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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Given Sugar, Given Salt

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April 5, 2017


Hirshfield’s fifth volume of poetry, published in 2001, continues with the old themes but proves her most expansive volume to date: “As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,/we become our choices.” And thus Given Sugar, Given Salt explores our choices for meaningful living. In “Bone,” for example, the speaker’s dog unearths an old bone, the toy of her previous dog—for whose memory she still grieves. The new dog knows nothing of the old dog:

My memories,

my counting and expectations,

mean nothing to her;

my sadness, though,

does puzzle her a moment.

But the new dog does not remain puzzled for long. She just keeps on chewing and then readies herself for a game of catch.

Choices control all of our lives. In “Happiness is Harder” Hirshfield considers even happiness a choice. Sadness can be cured perhaps: “A person has only to choose./ What doesn’t matter; just that-.” However, “Happiness is harder.” Or, she says,

Consider the masters’ description

of awakened existence, how seemingly simple:

Hungry, I eat; sleepy, I sleep.

Is this choosing completely, or not at all?


In either case, everything seems to conspire against it.

Jane Hirshfield has, then, developed a unique voice among contemporary American poets. Her work has the quiet yet persistent vision characteristic of Zen. Life often is a question with no answer, but the question must be asked. Jane Hirshfield continues to ask.

Ok, folks, I think that’s all I’ve got for this series on the early poetry of Jane Hirshfield. If you would like to collect the entire series at once just click on Jane Hirshfield under Categories to read everything.


Since 2001 Jane Hirshfield has published the following volumes of poetry:

Pebbles & Assays (2004)

Each Happiness Ringed by Lions (2005)

After (2006)

Come, Thief (2013)

The Beauty (2015)

Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner





  1. Brian Rusher says:

    Though I haven’t made any comments on this series, I’ve really enjoyed becoming acquainted with Hirshfield’s work. In fact, at the bookstore yesterday I ended up purchasing her book Ten Windows, and am already thoroughly enamored with it.


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