Passwords Primeval is a terrific book of interviews done by Tony Leuzzi, published in fall 2012 by BOA. Many of the interviews ran first in journals; my own was the last and appears only in the book--well worth purchasing for the full range. Tony Leuzzi (whom I've never met, we did this by phone and then email) is one of the best and most interesting interviewers around, and a fine poet in his own right.
Here, since the book has been out a while, is the interview:
Open Secrets: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield
In her essay, “Thoreau’s Hound: Poetry and Hiddenness,” Jane Hirshfield writes, “Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest.” Like many of Hirshfield’s prose statements this concise, quotable utterance offers valuable insight into her poems, which, among other things, explore the paradoxical terrain of hiddenness, that place where revelation and concealment co-exist. Often aphoristic and elliptical in approach, Hirshfield adheres to a less-is-more aesthetic, an economy and restraint one associates with the world’s best poetry. Although she has been hailed as one of America’s leading “Zen” poets, Hirshfield’s intelligence is more eclectic and inclusive than a single label suggests. Sensitive to the rhythms of history and how art and ideas have developed over long periods of time, she is also drawn to the discourses of science and philosophy. She has received many honors, including the Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award and Columbia University’s Translation Center Award; and many fellowships, including ones from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. Given Sugar, Given Salt was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. While never a full-time academic, she has taught writing at a number of universities, including University of California at Berkeley, Bennington College, University of San Francisco, and University of Cincinnati. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012.
You are clearly a private person. Your poems do not reveal much of your autobiography—at least in the way most people understand autobiography. There is a persistent tension in your poems between what is revealed and what is hidden. Yet, there is an almost unbearable intimacy in some of your poems that makes them universal and immensely personal at the same time. Are you aware of this tension? If so, can you talk a bit about it?
An interesting conundrum: how does a private person talk about being a private person?
Poetry began for me as a field of solitude. It gave me a way, from childhood, to query and provision a self, to find out for myself who I was, what I felt, what I thought. But once a piece of writing is put forward for others to read, the field expands: where once there were trees, making windbreak and shelter, now there are bleachers. The privacy-crafted self is seen. While writing, a poet is predator: you hunt word, world, feeling, music, responsiveness, attitude, resilience; hunt grief, joy, your deep question and that question's momentarily-sufficient answer. With publication, though, a poet is suddenly prey, subject to judgment—which, whatever the judgment, is an entirely changed relationship to the poem and the world. The leap into public life as a writer was for me awkward, both painful and strange. And yet, I also knew that we are ultimately communal beings, whose life does not end at the skin. Art is never a matter of just the single self, made as it is with the shared materials of language and craft-history, a set of cups to hold the intoxicating spirits.
Yes, it's always a matter of the communal holding the personal and the personal holding the communal, isn't it?
Intimacy, immediacy, and a plumb line between the personally pressing and the more broadly human, all do matter to me a great deal as a writer. That's true even though I’ve never much written the directly autobiographical narrative poem—though I can read such poems with the happiness of a horse with his nose in the oat bag. But even in the poetry of personal narrative, art is never only the simple, direct story. The simplest anecdote is selected out of the day, out of the life, as a trout is selected out of the river. We reach into experience for something that can sustain us, and also delight. If you’re thirsty, it’s the river water you want; if you’re hungry, it’s the fish. My particular hunger in writing poetry seems to be for the sudden flash of comprehension, for feeling and seeing something new of world or self. For the epiphany made possible by the lyric.
I should add that all my poems do emerge from what are essentially personal dilemmas and questions. The newest book, Come, Thief, holds meditations on late love, the puzzle of eros, desire, time, and aging, and various losses, as well as poems whose subjects are equally out of the life, but in ways perhaps more under the surface. One poem, for instance, arrived after I'd cooked an accidentally frozen egg—this happened, and I was rather fascinated by how it worked out. Still, the poem wasn’t a poem until something both larger and more intimate walked into it. But the pressure of the personal is equally present in poems I’ve written over the years that might seem to be outwardly seated. The Rwandan genocide, the first Gulf War and then the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Chilean dictator Pinochet’s death in his own bed, the invasion of Grenada, the crises of environment and climate, the Indonesian tsunami, the events of September 11, 2001, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination, the Velvet Revolutions of 1989—all have precipitated poems. I wrote those poems because these events raised in me some intimate, immediate question I found myself unable to enter or answer any other way. Questions of fate and fairness, for instance, have haunted me all my life. I can’t help but feel uneasy before my own relatively good fortune, in a world where others suffer in ways far more blunt.
Perhaps I’ve ducked your initial question by answering it as I have here. Yet the answer is the truest I can muster. I write poems the way a mouse thrown into a bucket swims: to stay alive. This is true for the “public” poems, and true for the private ones. I’ve come to think of it this way: my poems are x-rays, not nude portraits. A reader may not be able to see the outer story or events of my life, or follow its factual narrative, but the inner consequence is there quite clearly, and I myself feel the poems entirely revealing. My exposure—any poet’s exposure, if a poem’s any good—is complete. And that is what intimacy means, to me: being willing to see and be seen, being willing to know and be known, being willing to feel without swerve or camouflage, and to let that feeling be felt and witnessed by others. If the poem-harness is not attached to such a wagon, what would be the point of all our beautiful high-stepping horses? Beauty matters, liveliness matters, inventiveness and music matter—but so does it matter that something that matters is being pulled.
