Jane Hirshfield is a rare phenomenon: a world-class writer devoted to spiritual awakening, a person of letters as conversant in mindfulness practice as she is dedicated to finding le mot juste. For 25 years, Hirshfield has applied this unique, two-fisted brilliance to her many award-winning books—Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in poetry—and most recently to The Beauty, a collection of poems, and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Change the World. Beloved for her tenderhearted writing and fierce intelligence, Hirshfield is also an ordained practitioner of Soto Zen Buddhism and a teacher of writing and literature at educational institutions around the world. I spoke to her recently about Buddhist practice and the artist’s life and the balance she manages to strike between her twin passions.

Mark Matousek 

“It is by suffering’s presence that we know there is something we need to address,” you write in Ten Windows. Can you say more about the relationship among suffering, creativity, and art? We make art, I believe, partly because our lives are ungraspable, uncarryable, impossible to navigate without it. Even our joys are vanishing things, subject to transience. How, then, could there be any beauty without some awareness of loss, of suffering? The surprising thing is that the opposite is also true, that suffering leads us to beauty the way thirst leads us to water.

In the midst of suffering, we almost have no choice. We have to feel and acknowledge it. It demands response. Art offers a way not only to face grief, face pain, but also to soften grief’s and pain’s faces, which turn back toward us, listening in turn, when we speak to them in the language of story and music and image.

Art isn’t a superficial addition to our lives; it’s as necessary as oxygen. Amid the cliffs and abysses every life brings, art allows us to find a way to agree to suffering, to include it and not be broken, to say yes to what actually is, and then to say something further, something that changes and opens the heart, the ears, the eyes, the mind.

There’s another thing we may try to do when we find ourselves in danger or pain: try to run, to hide. At any moment in a life, a person has this choice: presented with suffering, do we try to escape or to enter it further? Art’s gate is deciding to move toward entrance and not absence, and that choice has been a fundamental and shaping force in my life. We can’t sleepwalk through suffering: by its own definition, suffering is insufferable, unbearable, and so must be worked with. Since childhood, the way I’ve worked with it is by turning toward the gate of entrance: by writing poems.

That’s a good description of why we meditate as well. Art is one way a person can choose to enter, choose to fully know the range of human existence and experience. There are other ways. Zen meditation practice is one. Both are paths of awareness that allow us to move inside our own feelings, to recognize that the first gift of emotion is motion.

There’s a reason why the first noble truth of Buddhism is “Life is suffering” (or, perhaps more accurately, “Life is dissatisfaction”). If you didn’t feel any need for something to change, if there weren’t a sense of insufficiency, of something missing or some discomfort, why would you pay close attention at all? The longing to enter a more-opened being is no small part of what brought me to art-making, as well as to practicing Zen. Awareness, whether in practice or art, asks a question: “What is worth paying attention to right now?” That could be my personal life. It could also be some larger question, shared by all. The questions of political intransigence, partisanship, and violence; the questions of the unfolding environmental catastrophe we are living within are things that my poems turn toward, as much as any more individual sorrow or question. Awareness is always the starting place. Awareness shows us the questions, the problems we might be able to solve and the questions that can’t be answered at all, and awareness makes the hand-holds and toe-holds appear, as we traverse the cliff of our lives. It also makes the cliff appear, and the lives, and the hands.

You write that a work of art is a “ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world.” Can you elaborate on what you mean? We are permeable, vulnerable, and collaborative in everything we do. Art’s experience makes this especially visible. I don’t write a poem in order to record some realization that has dropped into my hand; I write to discover. For that discovery to happen, though, I need not only what’s already present inside my own life and memory and skin but also other things that are near, but outside and beyond me. I need, for instance, language itself. I need the world and its stories, images, musics, colors, fragrances. And if the poem is then going to speak to anyone beyond its author, it needs to find its way to a reader, who in turn brings his or her entire self and history into the words.

Art-making continually raises in me a sense of gratitude, because you realize how little of it is your own doing. Some part of a poem is what you bring to it, but much is what it brings to you. That process is what I mean by “ripening.” Think of how many things join in making a pear or apple—the tree, yes, but also the sun, rain, winter chill, the hours of darkness as much as the hours of light. And then, there is the reader. Poems live only inside a human life and a human response. The writer is the first reader, but after that, another person must bring his or her own breath, tongue, listening, memories, and hopes, or the poem is only dust, meaningless molecules of black ink on a white page. Most of the work of poems is done in the way we receive them. A work of art is always a conversation, not a monologue. A painting alone in a room needs no light.

 


My Skeleton

My skeleton,
who once ached
with your own growing larger

are now,
each year
imperceptibly smaller,
lighter,
absorbed by your own
concentration.

When I danced,
you danced.
When you broke,
I.

And so it was lying down,
walking,
climbing the tiring stairs.
Your jaws. My bread.

Someday you,
what is left of you,
will be flensed of this marriage.

Angular wristbone’s arthritis,
cracked harp of ribcage,
blunt of heel,
opened bowl of the skull,
twin platters of pelvis—
each of you will leave me behind,
at last serene.

What did I know of your days,
your nights,
I who held you all my life
inside my hands
and thought they were empty?

You who held me all your life
in your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.                   

