Jane Hirshfield

Your Story Was This

Baxter, June 7, 2014

It Was Like This: You Were Happy
by Jane Hirshfield [listen]

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness—
between you, there is nothing to forgive—
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is a thing now only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you 
or your days: they will be wrong, 
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

Intimacy with Your Own Life

Dawes Arboretum's Japanese Garden, March 19, 2011

Excerpt from "Unleashing the Mystery of Existence," Spirituality & Health, March-April 2013:

Kim Rosen: You have been a Zen practitioner for many years. How have your own spiritual path and your evolution as a poet been interwoven? Does your Zen practice teach you about writing poetry? Does your writing teach you about Zen?

Jane Hirshfield: They are left foot and right foot.

Zen is the taste of your own tongue in your own mouth. It’s a way to find something very simple that’s already present within you—a subtler, sharper, nondistanced, and nondistancing awareness.
Everything else emerges from this intimacy with your own life, this opening into attention. We become the instruments of our lives and become part of the orchestra of the larger existences that our lives in turn are part of.
The same basic attention and permeability are the beginning of poetry writing. Whatever I’ve done in both practice and poetry is a search for ways of seeing and speaking, of feeling and understanding, that draw from the limitless well of the limitless real. I’ll add, I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all. Labels just get in the way. The fundamental wildness and mystery of existence slip every leash we try to put on them, and both meditation practice and the writing of poems are leash-slipping acts.

What Will It Say As It Is Leaving?

When Your Life Looks Back
Jane Hirshfield, from Come, Thief

When your life looks back—
As it will, at itself, at you—what will it say?

Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.
Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.
Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.

Your life will carry you as it did always,
With ten fingers and both palms,
With horizontal ribs and upright spine,
With its filling and emptying heart,
That wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could do?

Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.

“What will happen next?”—
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
No unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.

This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.

And did you have a choice in this? You did—

Sleeping and waking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
The buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you—

A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.

Mortal, your life will say,
As if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.

Pity is Forbidden

Bronze Statue of Zeus of Artemision, ca. 460 BC

The World Loved by Moonlight
by Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart

You must try, 
the voice said, to become colder.
I understood at once.
It is like the bodies of gods: cast in bronze,
braced in stone. Only something heartless
could bear the full weight.

Commentary on the poem by the poet, from The Well (Nov.  10, 1999):

For me it's a kind of poem I have begun to think of as a "pebble"-small, recalcitrant, oblique, yet somehow moving. At least let's hope it's moving to others, besides you and me. Its source was a sentence written by Chekhov in a letter to a young writer: "If you want to move your reader, write more coldly."

The advice is chilling, true, and rich, I think, and leads in many different directions of thought. This poem follows one of those directions: that if one were to imagine a world in which there were mythic, conscious deities, then those beings would have to be very cold, very detached, in order to bear seeing what they must see in the course of any given day. So much suffering, so much foolishness, so much anger.

To be able to watch that at all-and even more, to play some active role in its continuance-would demand total heartlessness. It's the same lack of pity that Virgil demands of Dante as they tour the regions of Hell. Pity, the ghost-guide tells the poet, is forbidden. It is true for the contemporary writer as well, and for any seeker after truth.

A certain detachment is needed to look the fullness of life eye to eye; yet that very detachment is what permits the viewer to feel things fully, to know them without blinking. A paradox, that. And so we come to the title, "The World Loved by Moonlight." The "cold" light of the moon is equally a kind of passion and love for the earth, no less than the sun's warmer gaze. Much happens a night, in the dark.

It's probably because I am in some parts of myself a deeply sentimental creature that Chekhov's and Dante's idea strikes me so forcefully, like the twist of a knife. It's that twist that powered the poem into its speech.

[Check out Come, Thief for more of Jane Hirshfield's pepples.]