Following rather directly from this first question, I have another. In your poem, “Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight,” from The Lives of the Heart, there's a startling admission: “There is more and more I tell no one, / strangers nor loves.” Could you say something about that statement, and the tensions it carries, in specific?
I’ve wondered from time to time how much anyone notices that line, and how a reader feels about it if he or she does. Shut out? Curious? Insulted? For me, it felt a strangely transgressive confession: even to say that there’s something you aren’t saying is saying too much. It’s also a very odd statement to place in a poem. Aren’t poems supposed to tell, or at least show, not withhold? Yet the line is not meant to wink. It is—how ironic, to say this—simple, autobiographical fact.
It’s perhaps a good example also of the intersection of the personal and the shared, which you mentioned earlier. The unsaid plays an enormous role in anyone's life. What is kept hidden, that there are things that are hidden, carries huge charge. For those whose childhood included forced suppression of family truths, secrecy can be intolerable. But for me, to keep something rightly unsaid, or to hold something unsaid on behalf of another, is mysteriously strengthening. One dying friend entrusted me with a secret that would have caused pain, if ever spoken elsewhere. I never have.
We live in an age of chosen revelation and also of enforced sharing. Often, that can be good; people are wildly various, and the range of what’s human clamors for acknowledgment and inclusion, if we’re to live up to the most straightforward ideals of human rights and democratic co-existence. But a functioning ecosystem of the psyche needs also its burrows and nests, its attics and cupboards. Gestation requires protected space, ripening requires both permeability to the outer and non-disturbance. Whatever the culture leans toward, art will lean toward the other side. In cultures of totalitarian censorship, surrealism will leap through the keyhole. In a culture of almost ubiquitous display, perhaps some quiet advocacy of privacy is the most shocking thing you can offer.
Poems are open secrets, in any case. I mean that in both directions.
Donald Hall titled one of his essays “The Unsayable Said,” and speaks of a hidden, secret room at the center of any great poem. I have found this more and more to be so—poems are desks with false-bottomed drawers, whose contents confound easy understanding. For me there is also some deep connection between the hidden and a sense of amplitude. A line in “French Horn,” the first poem in Come, Thief, asks, “What in this unpleated world isn’t someone’s seduction?” But the seduction is first of all in the pleats' existence, in the folds of our lives, the places where more exists than can ever be seen.
You say, “Whatever the culture leans toward, art will lean toward the other side.” That’s an interesting proposition. How have you come to understand this?
I came to the idea after looking into the transition between oral and literate poetic cultures, for what became the eighth chapter in Nine Gates. Briefly, the story goes something like this: In pre-literate times, poems served both as ritual—as vessels for enacting some transformation of being, whether lullaby, work song, marriage, or funeral—and as mnemonic. Rhyme and meter can hold in place with accuracy what would not otherwise be precisely remembered. Think of the kinds of entropy that happen in the children’s game of “telephone,” then think of “Thirty days hath September”... information that would fall apart as a regular sentence or list stays intact when put into the memory-form of art. But once you have written words to hold information precisely in place, poetry begins to function differently. It becomes less a culture's oral encyclopedia and more a way of capturing what only poems are good for sieving and holding. Poems begin to look at the unobvious, the subtle, the peripheral, the repressed, disregarded, ignored. They’re written from the condition of exile, not from the capitol. This is often true quite literally—instead of Homer or the Beowulf bard reciting epics by heart in the royal banquet hall, we find Ovid, Dante, and Po Chu-i writing from banishment. The same is true in more metaphorical ways—poets write from the edge. Exile is loss of certainty, but it’s also a liberation: when poetry no longer has to tell the official story, it’s freed to tell others.
What I see in poetry's development over the millennia is an ever-widening range of subjects being investigated in ever-widening ways. Once memory can be placed into cuneiform, hieroglyphic, and ink, poetry can be magnetized by the task of finding new subjects. The thrill is in finding not only beautiful and memorable speech, but beautiful and memorable speech that makes a discovery. This is certainly how I feel it in my own life: I need poems to think about what I don’t understand, or can't understand, by ordinary thought. Poems hold what’s incomprehensible by other means.
The same is true of other art forms as well. Another way I came to think about art as cultural counterweight is by noticing something about gardens. When the world was a wilderness, gardens were structured—places people found restful because they were orderly. Paths and beds were geometric, trees were tamed into topiary, you had strict borders and manicured hedges. Now that the world is, for most of us, a rather regimented place, we want cottage gardens, mazes, hidden benches, drifts of wildflowers, and some restful disorder: a place where everything in not so controlled. We seek in a garden an experience the opposite of our everyday life on subways and city grids.
By implication, then, what you're saying is that the growth of art through the ages moves from a way of adhering to ritual and record keeping, and—through both these functions—a means of reinforcing the dominant values of the culture, to a representation of the more subversive and marginalized elements of the culture.