 —Jane Hirshfield

 


Are you transformed in the writing of a poem? If it’s a good poem, yes. If I’m not in some way transformed, the poem is dead, inert—a word that means, quite literally, “not art.” In some ways, for me, the entrance into transformation comes first, before writing even starts. I know this isn’t always the case. Some poets, like Frank O’Hara, whose work I love dearly, speak in the guise of a person just walking along amid their day, having some thoughts and writing them down or saying them. And it might actually be so, for them. Allen Ginsberg claimed as one motto “First thought, best thought,” and O’Hara titled his second book Lunch Poems in part because he wrote the poems so quickly, often during his lunch breaks. For me, turning ordinary mind into poems is not so seamless. I need first to enter a different condition, one of concentration and vulnerability. I need to become permeable to thoughts and feelings and understanding I didn’t know were there, until their saying emerges, an image emerges, a question, a leap.

There’s a lot of science in your new book of poems.  We read about skeletons, arthritis, proteins, cells, bacteria, yeast, krill, and “delirium as delphinium.” And that’s just in the first five pages. I draw on many reservoirs as a poet, and always have. Science has increasingly been among them.  One of my earliest poems speaks of the strong forces and weak forces of physics.  Still, starting around the time the Human Genome Project became visible in the morning paper, I began to pay a more deliberate attention to science. Somehow, now, many of my closest friends are scientists—molecular biologists, geologists, ecologists, physicists, psychologists of early childhood and of olfaction. And in 2013 I was the artist in residence for a year with a neuroscience research department at The University of California, San Francisco, and organized an evening symposium on “Poetry and Science.”

It may be that whatever a poet pays close attention to will become a field rich with possible metaphor and image. That must be part of the reason science has stepped forward in my poems. But I think there is also something more. Science has become the central vocabulary and explanation system of our age. A writer is a chameleon, responding to the language of his or her time, and also a recalcitrance, resisting it. Purely material explanation is not enough for a human life. And so I, and other poets, turn science to the purposes of poems, which do understand the world in entirely different dimensions.

There’s also the way poetry is voracious, hungry for new descriptions, which will always carry both new and renewing forms of knowledge. The poem called “My Proteins” begins with the proteins of itch and ends with the protein in a cheese sandwich, but is equally about what’s now called the microbiome, whose study is clearly going to be a new phase of medicine, revolutionary in ways we can’t yet entirely grasp. This relatively new set of facts about our multiply shared bodies suddenly offered itself to me to probe a question I’ve looked at in other ways throughout my life: What is a self? Where does it begin and end?

All the “my” poems in this new book are in some way involved with that question. “I” am a very permeable construct, and to say “my” is an act of comic hubris. The question of what we mean by “I” has haunted my work for decades. “I” must surely mean “I,” yet it must just as surely also mean “we,” or the self becomes barrens-land, pillaged of meaning.

How does your spiritual practice affect your life as an artist and the making of art? They are the left foot and the right foot of my walking. Some desire for contemplative practice was already there, long before I entered formal Zen practice, and I’ve written poems from early childhood. The same impulse surely brought me to both—the hunger to know the world differently and to know my own life differently than I otherwise could. I was seven or eight years old when I started writing. The first book I chose for myself, at around the same age, was a collection of Japanese haiku. Japanese poetry and, later on, Chinese literature, were my introduction to Buddhism and to Zen. I didn’t come to Zen as so many in my generation did, by listening to Alan Watts on the radio; I didn’t know Alan Watts was on the radio. I came to it by reading Japanese poetry and Noh plays [traditional Japanese theater], which are filled with the worldview of Buddhism, sometimes named, sometimes not. 

In the practice of Soto Zen, shikantaza meditation (“just sitting”) is wordless. Poetry is its own form of meditation, done through words. Both can be felt as a kind of searchlight-consciousness. You stay rooted in one place, while listening and looking both inward and outward.

And both require a proportionate measure of concentration. Yes. More concentration than you thought you had to give. Both writing and any spiritual practice are technologies to exceed your own capacity for presence. Both are learned by entering them over and over, and both are without any arrivable-at destination. You don’t write a poem and say, “Good, I’ve done that now.” It’s more like breathing: you finish one poem and begin another. The same is true of meditation. One breath leads to another. Some breaths are transparent, some are filled with silent weeping. Some tremble on the cusp of disappearance, others become the sound of cars or birds. Closely attended, any moment is boundless and always changing. You emerge from these kinds of undoing awareness and you know it is not you yourself who are all-important. You know something of the notes of your own scale.

Good poems do that as well. They elude boundary and bring compassion. They make you, quite simply, both smarter and kinder than you would be without them. This doesn’t always happen, in poetry or in meditation—far from it. But once you’ve begun to see that it can, things change.

One last question. What do you hold most sacred in your life? That question is a little perplexing to answer for me, not least because, even though my 1994 anthology, presenting four thousand years of women’s spiritual poetry, is titled Women in Praise of the Sacred, I’m more than a little skeptical of that word. Etymologically, sacredness has to do with setting apart. But my own relationship to what the word sacred signals is the opposite of dividing things up into sacred and profane. It is the perception and recognition and inhabitance of the absolute, radiant sufficiency of anything. A pebble, a screwdriver, an odd little exchange with the person you buy your train ticket from—for me the most sacred thing is the most ordinary one, felt in its fullness. 

 

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