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

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




Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The Lives of the Heart, Part II

March 29, 2017


Continuing where I left off in my ongoing series on Jane Hirshfield’s early work, let’s continue to look at The Lives of the Heart, published in 1997. If you are just now clicking into this series just scroll down to the previous posts or click on Jane Hirshfield under Categories for the entire series at one time.

Obviously from the title these poems celebrate the heart, the center of human nature that keeps us at the core of our existence. Hirshfield explained to Katie Bolick of The Atlantic, “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. . . .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.” For example, in “Secretive Heart” we find at its center life, the heart, is about the most mundane of material objects-such as an old Chinese cauldron “still good for boiling water,” but evidently not for much else.

It is one of a dozen or more,

it is merely iron,

it is merely old,

there is much else to see.


The few raised marks

on its belly

are useful to almost no one.


Heart looks at it a long time.

What do you see? I ask again,

but it does not answer.

My next installment in this series will be April 5. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The Lives of the Heart, Part I

March 28, 2017


In her 1997 collection of poetry Hirshfield develops fully a new imagery of the lion and of the heart. Lions appear with mythic power in such poems as “Knowing Nothing,” “Spell to be said Upon Waking,” “Lion and Angel Dividing the Maple between Them,” and “Each happiness Ringed by Lions.”

In an interview by Katherine Mills, Hirshfield explains her idea with the lions: “the lion is fierceness and beauty; undeniable presence; danger; power; passionate love; transformation. Perhaps, for me. . .lions are the earthly answer to Buddhism.” Thus, in “Knowing Nothing”:

The lion has stalked

the village for a long time.

It does not want the goat,

who stands thin and bleating,

tied to its bit of wood.


The goat is not the reason.

The reason is the lion,

whose one desire is to enter-

Not the goat, which is

only the lure. . .

but the one burning life

it has hunted for a long time

disguised as hunger. Disguised as love.

Which is not the reason.

Here the paradox of the lion’s ferocity and its longing to assert itself—of its love—keep us searching but not finding the reason of life experience: “Love is not the reason./Love is the lure.”


My next installment in this series will be March 29. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The October Palace

March 17, 2017


In October Palace, published in 1994, we finally see a fully mature poet, no longer a developing talent. Hirshfield now moves beyond the formulas of writers’ workshop poems and finds the unique voice and range of experiences that has continually brought her the prizes and grants necessary for a sustainable poetic career.

Perhaps the overall theme of October Palace is that every moment of one’s life possesses its own meaning. This theme can be seen, perhaps most obviously, in “Percolation.” The speaker is in the midst of wasting a day confined inside because of the rain. But as she meditates upon her confinement, and as she becomes aware of a frog croaking “a tuneless anthem,” she develops serenity from the conviction that: “Surely all Being at bottom is happy:/ soaked to the bone, sopped at the root. . . .” And she discovers that life-giving peace must be wrung out of all experience,

yielding as coffee grounds

yield to their percolation, blushing, completely seduced, assenting as they give in to the downrushing water,

the murmur of falling. . . .

In many of her poems Hirshfield enjoys relating narratives from various folk and historical legends. For example, in “A Plenitude,”one of my favorites, Hirshfield considers the nature of fullness, completeness—plenitude-by relating a common story from Renaissance art:

But there is the story, too,

of a young painter meeting the envoy of a Pope.

Asked for a work by which his art

could be weighed against others’, he dipped his stylus—

with great courtesy, according to Vasari—

in red ink, and drew a single, perfect O.


My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Of Gravity & Angels, Part II

March 16, 2017


One of the more memorable poems from Of Gravity & Angels is “Dialogue” which begins: “A friend says,/’I’m always practicing to be an old woman.’” Another friend considers herself differently: “’I see myself young, maybe fourteen.’” The speaker, however, identifies with neither friend:

But when I lean to that mirror

a blackbird wing rises,

dark, flashing red at the shoulder,


and no woman is there

to pin flowers over the

place where her left breast falls.


Another often read poem is “The Song”:

The tree, cut down this morning,

is already chainsawed and quartered. . .

Not an instant too early, its girl slipped away.

She is singing now, a small figure

glimpsed in the surface of the pond.

All material nature has its own spirit. Here the spirit leaves the tree but never completely. In the same way as the tree will grieve its lost spirit, “the wood, if taken too quickly, will sing/ a little in the stove, still remembering her.

