Hirshfield Shares Life, Poetry
By Kelly Birch
Photo by Nick Rosza
Jane Hirshfield read selections of her poetry for the Gonzaga University community and the public Tuesday evening, Oct. 10, and immediately showed why she is considered one of the most influential American poets alive today.
Born in New York City in 1953, Hirshfield received a bachelor's degree from Princeton University’s first graduating class to include women and then studied at the San Francisco Zen Center for three years, an experience that greatly impacted her poetry, she said at the reading in the Globe Room at Cataldo Hall. She laughingly pointed out that while others were going to graduate school, she went off to study at a monastery.
Her poetry books include “After” (HarperCollins, 2006); “Given Sugar, Given Salt” (2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; “The Lives of the Heart” (1997); “The October Palace” (1994); “Of Gravity & Angels” (1988); and “Alaya” (1982). She also authored “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry” (1997) and edited and translated “The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan” (1990) with Mariko Aratani; and “Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three
Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women” (1994).
Hirshfield began the evening explaining that she generally begins her poetry readings with one of two of her favorite older poems, but said she wanted to “change it up” a bit by reading both. Though she culminated the night by reading several poems from “After,” her latest book, she read a dozen or so from earlier works first.
She moved rhythmically through her own words, stopping occasionally between poems to provide an anecdote or explanation. Zen Buddhist philosophy has always influenced her poetry, Hirshfield said, both in her way of speaking and writing. One poem in particular, entitled “Da Capo,” focuses on the continuation of life throughout the ages. The poem, containing a recipe that Hirshfield said one of her fans literally tried and found unpleasant, ends with the line, “Begin again the story of your life.” The poem, cyclical in nature, shows the relevance of the pattern of human experience, a key to Zen, through the poet’s eyes.
Hirshfield also continuously mentioned small details of life and humanity that showed her attentiveness to everything around her. One poem, written in a small artistic haven in coastal Europe, mentions poets less fortunate than she. Hirshfield wondered aloud about the poems that she will never read, perhaps because they cannot be translated into English or maybe because their would-be authors can barely afford food and do not have time for the leisure of writing. For those poets, their poems may never even be written, she said.
Hirshfield turned to her work in “After,” so named because of the prevalence of death she witnessed as she was writing. She began writing the book shortly after the tragic terrorists’ strikes on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Having lived part of her life in New York City, Hirshfield said she felt a great personal loss that day, and felt that the world would be changed forever.
In one poem, she expressed her worry that the infamous day’s events would lead to a greater multitude of violence, and she told the audience of her belief that if a dead person were able to return to life, he or she would want to talk with people and eat good food, rather than worry about revenge.
Still others poems in “After” focused on personal losses that she experienced while writing the book; two of her closest friends, Czeslaw and Carol Milosz, passed awhile while she was writing – an experience she said was profoundly painful.
After reading many poems, Hirshfield took questions from the audience about her art and life, ranging from titles of poetry and the name of her hometown to how to deal with the reluctance to share one’s writing and the role attentiveness plays in her life.
Hirshfield talked for a while about overcoming her own fears as a writer. She offered an analogy of a small child at his or her parents’ party. If the child were Allen Ginsberg, he would be hamming it up to entertain all the adults. However, if she were the child, Hirshfield said she’d be too frightened to come out of her room. She joked that once a friend asked what it meant to be the small child hiding to observe the party: “That’s why you’re a novelist,” she recalled telling her friend.
As a child, Hirshfield said she had hidden her poems under her bed and only shared them if absolutely necessary to receive a grade; she thought her mother had no idea what she was doing, but later realized her mother had known all along.
As a young girl, Hirshfield said she did not care to share her writing but eventually did because she found the need to write in order to live. Her advice to shy writers? Wait as long as necessary to share your poetry and remember: one need not ever share it.
When asked about her own first poetry reading, Hirshfield told of being in Berkeley, Calif., sharing a time slot with another poet and making $18, which she and her boyfriend took immediately to a nearby restaurant to celebrate her success by splurging — one calzone and two glasses of Chardonnay.