I first met Jane Hirshfield about fifteen years ago, after one of her readings in San Francisco. She reads her poems with intensity, but not loudly. Her voice is even, quiet. I was struck by the many tonalities of her silences. Still, there is a distinctly recognizable passion in her quiet moments. Speaking with her, I was fascinated by how much I was able to gather from the moments between her sentences, by the way those sentences follow one another, surprising at each turn. This is also true of her poems: reading her work, I catch myself thinking that Hirshfield is the poet who orchestrates silences, which is perhaps fitting for someone who says that her medium is lyric poetry. It isn’t easy these days to find a poet who can do this while being also perfectly articulate and clear. Reading Hirshfield, I find myself coming back to Mahmoud Darwish’s idea that clarity is our ultimate mystery.
Jane Hirshfield’s nine books of poetry include The Beauty, long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award; Given Sugar, Given Salt, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award; and After, short-listed for England’s T.S. Eliot Award and named a “best book of 2006” by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Financial Times. She is also the author of two collections of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (2015), and four books collecting and cotranslating the work of world poets from the past. Hirshfield’s ninth poetry collection, newly published this week, is Ledger. This interview took place by email.
Auden called art “clear thinking about complex feeling,” and in your 2015 book of essays, Ten Windows, you speak about the “extra pressure of meaning that infuses” Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”—a poem written in December 1938, a time of deep political crisis. I see a strong element of the poetics of engagement in Ledger. This isn’t new. I think of your 1994 poem “Manners/Rwanda,” for instance. Yet the element of engagement comes across more strongly in this new book. So, I want to begin by asking about the way you relate to those “extra pressures” of our own crisis today in the U.S., about how they have impacted your work and this book.
A poem, a poet’s life, and the larger world are one continuous fabric. Ledger is a book of stock-taking, a registration both of the personal and of the grievous era all our lives are now visibly part of. As you say, I’ve written poems for decades that speak of the environment, social justice issues, what feel like unceasing wars. What’s changed in this book is the urgency and centrality of these subjects. The time line for swerve feels shorter, the precipice raised to heights fatal not only for individuals, but for the planet.
I don’t know how a poem can touch the catastrophe of the biosphere and what feels like a breakdown of the basic social contract—that we care for one another and that we care for future beings’ well-being. It may be that poetry’s speaking is essential but preparatory, oblique. That our work, yours and mine, is the tilling that precedes planting. That our images and metaphors and statements are like the multitude of tunneling earthworms that keep the earth’s microbiome alive, its structure lightened and turnable, viable for crops. Any one earthworm seems not to matter, yet the existence of earthworms matters. An ethics of preparation means also that poetry’s work may be less to solve than to speak of, to speak on behalf of, that which needs solving. Our human capacities for imagination and art-making, for grief and joy, exist in the service of survival of the single, solitary self and of the whole. Poems sustain the complexity, multiplicity, and peculiarities of lives, not their erasure. They carry the sense of wholeness and unblind us to connection. These allegiances are currently desperately needed.
Goethe wrote, “Do not let what matters most be at the mercy of what matters least.” The two, though, are not separate. An ants’ nest comes into a poem, and reminds that what may seem small—noticing it, wanting its continuance on this perishable and fragile planet—is what matters most. No part of existence is discardable.
I see in this new book also some shift in style, and wondered if you might say something about that. Was it a deliberate, chosen response to the pressure of current crises?
The styles and textures of my work have altered gradually. Some poems have grown sparer and simpler, others more opulent, intermittent, strange. That shift comes, I think, partly just from time. A tree, over decades, changes its expression. But then, the weather and soil the tree abides in change it as well. I have changed. The world has changed. My poems’ ways of speaking and directions of looking have changed. But none of this is for me a matter of will or conscious choice. Will is too narrow to write poems. Its oxygen is too thin. I feel myself as much amanuensis as author.
Your line “less to solve than to speak of what needs solving” reminds me of Chekhov’s statement, “Art does not provide answers, it can only formulate questions correctly.” What does this mean for an artist in our specific moment? One of your earlier poems, “In Praise of Coldness,” begins with another quote from Chekhov, “If you wish to move your reader, you must write more coldly.” It is a beautiful poem. “In sorrow, pretend to be fearless,” you say. “In happiness, tremble.” How do you relate to this statement from Chekhov now, after having written equally beautiful—but not at all cold—poems in Ledger that do, I think, provide answers, despite what you’ve said. I’m thinking of poems such as “Let them Not Say,” for instance, or “On the Fifth Day.”
Perhaps an answer in the realm of the arts is different from the right or wrong solution we bring to a problem in chemistry or mathematics. Arts “answers,” but in that word’s other sense of response, of reply. Both the poems you’ve named are bells rung hard. They summon attention. When you see a fire, you can’t stay silent.
I, though, do feel in them Chekhov’s coldness. A poem’s meaning requires an engineered, structural soundness, not so different from that of a building or bridge. Language, syntax, verb tense, soundscape, the placing of ink and ink’s absence on a page, are material things, just as steel is. Words experienced as comprehensible, consequential, do follow rules, though they are rules that a writer, like an architect, can test, press toward their outer limits. New materials bring new shapes of meaning and feeling. Those two poems feel strongly, but they are not an uncontrolled weeping. They argue, in the old-fashioned, rhetorical sense of that word, for something that matters, and make their argument in the ways art mostly does—from the side. I think it’s a good thing that poets work far from the center of our celebrity- and economics-driven culture. From the periphery, you can see more of the whole. From the center, any view will be partial. A poem is not a frontal assault, it is the root tendrils of ivy making their way into the heart’s walls’ mortar.