My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Of Gravity & Angels, Part I

March 15, 2017


As I said in an earlier post in this series, most of what I am posting comes from some papers I wrote and published many years ago. As I re-read Hirshfield today I probably would have different and more updated ideas about her work. And nearly everything I am including in this series does not have the hindsight that might would come after keeping up with Hirshfield’s later work. Especially, I would probably have a different perspective since her 2015 important Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, which is her most mature statement of her philosophy of poetry. Nevertheless, Of Gravity & Angels remains one of my favorite books of contemporary poetry.

Jane Hirshfield’s second book of poetry, published in 1988 continues to demonstrate he mastery of language yet nearly half of the poems in this volume include the pronoun “I.” For most of the poems, the self remains integral to the text.

At her public readings and in her interviews, the poet frequently talks of her love for horses and her use of horses in her poems. In “After Work,” we see a typical Hirshfield horse poem. The poem takes a straightforward description of an habitual moment in her life, the after work feeding of the horses, and transforms the experience into meaning:

I stop the car along the pasture edge,

gather up bags of corncobs from the back,

and get out.

Two whistles, one for each,

and familiar sounds draw close in darkness. . .

The horses come and eagerly devour corncobs brought by the speaker. But, despite the personal nature of this ordinary experience, Hirshfield objectifies it. The horses don’t “just” come. They come “conjured out of sleep”; they come with “each small noise and scent/heavy with earth, simple beyond communion.


My next installment in this series will be March 16. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The First Book, Alaya

March 13, 2017


Jane Hirshfield’s first book of poetry was part of the Quarterly Review of Literature’s poetry series of 1982. “Alaya” on the one hand means “home” but also is, Hirshfield has said, “a Buddhist term meaning ‘the consciousness which is the storehouse of experience,’ of memory. . . .the place where seed-grain is kept.”

“The Gift” from Alaya points in the direction of Hirshfield’s tendency in her later work to objectify all reality, even the personal:

From how many hands

your body comes to me,

and to how many will I pass it on. . . .

Here “your body” comes, not “you come to me,” and the speaker will pass “it,” the body, on, instead of passing on such things as his memory, his influence, or even his love. The poem is remarkable for its early mature handling of imagery and phrasing. The person addressed, for example, exaggerates “nothing” and leans “into the wind” and is “lost/but like a flock of geese.” But, of course, flocks of geese don’t really get lost. The poem ends as many of Hirshfield’s poems do, and as many poems written in writing workshops often do, with a significant metaphor to draw meaning from the experience of this poem:

Slowly now,

lift the lid of the box:

there is nothing inside.

I give this to you, love. . . .

The movement of the poem, then, would ordinarily be seen as a movement from the physical, the body, to the immaterial, the soul, but a Hirshfield poem, perhaps because of the poet’s Zen beliefs, will not distinguish between physical and immaterial. The soul and body are indistinguishable. Despite the objective displacement of the self in “The Gift,” however, much of Hirshfield’s early poetry maintains a personal point of view both in Alaya and in her next book. Nevertheless, “The Gift” has become one of Hirshfield’s most anthologized poems and one often posted on social media.

My next installment in this series will be March 15. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

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

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

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: A Short Biography

March 7, 2017


In this fourth installment of my series on Jane Hirshfield let me give you a few details of her life. She was born in New York, New York to Robert and Harriet Hirshfield. Her father was a clothing manufacturer and her mother was a secretary. From her childhood Hirshfield wanted to be a writer. After her first book was published her mother showed Hirshfield a note written on large lined paper from the first grade in which the young Hirshfield had written “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” Her first poem was published in 1973 after she had just graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University with an independent major in creative writing and literature in translation. She was part of Princeton’s first graduating class that included women. Despite early publication, she withdrew from the writing life for eight years as she entered study at the San Francisco Zen Center. In 1979 she was lay-ordained in the lineage of Soto Zen and left the life of withdrawal. Since that time, Hirshfield has devoted her life to writing, translation, and editing, earning numerous awards and grants. From 1991 to 1998 she served as lecturer in creative writing at the University of San Francisco and served as visiting associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1995. Since 1999 she has served on the core M.F.A. faculty of Bennington College. In 2000 she was appointed Elliston Visiting Poetry Professor at the University of Cincinnati.

My next installment in this series will be March 9. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner


Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Her Achievements

March 3, 2017


I am developing in The Literary Life a series, so far with 13 installments on the American poet Jane Hirshfield. Click back on the earlier posts for some of my reasons for this series.

Jane Hirshfield’s honors include The Poetry Center Book Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockerfeller Foundations, Columbia University’s translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award.

Her books have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T. S. Eliot Prize; they have been named best books of the year by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, and Financial Times; and they have won the the Poetry Center Book Award, and the Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. Hirshfield has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poems appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry, The New Republic, and eight editions of The Best American Poetry. She is a current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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