Yes. But also of the more subtle. These things intertwine and blur. Ritual can either enforce the status quo or offer a way to change it, and to call art’s job purely subversion risks an aesthetic of dramatic dead ends. So I agree, so long as the statement's taken with some subtlety and nuance. What I want of art is expansion, not destruction—“creative” shares a root with “increase.” I want a renovation beyond refusal. I want art to make me wilder, weirder and smarter, more compassionate and capacious, more vulnerable to the accuracies and idiosyncracies of our human joys, griefs, passions, ideas, connections.
Subversion and subtlety are both, you know, aspects of Trickster, and in many cultures, the Trickster figure is also the inventor of writing. Trickster challenges, queries, and changes the existing order; his eros, invention, irreverence, and humor are lubricant: they allow things to move. What art, and Trickster, want, I think, is to escape the dominant, to slip its edges and leave familiar ground for somewhere new. Trickster is also the figure at the crossroads, the god who faces more than one direction at once. That multiplicity too is, for me, almost the hallmark of any art I find good.
You said earlier that you don't have any inclination toward the directly autobiographical poem. Do you often feel the need to escape from an age of enforced sharing?
I feel the need to escape from many things in our age! But so many people take up arms against confessional poetry so vehemently, you have to wonder why. So let me make clear again that I’m for it. I read, and teach, Robert Lowell and Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux, even as I also admire Marianne Moore’s saying that she was “as clear as my natural reticence allows.” Perhaps it’s my own natural reticence that makes me admire the less reticent more, not less—they offer the kinds of poetry that I cannot myself make. I have a strong impulse to protect the poem of personal feeling from attack for being what it is, and an equally strong impulse to protect other poems from being interpreted as if they were personal. I want to read poetry without any preexisting program in my mind, and for me it doesn't add anything to Wallace Stevens's “The Snow Man” if I find it described as a response to his bad marriage. Yet it does for me expand Eliot's “The Wasteland,” somehow, to hold the same hypothesis in mind. I can't justify why I feel these contradictory responses so strongly, except to say simply that I am for the poem itself, always. In any case, confessional poetry is unfairly trivialized by people who attack it for its basic project. No poem is a matter of subject matter alone. Good poems of personal story do what all good poems do. They expand the penumbra of multiple understanding, the penumbra of beauty, the penumbra of compassion. They open us to more of our shared human condition than we were able to know before.
I think a lot of hostility towards confessional poetry is disguised misogyny. Although Lowell was trashed for it first, the more frequent practitioners of it have been women.
I agree. Just look at the way the phrase “domestic poetry” is used, as a kind of unarguable term of dismissal. What is domestic cannot be important, it seems. As I’ve looked at my own recent work, and noticed how many images are taken from housecleaning, I’ve begun to think that may be the next label I'll be given to carry. Perhaps I can drop the mantle of Zen poet and become the poet of housecleaning—which would be, of course, a far better description of Zen than the word “Zen” is. One famous koan asks, “What is Buddha?” and the answer is, “Have you eaten your breakfast? Then wash your bowl.” That’s actual Zen: doing the dishes because they need doing. And feeling that any work of caretaking and attention is equal to any other. Anyhow, it seems I am awfully often in my recent poems washing doorknobs or cooking or mopping a floor. Now, if the particular poem “Washing Doorknobs,” which ran in The New Yorker, happens to be also about empire-grief, and if it happens to hold, immediately under the surface, some bitter contemplation of our country’s extended state of war, well…a house roof keeps nothing in or out, does it? As the old sixties motto says, the personal is political. We are permeable to everything, and so are our poems. I think of Wislawa Szymborska's note-perfect poem about the intersection of history and domesticity, “The End and The Beginning”: “After every war/someone has to tidy up.” It is her continual remembrance of and faithfulness to the unchampioned 'someone' that makes Szymborska one of the most necessary political poets of our time. She, and her fellow Polish poets Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Swir, Tadeusz Rozewicz, saw what happens when the individual is forgotten in the face of History or Theory.
You said earlier that poems are open secrets. That is interesting to me. It reminds me of something Stanley Kunitz once said: “I don’t want poems that reveal secrets but are filled with them.” He also said, “A poem without secrets lies dead on the page.”
What a gorgeous bit of wisdom... There are so many kinds of secrets you can think of in response. Any metaphor is an unopenable cupboard of secrets. There’s tremendous mystery at the heart of lyric comprehension, image comprehension, musical comprehension, how they actually function within us. If a poem weren’t filled with secrets it wouldn’t be poetry.
I said that I meant the phrase “open secret” to face in both directions. Should I expand that? If the secrets of poems were not open, we could not find such pleasure in them, such meaning in them, as we do. An apple can be eaten without knowing its molecules' fragrance by name. And yet an open secret is still a secret; there’s always a further corner to go around. One of my “assay” poems describes the famous Japanese rock garden at Ryoanji: no matter where you stand in it, you can never see all the rocks at once. Poems are like that. You can never see every part of their meaning at once, and that very unseeability is no small part of how the whole functions.
I suppose your question wants a more personal answer but I don’t want to give one (laughs).