You are deeply invested in the lyric poem. But your work has also long been interested in the idea of poetic sequence, poetic cycle. I am thinking of your Pebbles sequences and your Assays, both of which began with After, and have continued to make appearances in more recent books. Can you speak more about how you see these forms, their reappearances from book to book, their conversation between books?
The series poems have always begun with just one poem that felt to me different, somehow distinctive, like a horse moving into a single-foot gait. Assays began with a poem written after I’d reread Edgar Allan Poe’s stories while writing an essay on how hiddenness works in poems. Some of the qualities of essay exploration and prose step lingered in its music and mode of thinking. At the time, I was regularly seeing the journal Science. On the back would often be advertisements for half-million-dollar machines for performing assays. That word—close to essay and sharing its root in the idea of an attempt, a try—refers to discovering a thing’s nature by breaking it into its elemental parts. The poem became “Poe: An Assay.” That approach to writing, of testing a subject for its discoverable parts, imaginative and factual, caught. I began writing others. “Judgment: An Assay.” “Tears: An Assay.” “And: An Assay.” In Ledger, the one labeled assay is about capital, money. But other poems in the book also use the assay mode and strategy. They just don’t carry the label.
The pebbles are very brief poems with a certain flavor. They are individual poems written independently. I run them as series in the books because it feels rude to the trees to have so many pages of paper with so little ink on each. The pebbles, I’ll add, are not haiku and not aphorisms. They are much more hybrid. They do draw from Asian poetry’s concision and compression, but are more discursive. They draw also from Novalis, from a few pieces in Pound’s Personae, from fragments of poems from ancient Greece and early poems from Sumer and India, Turkey, and Mesoamerica. They draw from a handful of very short poems by Brecht I find irresistibly precise.
A pebble holds its rock recalcitrance lightly, portably. The pebble poems try to do large work in the smallest possible container. In their feel of doing investigative work, they are the assay form’s bookend. Both forms, when they became conscious, expanded my vocabulary of poetic exploration. Neither, I’ll add, is a radical invention. The poetic form of “a meditation on” is close in spirit to the assays. Brief poems go back to the earliest writings we have. These modes are forms for me the way the sonata form or etude function in music—they invite a particular kind of experience. They’ve become a self-propagating invitation of possibility. And yes, of course, the poems in these modes do connect across books, making their own discrete libraries of registration.
There’ve been a few other series in your work as well. Ledger holds its notably distinctive series of Little Soul poems. How did you come to those? Were these pieces in some way a response to Hadrian?
Oh, yes. Since this book has no endnotes, I must trust that readers will recognize “little soul” as Hadrian’s phrase. It comes from his one known poem, written on his deathbed. He addresses his departing life with that endearing diminutive, “animula.” I looked for some equivalent term of my own, but could find nothing as tender. Hadrian’s poem also framed the mood and tone of my poems, written over months, when a friend of forty years was dying. Here is the Hadrian:
Little soul, drifting, gentle,
my body’s guest and companion,
what places do you now go to live in,
without color, unyielding, naked,
never again to share our old jokes.
Hadrian’s “little soul” made for me a door through which I could contemplate the unbearable. My friend’s death, my own death, all of our dying, are in those eight poems.
In Ten Windows, you say, “Most good poems hold some part of their thoughts in invisible ink… Lyric poetry rests on a fulcrum of said and unsaid.” Can you speak a bit more about that, and about how the unsaid works in this book?
One poem in Ledger is entirely ellipsis, “My Silence.” There’s a small lineage of poems that are only title—I know at least three. It’s a form that wants sparing usage, but my poem was genuinely, honestly written. It holds an unsayable grief. Its invisible ink depends on the reader recognizing that the whole book is the context for that silence. Late in the publishing process, I wondered if I shouldn’t have retitled it “My Grief.” That would have been a clearer signpost. But that choice would also trust the reader less, bully them more. Poems oughtn’t bully.
Leaving something inexplicit or unsaid in a poem risks misunderstanding. What a reader does with invisible ink is his or her mirror, revealing that reader’s mind, predispositions, and heart. “My Silence” is an extreme case. But a poem that tells everything, instructs completely, would be also unbearably plodding. Poems exist to hold what cannot be said in more ordinary speech. Poems remove the insult from the old cowboy saying: they are five pound sacks holding ten pounds of rice.
I’m more and more wanting to trust the reader to hear, to understand, the unsaid thing. Japanese haiku, read rightly, are built on that foundation of tact and trust and active collaboration. Good poems may always be math problems that end with the equal sign, leaving their conclusions to enact themselves inside us. The actualities of our lives are immense beyond naming. Yet we somehow raise them, honorably, with small hands and inked words. The idea of humility has become increasingly central to my sense of a correct navigation of our current age. To think the unsayable can be said would be hubris. Yet something, somehow, manages to be said, into the brutalities and the largenesses of existence.
An old question, but one that still burns, at least for lyric poets, is, What is it that walks on four legs at morning, two at midday, three at evening?
Ah, when we know what it is to be human, when we become able admit to ourselves our own frailties and dependence, perhaps then we will start acting and speaking in ways more fully humane.
It feels almost irremediably late for such a hope. But as the close of one of the Little Soul poems proposes—so long as a person is alive, even now, it is early.
Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press) and Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press). His awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writer’s Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, Lannan Foundation’s Fellowship, and the NEA Fellowship. His poems regularly appear in Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Read his poem “From ‘Last Will and Testament’” in our Winter 2018 issue.