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. Read More