Good—since part of the point in asking it was in recognizing that you wouldn’t give a personal answer! I had the good fortune of attending one of your lectures more than a decade ago. During your presentation, you spoke of wanting to make more memorable statements (ie: pithy, aphoristic assertions) in your poems. Judging from the work of your last three books, I’d say that goal has been achieved. I’d like to cite a few of these statements-in-verse from your most recent book, Come, Thief, and give you an opportunity to talk about these kinds of statements, and how writing them relates to your vision of poetry as a whole, and to your own path as a poet:
“A story travels in one direction only, / no matter how often / it tries to turn north, south, east, west, back.” (from “Tolstoy and the Spider”)
“It is the work of feeling / to undo expectation.” (from “Sheep”)
“The heart’s actions / are neither the sentence or its reprieve.” (from “All Day the Difficult Waiting”)
“I don’t know what time is. // You can’t ever find it. / But you can lose it.” (from “A Day is Vast”)
“Some thoughts / throw off / a backward heat / as walls might, / at night, in summer.” (from “A Thought”)
“Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.” (from “Sentencings”)
An odd experience first raised in me that awareness of the excerptable poetic statement or line. When my second book, Of Gravity & Angels, was coming out from Wesleyan University Press, they asked for a brief quote from a poem to put in the catalogue, and I had a terrible time finding anything to suggest. That showed me something I hadn't realized: that my poems and their language worked only on the level of the full poem. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and it’s true of many poems by others I love. But I realized that one thing I myself turn to poetry for is a phrase, a line, a sentence, that in itself sifts something worth carrying, something needed. Shakespeare was of course the great master of this. Seeing how little I had exercised that particular poetic function raised in me the desire to do it.
Perhaps strangely, for me this was a matter of courage. Naked statement exposes. A person can hide behind ornate language, even behind lyricism and image, in ways that can be terrifically fertile and useful. It's clear how much I love the implicit and its powers. But I do think as well that poems not only feel things, they know things, they make discoveries, and some of the time, those moments of knowledge are sayable, and if not the discovery itself, then a catalyst towards one. Clarity, simplicity, directness can be tremendously refreshing, done well, and are very often the lines you find carried in people's daily pockets. “We must love one another or die.” Auden cut that line from his poem, and it still couldn't be throttled.
From my own work, take the final line from “Sentencings”: Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely. On its own, it's just prose; but it was arrived at by poetry, and when I’ve read that poem to audiences of scientists, there’s a surge of surprised recognition. Any new idea, in science, will be assailed, will have to be defended by argument—yet that very argument is the conversation by which discovery goes forward. The poem's statement both acknowledges that and brings into foreground the emotional dilemma of that process. If you think only the obvious thought, no one has any reason to talk with you, really. But if you think something new, you will be attacked. And for all you know, the new idea may well be wrong—most are—but if you can’t risk being found a fool, you’ll never find anything worth finding, and you will also discover yourself off to the side of the room, alone with your wine and cheese plate. The same is true in poems. Safe poems— those that only repeat what’s been done before or else are incomprehensible, beautiful language outside evaluation— may feel comfortable, but in the end they bring solitude and boredom.
On this question of statement-making in poems, I've begun noticing the almost inexplicable power of certain ways of saying the obvious. Here’s a tiny example I fell quite in love with, two lines from the poem “Table” by the Turkish modernist poet Edip Cansever: “Three times three make nine. / The man puts nine on the table.” The first sentence, dull as dirt on its own, is electrified by the second—or at least it is for me in the context of the full poem. (The poem can be found online and also in Dirty August: Poems by Edip Cansever, translated by Julia Clare Tillinghast and Richard Tillinghast.)
There are many keys on poetry’s piano, and perception ranges up and down the scale: notes so low they are almost inaudible in their chord; high clear ones; major, minor. Of the lines from Come, Thief quoted above, some use image, some are abstract. Each I hope is at once both clear and definite and carries as well some uncapturable perfume—the merely definite is journalism, the wholly uncapturable, well, that's a vagueness that risks failure.
You spoke above about poetic statements and memorability. Can you say a little more about that?
One test of a poem for me is memorability—is there something in it you'd ever need or want to turn to again. Poetic statement is clear, that’s why we feel it a statement. But what makes it poetry is that it also holds meaning not entirely contained, or containable, in the words—you have to think or feel further, beyond the words, to know fully what is there. The recognition of emotional repercussion, ethical repercussion, intellectual and philosophical repercussions, the ability to be made to pause or shiver, are part of the permeability to wideness poems ask of us. That extra is what poems exist to give. It's what makes them something we want to remember, and need to revisit.
Finding that entrance to extra is not only one of the great joys of writing, but also one of the great reasons to write—to not only live but live more extravagantly, deeply, broadly, vividly, subtly, wildly. To find in the obvious day not only the obvious day, but its complications and amazements. As evening opens the pupils wider, poems open us to our own faculty for amazement.
Distance is another powerful motif running through the poems in Come, Thief; it manifests itself in many ways. Sometimes it is conceptual, as in the poem “Critique of Pure Reason,” where you write, “Perimeter is not meaning, but it changes meaning, / as wit increases distance and compassion erodes it.” Other times, the distance is physical, as it is in “The Present,” where you write, “I stood on one side of the present, you stood on the other.” Sometimes distance is willed: “To go great distance, / exactitudes matter” (“China”); other times it exists in us as limitation: “the feelings: / how one cannot know another completely” (“Narrowness”). Can you talk about the ways in which your awareness of distance has shaped and is shaped by your poems?