What It Means to Be Human

Being Human 2012: The Science of Human Experience
Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA 

We live at the dawn of a scientific revolution. Every day brings new findings from a broad range of disciplines – behavioral economics, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, social anthropology, philosophy – that promise to overthrow long-held biases and stories about what it means to be human. 

The coming decades will bring a shift in our worldview as fundamental as any in the past five hundred years. As we use the tools of science to explore the nature of humanity, we are learning more and more about how our brains function and what motivates our behavior, built-in biases and blind spots. 

These fresh insights are interesting scientifically, but they also evoke significant questions about our lived experience. These perspectives challenge our basic assumptions of who we are, both as individuals and as a society.  

Being Human 2012 offered a multidisciplinary public dialogue led by the scientists, thought leaders, and philosophers pioneering this exploration to discover and experience: 

  • How has evolution shaped our brains to construct a model of reality?
  • How does the subconscious mind influence the decisions we make?
  • What is the relationship between self and culture?
  • Are you who you think you are, or is that just an illusion?
  • What does science tell us about our interactions with fellow humans?
  • Is humanity still evolving?




The Sliver of Absence

Ryoanji: An Assay
by Jane Hirshfield, from After

Wherever a person stands in the garden of Ryōan-ji, there is always a stone that cannot be seen. It is like the sliver of absence found on the face of a man who has glimpsed in himself a thing until then unknown. Inside the silence, just before he begins to weep. Not because of the thing he has learned — monstrous or saintly, it was always with him — but for the amplitude he hadn’t believed was there.




The Dead Do Not Want Us Dead
by Jane Hirshfield, from After

The dead do not want us dead;
such petty errors are left for the living.
Nor do they want our mourning.
No gift to them—not rage, not weeping.
Return one of them, any one of them, to the earth,
and look: such foolish skipping,
such telling of bad jokes, such feasting!
Even a cucumber, even a single anise seed: feasting.

September 15, 2001

To Be That Porous

The Supple Deer
by Jane Hirshfield, from After

Deer Crossing, Andrew Newell WyethThe quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through it.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.

Not of the deer—

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.


Proud Flesh

For What Binds Us
by Jane Hirshfield, from Of Gravity & Angels

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.


It’s Harder to Agree to Grief and Loss

From “Some Place Not Yet Known: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield,” The Atlantic, September 18, 1997: 

The Lives of the Heart Part of poetry's core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn't being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward. Perhaps these poems came to me because I hadn't been looking thoroughly enough at the activity of my own heart — I had fallen asleep in a way, or had been looking overly outward. And certainly the heart is denigrated by our culture, which values the intellect and neglects the emotional, or cheapens it to the dulled formulas of mass media. Perhaps I was looking in those poems for a container of concentration and words with which to try to do better, to counteract that dulling, both inward and outward.

It's also true that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. It's easy to say yes to being happy, but it's harder to agree to grief and loss and transience and to the fact that desire is fathomless and ultimately unfillable. At some point I realized that you don't get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.

People talk about poetry's having a diminished life in the current culture, or else they talk about its current renaissance, but I think that in good times or bad times for poetry as a whole, people will always have periods in their lives when they turn to poetry. Dealing with grief or falling in love, people will look for a poem or perhaps write one in the attempt to sort through and understand their most powerful experiences. Or, for the occasions of large transition — a marriage or a funeral — they will ask someone to read a poem that marks and holds the feeling. One of the jobs of poets is to keep making those holding words available, so that when other people need them they will be there.

I was deeply moved when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's lover Maurice Tempelsman read Cavafy's poem "Ithaka" at her funeral — and when it was then reprinted in every major newspaper in the country. "Ithaka" is an important and astonishing poem that holds enormous wisdom about what actually takes place in the scope of a life, and his bringing it forward on the occasion of her death made it available for everyone. The poem served the public purpose of shared grief and could then stay in the mind for private understanding. I think for poetry to have that kind of life in a culture is enough. It would be wonderful if more people wanted to read poetry every day, but it's more important that the poems be there when people need them.

[Thanks Linda!]