mind
as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog.
Now I too am sixty.
There was no other life.
(from The Beauty, NY: Knopf, 2015; all rights reserved)
How did the idea for “A Cottony Fate” first come to you? As an idea? An image? A phrase? A rhythm?
Jane Hirshfield: Well, the immediate beginning, I took out of the poem, except that it lingers on in the somewhat mysterious title. The poem began with some lines about an Italian kitchen towel— but when I went to revise it, I found that the most alive part was what you see here. The towel, as towels do, did its good work and was then set aside.
The poem’s real beginning, though, came forty years ago. An early writing teacher suggested I should be wary of using the word “or” in poems. (I do sometimes still include that word, but I always think about it.) It was only as I was writing this poem that the advice returned to me as perhaps good advice for a life. I’ve reached the age when certain choices cannot be made again. The verb tense switch in the last line reflects that.
Mary Mackey: Did you write the first draft of “A Cottony Fate” in a single sitting or in pieces over a long period of time?
Jane Hirshfield: The first drafts of my poems almost always come to me in a single sitting. There have been exceptions to this, but they are rare. I do, though, revise poems, sometimes over a long time. Time is an invaluable editor: it allows the objective words on the page to assume their fully independent life, which you then can see more clearly. There’s one poem in The Beauty that needed more time, it seems. I’ve realized I want to revise it. I’m pondering asking my publisher if I can switch two words, in two adjacent lines, for the paperback.
Mary Mackey: What did you cut from the earlier drafts of “A Cottony Fate”?
Jane Hirshfield: The kitchen towel. Beyond that, I would have to go back to look at the first draft to answer. I only remember now that the poem was once a great deal longer.
Mary Mackey: What did you add?
Jane Hirshfield: The ending. It took cutting the poem down to find the question it was asking of me, and to find what felt a right response to that question. Not a definitive answer; there’s always another answer. But a response that felt right the way hitting a bell can feel right. You know it by feel and by sound.
Mary Mackey: Did you read various drafts of “A Cottony Fate” out loud to yourself in order to assess the rhythm of the lines or do you have some other method for assessing poetic rhythm?
Jane Hirshfield: I don’t ever say my poems out loud when I write them, but from the first words’ first murmur, I hear them. On the voice, with sound. Earlier in this interview I said, “No world, no words.” Here I’ll say, “No music, no poetry.” Some reviewers seem to think that if music isn’t big, baroque, visible stuff, the poet doesn’t care about the rhythms and tones and sounds. But free verse poems, at least as much as ones of “formal” meter and rhyme, are formed. They require their own strength of music, or they will dissolve into muddled chatter.
There’s one other poem in the The Beauty that shows what I mean:
Two Linen Handkerchiefs
How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still
(from The Beauty, NY: Knopf, 2015; all right reserved)
That’s the whole poem. Its meaning entirely depends on hearing its question’s tone, on hearing the voice of the living person who has been brought to write it, who has been brought to stop speaking mid-sentence. Letting you hear that is what prosody and music do. Each word here is equally weighted. It’s almost impossible to get English to do this for so many words. I didn’t plan it— the poem spoke itself in my ear in the measures of grief. But that is also part of how craft works, how music works— they are based in reality. You learn these sounds and gestures by your awareness of actual voices in the world in actual circumstances. How grief, say, can either throw a person into an aria or into silence.
Mary Mackey: What in general do you do to your poems to improve and polish them?
Jane Hirshfield: There is no general, only particulars. I re-read, I re-experience, I notice how the words affect me. If something feels off the mark, I look for what might want to be changed. This might mean expanding, it might mean cutting, it might be looking for a word more alive and tensile to replace one that is flat and inert, it might mean changing the line breaks, the punctuation, it might mean finding an entirely new ending or opening or middle.
All I can say to the students I teach is: “In this place, in this poem, perhaps this might be tried.” My only general advice? Try to awaken a deepened and more accurate attention at every stage. And, I suppose also: Try to hold yourself to at least the same standard you would hold others. Your companion poets are both the living and the dead. Do not bore them, do not waste their time.
Mary Mackey: Your poems, as I’ve read them over many books, often end in a way that makes a connection between the visible, physical world and the eternal, spiritual world. Two linen handkerchiefs can speak to us of our relation to death, what lasts and what disappears. Sometimes it’s obvious in your poems; sometimes it’s subtle, but I see this as a note that runs throughout your work. At what point in the writing of a poem does this connection come to you? Does it precede the poem, or does it develop organically out of the poem as you write?
Jane Hirshfield: I think, to the degree that does happen, it comes because a larger awareness of the ground of existence and its grounding is what I want. Lightning wants to find trees, the large wants to find its way into our lives. While trees may not think they want to be opened by lightning, we humans do. I, at least, do. There’s a poem in The Beauty titled “Of Amplitude, There Is No Scraping Bottom.” In it are the lines: “You wanted to be ignorant, unknowing, thunderstruck, gobsmacked./ Wanted to be brought to your knees / by the scent of mushrooms you couldn’t know whether to pick.” Randall Jarrell once said that a poet’s existence consists of standing out in thunderstorms for a lifetime, hoping to be struck by lightning five or six times. One reason I turned to poems as a child, and turn to them still, is for just that—to become a conduit of the unfathomable.
Mary Mackey: Thank you for talking to us today, Jane.
Jane Hirshfield: It’s been a pleasure.
For writing advice; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition, Lesson Plans for California Poets In The Schools, and more information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my Educators Page and use my novels and collections of poetry in your courses.