I think you’ve captured something very true about the work in this new book. Distance and its inevitable companions, closeness and intimacy, have indeed been much in my thoughts and my pen. One of the seeds may be that in these past years, there’ve been so many deaths, and death is surely the most uncrossable distance at all. That's the experience at the center of “The Present,” a poem in which the word “present” moves from meaning “gift” to meaning “this moment in time.” Everything else is just here, by comparison to the dead, who are so profoundly, impossibly, abruptly, not. Another seed for the distance references in the poems may be something quite literal: I have been “going great distances.” This seems to be the stage of my life when poetry takes me traveling—I’ve been to Xi’an, Shanghai, Kyoto, Damascus, Ramallah, Nazareth, Athens, Istanbul, Krakow, Vilnius, Lindisfarne...
Here’s one example of how that traveling has come into a poem, given that I'm not a poet for whom the immediately seen goes directly into the writing. When the Silk Road appeared at the end of the poem “The Decision,” it was, first of all, the metaphor needed for that moment in that poem. But it was there to come to hand because the Silk Road became for me real in a different way after I recognized that I’d stood at both its ends. In 2007, I watched a shadow puppet master perform in Istanbul; in 2009, I saw the same puppets in the Islamic Night Market in Xi’an, China. In between, there surely are places where that millennia-old trade route must now be only a few deep ruts in the ground—like the wagon train routes still visible in the desert in the American West. But the evidence of profound connection was in front of my eyes. I saw in those profiled figures, often painted on donkey skin leather, immense distance, immense time, and also the intimacy of connection. Any original perception like that is thrilling. Book knowledge of a thing suddenly breathes, takes wing. It becomes a charged electron in the mind, that excitement, one that looks for something it can attach to.
Like many important but steadily present things, the experience of distance is so fundamental it’s almost invisible, most of the time. How often do we stop to notice gravity or a ceiling, for instance, unless they suddenly vanish? Where else could experience, knowledge, feelings, exist, if not within our three-dimensional lives and bodies? A transformative book about this is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By. It altered my understanding both of language and of what it is to be human. Perhaps I found these ideas riveting because I was already interested in questions of near and far, up and down, in the meanings of northness and southness. But it seems impossible to me that anyone might not be. Robert Hass once said that the beginning of poetry is a baby crying when the mother and her breast are not near: “Whaaaaaaa!” first; then a sonnet.
Poetry itself is a paradoxical intertwining of intimacy and distance. What begins in the body, in the life, in the heart/mind, leaves that interior existence when it sets forth into language. Yet the language of poetry and art is an attempt to awaken inside the body and life of another what was in yours. Our tongue, our pulse, our breath, our heart, our mind, are inhabiting the gestures and patterns the poet's tongue, pulse, breath, heart, mind placed there. To say, or read, your own poem, is to return yourself to a condition that stepped into being in its making. Poems implode time and space, in their ability to summon and re-summon a particular shape and constellation of presence. They are perfume bottles momentarily unstoppered—what they release is volatile and will vanish, and yet it can be released again.
Another related, powerful theme in Come, Thief is the importance you place on searching. In “Perishable, It Said,” you write, “I found myself looking”; in “The Question” you seek the dead and the living for answers to an unspecified question. In both cases, it seems the quest for clarity is as crucial as the moment of clarity itself. Can you speak to the ways in which searching is central to you as a poet and to your poetry?
I cannot think of any better description for the experience of writing a poem than that it’s a search for something that only that poem, and nothing else, can find. This is true even if the poem’s discovery vanishes almost at once. We are a species for whom awakeness is hunger. Satiety is an instant’s happiness, and then—how strangely sleepy and unsatisfying it becomes.
I don’t want to dismiss the joy of rootedness, of familiarity, of finding oneself in one’s own bed with one’s own love. Yet what poem do we murmur there, to preserve that joy? “O Western wind, when wilt thou blow / And the small rain down shall rain. / Christ, that my love were in my arms, / And I in my bed again.”
There’s a neurochemical explanation for the power of longing—but how reductionist, to speak of dopamine, when instead we can read Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and realize that no small part of the poem’s power is that it’s about an imagined place, an imagined future—Yeats stands amid the bee-loud glade with his feet on a Dublin roadway. The art forms that take place in time are bound to change and discovery, and the discovery must be a restless, evaporative one. Anything simpler could be contained by a vessel less protean than art. Poems oppose binary simplicities of understanding. They are built to do work more multi-armed, multi-minded, and necessarily choral, to hold things unable to be held any other way.
The perfection of things as they are is also true, and a very few poems can hold that trembling balance. But most of the time, the goad is longing and search, not having, and my own poems reflect that. It may be that each poem is the record of its own making: an archeologist’s notebook, dig, and findings all at once.
Over the years your poems have become increasingly concise, as if all unnecessary language has been stripped away. And yet they are quite sensual. That must be a difficult balance to strike. The best Japanese poetry achieves this balance, too. You have translated two collections of Japanese poetry. How have those endeavors shaped your own aesthetic?
