Jane Hirshfield, among America’s most celebrated and decorated poets and a longtime Zen student and Tricycle contributing editor, welcomes her tenth book of poetry this fall. The Asking: New and Selected Poems invites us to zoom out, to take a second look, and to explore expansiveness, pushing back against our culture that is often preoccupied with telling.
She recently spoke with us about the book, which is available from Knopf on September 12, 2023.
Your new poems in The Asking share sentiments of not-knowing, renewal, and awe of the natural world. Can you speak about what inspired the collection? These past years have brought us all a set of increasing, quickening crises, each requiring response. Failures of our sense of shared fate, of a basic social compact of mutual well-being. Failures of justice and of compassion, of care for the animals, insects, microbes, plants with whom we share this planet. COVID-19’s unspeakably politicized unfolding. I’ve had also some personal invitations to major transition. I write to meet what comes—to stay upright, to speak into shock and grief. Yet somehow, the beauty of the fragile world also steepens, grows brighter. The new poems hold, too, my gratitude for being alive for this open eye-blink of a lifetime.
What have you been asking lately? “How now go on?” is a question more and more in awareness. It has several faces. One is, “How can I keep opening my eyes to each morning’s fresh news?” One is, “What can I do to be helpful in turning the world’s tiller in a different direction?” One is, “How to counter despair and my simple, profound disappointment in the course of our culture over my lifetime?” How to answer despair is a question I see being asked by many—the young; my own generation also. We came of age into the first Earth Day. I thought we’d respond to that moment’s shifted knowledge in ways united and urgent. The fracturing of trust and increase of malice that came instead continually stun me. What happened? Why?
Despair is a useful emotion, but only if we feel that it must be answered. Its antidote is, I hope, reflected in the new poems in two ways—one, the felt imperative to recognize the beauty still all around us. The other, taking some action. So long as you preserve possibility and agency, hope exists. Even to bring a few words together in a new way is an action, one always available. You can create a widened world, offer it forward. Despair freezes in place. Questions, hypotheses, imaginings, thaw.
Questions have for me felt always central to practice. Zen is continual asking, not a set of answers. With each breath, “What is this?” I arrived at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1974, in summer, in a red Dodge van with tie-dyed curtains. One of the first teachings I heard was the suggestion that we find some question to practice with. Soto Zen doesn’t engage the formal curriculum of koans; we were encouraged to find our own questions.
For a long time, mine was “What is the emotional life of a Buddha?” But these days, most often, it is the simple: “How go on?” How stay undefended, unbarricaded, permeable, in the face of so much pain, loss, and delusion. Art’s work is to let us take everything in, however difficult. Also, to help us recognize the Buddhist parable of the mustard seed: whatever we experience is shared. Isolation, division, small self, compound suffering. The sense of shared fate loosens clench, loosens grip. A fist can only act on the world in a single way, by banging. An open hand can do infinite things. So perhaps another way to phrase my current question might be: “How can I open further into what is—and, once I have, what is given me then to do?” Writing poems is part of that, though I also take more concrete actions.
This collection contains both new poems and selections from past books. Can you talk about the criteria and process of including the previous works? You write poems because you have no choice. You keep them, you publish them, because they might prove of use in the future. A “good” poem, for me, is a poem I may have need or desire to think of again. I tried to choose earlier poems that I felt—or had been told—serve most strongly. Ones that cast needed light.
One of the new poems, “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” is a reflection on the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, and the collection includes a poem you wrote after 9/11. What is your process when writing about such massive events? Both poems arrived quickly into their respective moments. I need poems most—either my own or someone else’s—when the earth tilts in crisis. Poems re-knit the heart-mind’s fracture. These two speak to different kinds of distress. Terrorism and war—which I saw coming at once, and so wished any words could prevent—is a different order of crisis than a virus. But both were world-altering, and altered worlds need new words through which to walk into them. “Today, When I Could Do Nothing” was asked for by a newspaper hours after it was written. It went instantly viral, not least because it may have been the earliest such poem broadly published. But I didn’t write it for others; I wrote it to take in for myself the new state of being: the profoundly unnerving silence of that first day and what it meant.
What do you hope readers, writers, and the world might take away? How can we ask more? This question holds beautifully its own answer. The shift from fixity, assertion, and shouting into a spirit of asking and dialogue is itself the key. Asking turns the heart-gate from closed to open. What a gift, a life’s bi-directional Q&A with the immeasurable What-Is. My advice to young writers is often: “Open the window a little wider than you feel comfortable.” My advice in practice is to ask each thing, event, person you meet, “What is your teaching?”
Today, When I Could Do Nothing
Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.
It must have come in with the
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books,
silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer—
then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it
Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness
Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.
I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing,
beyond staying distant from my
I did this.
“Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” © Jane Hirshfield, from The Asking: New and Selected Poems (NY: Knopf, 2023); used by permission, all rights reserved.
Hear Jane Hirshfield in conversation with Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, at a virtual poetry reading and discussion on September 25 at 5 p.m. ET. Register here.
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