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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Celebration of the Ordinary

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March 9, 2017


Jane Hirshfield became a distinct voice in poetry at the turn of the century through her sensitive observation of the significance of ordinary details of daily life. Unlike most poets of the western tradition, Hirshfield tends to be non-human centered in her poetry. In other words, her poetry usually does not deal with human relationships, character, or direct human interaction of various kinds. Instead, her poetry objectifies the material of our existence and relates matter to the individual or abstracted human nature. A typical poem of Hirshfield’s mature work, for example, will note an utterly mundane object such as a grouping of broken seashells, the concept of rooms, crickets, cucumbers, the nature of leather, and then proceed to relate it all to the human soul. Her poetry, in short, resembles impressionist still lifes.

While her work as translator and editor of women’s poetry indicates Hirshfield’s strong feminist nature, little of her poetry is political in the usual sense of direct comment on specific issues, but all of her work is political in the sense of integrating the stirrings of the heart, one of her favorite images, with the political realities that surround us all.

No doubt the source for these characteristics of her poetry and for her very concept of what poetry is, “The magnification of being,” derives from her strong Zen Buddhist training. Her emphasis on “compassion, on the preexistent unity of subject and object, on nature, on the self-sufficient suchness of being, and on the daunting challenge of accepting transitoriness,” Peter Harris notes, are central themes in her poetry derived from Buddhism. Hirshfield does not, however, burden her poetry with heavy, overt Zen attitudes. Only occasionally is there direct reference to Buddhism.

Hirshfield considers herself an eclectic poet not tied to any one tradition. Her earliest influences developed from English sonnets and Latin lyrical verse, but early on she developed an interest in Japanese poetry, first through haiku, and later in Aztec, Eskimo, and court poetry of ancient India. She has mentioned her chief American influences as coming from Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Galway Kinnell, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Syder, and Robert Hass.

My next installment in this series will be March 13. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner


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