The first book I bought, at age eight, was a Peter Pauper Press book of Japanese haiku. I was growing up in New York City, a child far from the natural world—what drew me so strongly I cannot now reassemble. All I can say is that these brief poems of compressive image and large worldview were irresistible. Another influence in my love of the small that can hold the large may have been a set of worn, tiny leather-bound books my mother had acquired somewhere along the line. The books were an inch, perhaps an inch and half tall—I remember Shakespeare, a Bible, a dictionary perhaps. Some had snaps holding them closed, one was green leather embossed with a gold diamond design. Back then my eyes could deal with that size type. I would read in them, and the experience was thrilling: universes releasable from something so small by my own awareness, as the tea inside teabags is released by hot water. Yet another wonder of early childhood was Chinese paper flowers—you would drop some nondescript bit of weightlessness into a cup of water, and they would blossom. Something in me has remained thrilled by such mysterious transformations, entirely akin to how meaning and feeling unfold from the small words of poems. The more work done by the least words, the more mysterious and explosive. A brief poem that succeeds in moving a person is very high-octane fuel.
By the time I came to co-translate, with Mariko Aratani, the poems of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu in The Ink Dark Moon (NY: Scribners, 1988, expanded edition Vintage Classics, 1990), reading Japanese poetry in translation had already shaped my own sense of poetry and its workings. The second book, The Heart of Haiku (Amazon Kindle Single, 2011), with its co-translations of Basho, is even more recent; it began as a lecture I was asked to give early in 2007. So the influence of Japanese poetics is surely there—but predates the translating, per se. Translation taught me other things. It released in me a more capacious spirit of revision, and confirmed me as a close-reader. It did re-immerse me in a kind of poem I’d already been long drawn to—but if anything it also inoculated me against any direct imitation of that particular form. It’s difficult to say exactly why—too easy a temptation? Or perhaps it felt something more like an incest taboo. Come, Thief does include one haibun (a form in which a prose preface accompanies a haiku), but that’s the only one I’ve written, in all these years.
My models for brevity and cleanness of language also haven’t been entirely drawn from Asian poetics. Sappho’s fragmentary lyrics, the poems from the Greek Anthology, the shorter lyrics of Catullus and Horace, the English sonnet, some of the briefer works of Auden and Yeats and Pound and William Carlos Williams—these were also early influences toward a poetics of compression. These kinds of poems are not simple. The language may be spare, but complexities are present, they're just found in a different realm—the conceptual, the associative, the worldview. A later set of influences along these lines were the poems of Cavafy, of Anna Swir, of Transtromer, Gustafsson, and Szymborska. Each of these poets is a poet of great feeling and of multifaceted responsiveness to human experiences of the subtler kinds, and also a poet of spare-leaning language.
I'm in any case the kind of poet who writes in more than one mode. I do write poems that work more by ornamentation and some of the other more baroque pleasures. The poems I’ve called “pebbles” are an exploration of brevity, hybrids perhaps of the Japanese brief-poem forms with more Western modes. The ones I’ve called “assays” are usually far more meandering explorations. There's a set of poems in Come, Thief whose axle of drive is what I think of as “wandering rhyme.” The book contains also the one villanelle I’ve ever attempted (again, it wanders slightly, each time for a reason); there’s a blues poem in waltz-rhythm and one I hear as a kind of Irish ballad crossed with Emily Dickinson. Some poets write very consistently one kind of poem, I’ve rather consistently written many. New and different modes of writing magnetize new and different meanings.
Despite the spare and concise shape of many of your poems, they remind me a bit of those skeletal trees on the cover of Come, Thief: their standing naked displays the surprising ways in which they have branched. Take the opening lines of “French Horn,” the first poem from that collection:
For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.
What in this unpleated world isn’t someone’s seduction?
These eight lines could easily stand on their own as a wonderful poem, one that evokes all of the pregnant imagery of a classic Japanese tanka or haiku. However, rather than ending the poem with that arresting question, you chose to extend it for 15 more lines, moving from the gazer-at-the-window motif to the recital hall, where one of the performers locks eyes with another, which the poem's speaker observes. What are some considerations that inform the unexpected branches of your poems?
I wrote “French Horn” a few days after returning from performing on stage myself at Carnegie Hall, reading a poem that is spoken as part of an extraordinary symphonic song cycle, “The Old Burying Ground,” by the composer Evan Chambers. The Mahler piece described in the poem’s second half was the second one on the program that day—when a new piece of music is performed, it’s often coupled with something well-known, I assume to reassure and draw in the audience.
When I began writing the lines you quote, I had no idea the poem would go where it did. That’s not unusual, and it’s related to what you asked about earlier—my sense of a poem as a search. While I sometimes do know what I’m investigating, most often I start writing without any knowledge of subject or destination; I simply have a kinesthetic feeling that something is there, and my task in that moment is to become an open gathering place for some congregation of self, language, knowledge, voice, and music. That gathering makes the poem. We sometimes then call this the “muse,” a word needed because it's so clear that it is not solely the conducting self that makes poems. I began, then, to write that morning because of the plum tree—it was in wild blossom, as it is just now, as I answer this question, in wild blossom outside the same window. The tree was, as Rilke put it in one of the “Sonnets to Orpheus,” inside my ear. But once the poem brailled its way to “seduction,” the young man from the concert hall leapt up to meet it, as a fish comes to some brightly-tied fly. How this happens is a mystery to me. That it happens is for me the sine qua non of writing at all. If some discovery and shift of being into new comprehension doesn't occur, whatever has found its way into words is not, for me, a poem—it’s notes and jottings.
