Poet Jane Hirshfield on the Mystery of Existence

Poet Jane Hirshfield on the Mystery of Existence

Writer Kim Rosen raises questions about Zen, openness, and the “desperation” of the creative process.

Robert Hatch Photography

In the ’90s, I had an inner opening that shifted my entire worldview. Though I’d not been drawn to poetry for years, I found myself turning to Rumi, Kabir, and Mirabai. But I hungered for poems that spoke to the stuff of the world I was living in as well as the timeless truths of the mystics. Luckily, I discovered the work of Jane Hirshfield.

In addition to her seven books of poetry, Hirshfield has published several classic books of essays and played a major part in bringing the words of women mystics to modern audiences through the anthologies she edited and co-translated, which include Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems. She was a full-time student of Zen Buddhism for eight years, three of them in monastic practice.

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?

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.

Your poems, to me, are not only artistic creations but they point also to a way of life, a way of meeting life. And yet they are not preachy at all. When I read them, I don’t even know I’m being changed until I rise from the poem, go to the door, and hear myself intoning, “Come, thief!” with a surprising openness to anything that might arrive. What is the relationship within you between the teacher/spiritual guide and the poet?

“Openness to anything”—you may have already named the central thing. When I start to write, I’m not a guide or teacher; I’m not even a poet. I’m a person far out at sea, and the poem is a raft made of whatever floats past in the water. Those almost accidental rescuing pieces are words, rhythms, musics, ideas, the memory that is mine and the memory that is all of ours and the memory that is held in language itself. The experience of writing, for me at least, isn’t confidence or wisdom; it’s closer to desperation. You are naked as Odysseus when he’s lost his ship and all his men, before he’s met by the courageous young girl Nausicaa—a version perhaps of the rescuing muse, who helps us find our way back into the world shared with others but only if we bring our own resourcefulness to the situation as well. There is some faint memory that this raft business has worked before, some memory of knot-tying, of the intention to live. There is that in us that recognizes: “this is water; this is land.” A poem is land found, as if for the first time. If I already knew what it would hold, I wouldn’t need the poem, and if what it holds were knowable by any other words or way, I wouldn’t need the poem.

There’s, of course, another stage of things, after the first draft is written, in which other knowledges and intentions do come in. You have to know enough to be dissatisfied with the easy phrase, with the false or timid gesture, and also with the masks of style or stance. You have to want, more than anything else, to make your own discovery each time. You have to welcome both your own strangeness and your own fierceness. And you have to have an ear, an eye, that will recognize when a poem has stumbled in its music, seeing, courage, or path, so you can know that you need to work with it further, to ask of it more.

In your book Nine Gates, you wrote, “Only a writer who fears neither abandonment nor self-presence can write without distortion.” I keep this on my desktop. What a fierce truth!

A more recent poem of mine ends, “Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.” It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? But think about Whitman or the Greek poet Cavafy. Think about Dickinson’s poems, so awkward to the ears of readers of her own time, so precise and unflinching about everything from mystical ecstasy to the depths of despair. Each of these poets wrote knowing that most of their contemporaries would find them unacceptable, unhearable, in style, in substance. Each wrote from the furnace-heat of experience allowed its full scope, experience that turns self to fuel. Each accepted the solitude of accepted, undisguised strangeness, and yet each knew also that their words might matter enormously, eventually, to others.

What do you feel is the difference, if there is one, between writing poems for self-healing or self-revelation, and writing poems as an art form and an offering to others?

No difference. Some poems are good and some poems are less good, but I don’t think our initial ideas about why we are writing have much to do with that. Anyone who writes a poem outside of a school assignment writes because it is inescapable for them—it’s a fate and a need. No difference also because what speaks to the inner self speaks to others, and what we say to others we say also to ourselves.

What do you feel is the role of poetry—especially in these challenging times?

Good poems bring the grant of malleability. They make the world, and the self, workable, when it might seem to have stiffened past change. They hold the omnipresence of interconnection without dismantling solitude and the inner. They undercut adamance, oversimplification, stubbornness, and our current culture’s dependence on the practical as the only way forward. The practical matters enormously; I went to a swing state and knocked on doors during the last election. But without the enlargements and suppling of imagination, practical action would quickly lose not only heart but reason. We aren’t goaded toward the good only by dread. Hope matters as much. Tenderness matters as much. And the arts—all the arts, not just poetry—are a reservoir of these multiplying, opening recognitions.

What do you hope your poems offer your readers and the world?

A door. One that stands outside our usual addresses and maps—or more truly, perhaps, many doors at once, that lead simultaneously outward and inward, into both the life we share with others and the privacy in which self can take stock with original eyes. I hope my poems might offer: “Here is one experience of life, of its possibilities, exhilarations, bewilderments, griefs. Enter. Now, here is another.” When we bring that spirit of openness, permeability, exploration, and courage into our lives and our hands, everything else follows: a deeper saturation and compassion, a recalibrating sense of proportion, an increase of the possible. Good poems make clarity without making simple. They do not erase darkness; if anything, they open into it. But wouldn’t the page of a day be dull and undistinguished, almost as if unsigned by existence, without its charcoal?

Kim Rosen is the author of Saved by a Poem.

The Promise

By Jane Hirshfield

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,


By Jane Hirshfield

In age, the world grows clumsy.
A heavy jar
leaps from a cupboard.

A suitcase has corners.

Others have no explanation.

Old love, old body,
do you remember—carpet burns down the spine,

gravel bedding
the knees, hardness to hardness.

You who knew yourself
kissed by the bite of the ant,

you who were kissed by the bite of the spider.

Now kissed by this.

Come, Thief

By Jane Hirshfield

The mandarin silence of windows before their view,
like guards who nod to every visitor,


“Come, thief,”
the path to the doorway agrees.

A fire requires its own conflagration.
As birth does. As love does.

Saying to time to the end, “Dear one, enter.”

Poems from Come, Thief, by Jane Hirshfield (Knopf 2011), used by permission.

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