Jane Hirshfield’s work has been called “passionate and radiant” by The New York Times. Her poetry is an extension of a life both lived and examined, and her carefully crafted poems range from elegiac to joyful, reflective to restive. “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,” she says. “Everything I am and know and have lived goes into a poem.”
Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Come, Thief (2011) and After (shortlisted for England’s T.S. Eliot Prize and named a “best book of 2006” by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the London Financial Times). Of Given Sugar, Given Salt, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, W.S. Merwin says, “These are poems of space, air and a remarkable precision of observation and revealed feeling.” The Antioch Review praises her ability to “renew [and] reaffirm the power of language to move deeply, to articulate experience precisely. She doesn’t try to discard the tradition, but to draw from it and extend it. Her poems are meant to endure.”
As a young adult, before becoming a writer, translator, Hirshfield spent eight years in full-time Zen Buddhist practice; that experience, and her ongoing Buddhist practice, has had profound effects on her work. Meticulously crafted, layered with complexity but seeking clarity and awareness, her poems offer graceful and deliberate observations of both the natural world and the emotional world. Hirshfield edited and co-translated three poetry anthologies focusing on women’s spiritual lives, including The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Komachi & Shibibu. Her volume of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, in Robert Pinsky’s words, “approaches the poem in a way that feels exactly right to me: plainly, reverently, intelligently.”
Hirshfield’s many honors include fellowships from The Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and the NEA. She has taught widely, served as guest poet at universities and conferences across the country, and was featured on NPR as well as in two Bill Moyers PBS specials. She makes her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Poetry Center Reading:
Video: Poetry Reading by Jane Hirshfield
In a Net of Blue and Gold
When the moored boat lifts, for its moment,
out of the water like a small cloud-
this is when I understand.
It floats there, defying the stillness to break,
its white hull doubled on the surface smooth as glass.
A minor miracle, utterly purposeless.
Even the bird on the bow-line takes it in stride,
barely shifting his weight before resuming
whatever musing it is birds do;
and the fish continue their placid, midday
truce with the world, suspended a few feet below.
I catch their gleam, the jeweled, reflecting scales,
small dragons guarding common enough treasure.
And wonder how, bound to each other as we are
in a net of blue and gold,
we fail so often, in such ordinary ways.
From OF GRAVITY AND ANGELS (Wesleyan University Press, 1988)
I was tired,
half sleeping in the sun.
A single bee
delved the lavender nearby,
and beyond the fence,
a trowel’s shoulder knocked a white stone.
Soon, the ringing stopped.
And from somewhere,
a quiet voice said the one word.
Surely a command,
though it seemed more a question,
a wondering perhaps-“What about joy?”
So long had it been forgotten,
even the thought raised surprise.
But however briefly, there,
in the untuned devotions of bee
and the lavender fragrance,
the murmur of better and worse was unimportant.
From next door, the sound of raking,
and neither courage nor cowardice mattered.
Failure – uncountable failure – did not matter.
Soon enough that gate swung closed,
the world turned back to heart-salt
of wanting, heart-salts of will and grief.
My friend would continue dying, at last
only exhausted, even his wrists thinned with pain.
The river Suffering would take what it
wished of him, then go. And I would stay
and drink on, as the living do, until the rest
would enter into that water-the lavender swept in,
the bee, the swallowed labors of my neighbor.
The ordinary moment swept in, whatever it drowsily holds.
I begin to believe the only sin is distance, refusal.
All others stemming from this. Then, come.
Rivers, come. Irrevocable futures, come. Come even joy.
Even now, even here, and though it vanish like him.
From THE LIVES OF THE HEART (Perennial, 1997)
You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust.
Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table.
There are honeys so bitter
no one would willingly choose to take them.
The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity,
honey of cruelty, fear.
This rebus-slip and stubbornness,
bottom of river, my own consumed life-
when will I learn to read it
plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire?
Not to understand it, only to see.
As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues,
this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.
The ladder leans into its darkness.
The anvil leans into its silence.
The cup sits empty.
How can I enter this question the clay has asked?
From GIVEN SUGAR, GIVEN SALT (2001)