In the lines you’ve quoted, the question “What in this unpleated world isn’t someone’s seduction” felt like a discovery—and many people, after reading it in The New Yorker asked me about that one word, “unpleated.” But for me that line was the opening of a gate, not the poem's destination. The poem then needed to travel somewhere further and unexpected, to find something I did not yet know I was seeking. It wasn’t complete until it reached the bee, and the idea of “sumptuous disturbance” linking its separate emplacements The poem’s ponderings have something to do with beginnings (a plum tree in blossom), youth (the two performing musicians), eros, the power of beauty to overwhelm and also its transience, and something to do also with what is kept, what can be kept, from an experience of having been shaken. The largeness and beauty of Evan Chambers’s music shook me as much as the Mahler, and left me permeable to Mahler's constellations of gorgeousness and vanishment in a way that required of me some response. This poem.
I have given you, necessarily, a specific answer to a general question. But your question includes its own answer, for me, in a single one of its words: “unexpected.” Poetry for me will always build a chamber of the paradoxical and unexpected. For those things to enter, what’s knowable must branch into what could not have been known, until the poem itself makes a path by its own explorations.
Earlier, you mentioned one of your assays. I wanted to talk with you about them. You’re one of the few contemporary poets who have been writing them with any frequency. They qualitatively differ from most of your other poems insofar as they insist upon more development—even though this is still a very selective development. They’re great contributions to a neglected subgenre.
Thank you. I think of these poems as related to the centuries-old meditatio, the meditation poem, but in a current-day diction and strategy. They are a way to look at something and think around and through it in a concentrated way. I stumbled into the form, though; it wasn’t something I set out to explore. The first-written of my assay poems was the one about Edgar Allen Poe. I had been writing about Poe in the essay-lecture on hiddenness in poetry we spoke about earlier—isn’t it interesting how that theme keeps coming back into this interview?— and I'd spent a long time re-reading his stories and critical writing. I finished the essay and thought I was done. Then, a couple years later, I was working for a month at Yaddo, where tradition says Poe wrote “The Raven”—though long before it was Yaddo, back when it was a trout-fishing farm. The story goes that a child of the family that lived there heard a man marching around in the woods shouting “Nevermore!,” and I’m sure that is why Poe came back to me when I was there— now in the form of a poem. But because all the thinking I'd been doing about him was in prose, the poem (which is in the book After) carried that essay-like quality of speech. The voice still had in it much mind, the flavor of thinking and speaking that come when you’re working in prose.
The language was more discursive.
Exactly. And yet it wasn’t prose either. It was poetry that carried some rhythm and music of thought that is thinking, not singing, and when it was done, I looked for some title that might better prepare a reader for what it was, and came up with the idea of “assay.” At least one person has assumed I came to this word through Kenneth Rexroth’s book of essays titled Assays, but it wasn’t through that lineage, nor through Montaigne or through the French. That linguistic rootstock must of course be part of it, but consciously, the word arrived by way of scientific journals: I live with a molecular biophysicist, and his magazines sometimes have ads for $500,000 assaying machines on the back cover. I've also spent a great deal of time in recent years talking with scientists. So, in my own sense of it, my assays are hybrid, connected to both the French essayer (“try”) and to the assaying of science, in which you take a substance and put it through some evaluative process to see what it's made of, in a molecular way. It’s that kind of assaying—the California Forty Niner gold miners would take their nuggets to the assaying office to find out how much gold was in it, and of what grade. That sense of a disassembling into parts—done not through chemistry but through imagination— is what underlies the tone of my poem-assays. When I finished the Poe, I assumed it was one-of-a-kind. But the voice and strategy somehow caught me, and kept coming back.
Your assays are fascinating because they walk that fine edge between discursive prose and poetic utterance. Possibly Kenneth Koch worked in a similar vein but he was more verbose. Not a lot of people have explored this subgenre.
Yes. That's another perceptive connection on your part—Koch’s New Addresses is a book I love. Something may have been in the air; W.S. Merwin's Present Company is another book along similar lines. My assays, like the work in both those books, are often variations on ode—they're written in the grammar of second person—though a little more over towards meditatio and prose and a little less celebratory than odes classically are. I don’t think art is ever made wholly from scratch; as in nature, the new is made mostly by recombination. Occasionally, there’s some accident of happy mutation, and you find you’ve done something perhaps slightly different than what’s seen before. I don’t think of my assays, or my pebbles, as offering some new form— but for you to say you see something new in them, that not many others are doing, makes me happy. I’ve always found enormous pleasure in R.P. Blackmur's statement, “A good poem expands the available stock of reality.”
I like the assays because they have information. It’s great to read a poem and think, “This has some great information in it, and I couldn’t get it any other way than in this poem.”
Yes—when information turns into an experience of lyric epiphany, whether small or large, the mystery of how that has happened makes the poem even better. Galway Kinnell is a master of this, I think, in certain of his poems. And one of the poems by Czeslaw Milosz I love most is “Winter.” It begins lyrically and then goes through an intensely sand-papery, rough-talking passage, full of opinion and history and judgment, then returns to lyricism at the end. For me, the experience of going through a different kind of language, a different condition of mind, makes that second turn into beauty, image, and lyricism even more overpowering. A fact, set into a poem, can have the same effect. We rebound into more powerful feeling for having traveled into the realm of intellectual knowledge as well.
More than the poetry of most of your peers, your poems have an incredibly rich relationship to philosophy. While Zen Buddhism informs many of the poems in Given Sugar, Given Salt, your essays in Nine Gates demonstrate a broader understanding of other philosophers and philosophical systems. Do you see yourself as a poet-philosopher?
If by poet-philosopher you mean a person interested in inquiry, yes, certainly. But I also feel some discomfort at such a label—it's rather too grand, and poetry is a verb, not a noun. I am still uncomfortable with even the sentence, “I’m a poet,” though I've come to say it more often than I’d prefer. In any moment you can possibly think, “I’m a poet,” you're necessarily not one. For the person who is actively being a poet, the poem is all that is there, making itself somehow through you, the way quartz makes itself by some intersection of pressure and molecules and time. How can we say then what happens? The language makes the poem, my life makes the poem, the culture makes the poem, the precipitating event or question or blow of beauty makes the poem... in the end, poems make poems. Yet the person holding the pen cannot be dispensed with.
Still I was, not long ago, a guest on the public radio program, “Philosophy Talk,” hosted by two Stanford philosophers. Usually their “literary” guests have been writers who've had as well some formal philosophical training—Troy Jollimore, Rebecca Goldstein. I’m not sure how they came to invite me. I am a person who does sometimes read philosophy, and I refer to various philosophers in my poems—Kant, Empedocles, Novalis, Simone Weil come to mind—but I tend to read philosophy for the poetry, rather than in any systematic way. Still, when they asked me to suggest a theme for our conversation, I found I did have one, “Poetry As A Way of Knowing,” and we went on to have quite a good conversation on the subject.
Might you say a little more about what systems of thought (or, more specifically, which philosophers) have influenced your poetry—and in what ways?
Poets are magpies, lifting whatever glints brightly into the nest. As a young writer, I carried Wittgenstein’s notebooks with me, as I described it, “for the poetry”; that is, not because I understood his ideas in any systematic way, but so that a phrase, a sentence, a proposition, a way of looking and knowing, might have its way with me, might set its hook. Metaphor-making itself asks of its writer a kind of pantheism, of idea and of self. Parallel structure, meanwhile, and the sonnet’s turn, are magnetized by the structures and reassurances of logic. Mythological and Jungian comprehensions have informed me over my lifetime—not taken literally, but as fields of expanded understanding, association, companionship. Rhetoric has been an abiding lighthouse.
Each of these things is a vocabulary of both feeling and thinking, a way of understanding the world that is part of the spectrum by which I see and by which my poems speak. I would not put Zen first, or even as given influence in any poem, though many people have come to write about me in that way. My poems are, I promise, not illustrations of any particular Buddhist teachings or of “awakened” mind. They are just my poems. Whatever of Zen is in me will be in them, is all. But I don’t comb through my work or anyone else's and gauge poems as systems of thought. Poetry stands most happily under Whitman’s supple banner: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.”
And now I will contradict myself, just a little, to say that I do think that poems embody moral and ethical ground, and that that dimension matters. By this I mean very simply that I think poems are consequential: they affect how we come to lead and feel our lives. The way this works itself out in art can’t ever be programmatic, if the art’s any good—it needs on the contrary to be complicating, subtle, questioning, doubtful and doubting. And yet, I would say that somewhere in the revision process one of the questions worth asking a poem is if its words are offering something you would be willing to stand behind with your life. Osip Mandelstam was sent to the gulag for a few lines in which he set loose his opinion of Stalin. The phrase “dulce et decorum est” altered two cultures, two millennia apart, in opposite directions. So I suppose I’ll say this: good poems can be, must be, heterodox, but not frivolous, in the stances they take in the face of our shared human sufferings. They enact investigations in which every possible path needs to be open, but they also wear the consequences of action and speech. This is, I believe, not a very postmodern thing to say. Yet I believe it.
Come, Thief, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
After, HarperCollins, 2006
Pebbles & Assays, letterpress chapbook, Brooding Heron Press, 2004
Given Sugar, Given Salt, HarperCollins, 2001
The Lives of the Heart, HarperCollins, 1997
The October Palace, HarperCollins, 1994
Of Gravity & Angels, HarperCollins, 1988
Alaya, Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series, 1982
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, HarperCollins, 1997
The Heart of Haiku, Kindle Single, 2011
As Editor and Translator:
Ancient Court of Japan (with Mariko Aratani), Vintage Classics, 1990
Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women,
Causes Jane Hirshfield Supports
International Campaign for Tibet