Jane Hirshfield (jh) Sun 26 Feb 06 13:40
(My last answer was of course addressing Brian's post, not Mary's.) I think what you're raising, Mary, is just enormously interesting. Was it Oscar Wilde who said of English that it is one language in which two great peoples fail to comprehend one another? I wouldn't have known, by the way, that sidewalk and pavement were US/UK divergences, though I do know about "truck" and "lorrie," and about "trunk" and "boot." And this after two different trips to the UK in the last year because of the selected poems having come out there. It worried me especially when I was asked to teach some master classes in the UK--a term they use where we might use "workshop." How could I evaluate people's poems when I wouldn't know the local phrasings as thoroughly as is needed to read poems well? (That's where your point is so acute: one thinks one knows English, so is more prone to error of nuance and usage.) So far it's seemed to have worked out, though there was one good moment at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this last November when I said I couldn't tell if the poem's reference to "rock" meant stones, recorded music, or cocaine. This particular masterclass was held on stage, in front of close to 200 people, and they all broke into laughter. Apparently it is the local form of candy. For my own poems, Bloodaxe (my United Kingdom publisher, which has a rich international poetry list and is named after the Earl of Bloodaxe, earliest patron of poetry in Northumbria) chose not to Anglicize the poems except for reversing the spellings (used oppositely here and there) of words ending with "ice" and "ise" (and perhaps sometimes "ize"?). That they insisted upon doing, including changing my spelling of the word "practice" to "practise," which is a form I've never used. I actually prefer some of their punctuation conventions: they put the punctuation of commas and periods outside the quotes, which makes sense to me; we only do that with semi-colons for some reason. But the editor wanted to leave the American poet sounding and looking American, a decision I both understand and appreciate. May I add something else about Bloodaxe which brought me great pleasure? They send all their authors a sheet which includes, among other information, the name of the plantation in Portugal that their paper is sustainably grown on, how many animals of various kinds also graze the plantation, how much honey is harvested from it, etc. (The selected poems is not available in the US, I should add: HarperCollins has North American rights.)
Tiffany Lee Brown (magdalen) Sun 26 Feb 06 16:48
jane, i'd like to ask you a fairly pedestrian sort of interview question. who, if anyone, has been a mentor to you over the years? if you have had mentors, can you talk to us about the process of breaking with them and going your own way?
posting again for Karolina (bumbaugh) Sun 26 Feb 06 17:45
(I was supposed to post this poem before, too, I think. Written after Jane's reading on Thursday. --Bruce ) A Beautiful Being floated into the room, smiled, looked gently around, smiled again, and began reading -her voice soft yet strong filled the room. Thousands of books that quietly listened from their shelves and our hearts and minds were the fortunate witnesses of our passing pleasure which now has transformed into a pleasant memory. Regards, Karo
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Sun 26 Feb 06 18:31
(Thank you, Bruce, and Karolina) Tiffany, I've never had a mentor in the usual sense. Czeslaw Milosz was my great hero and exemplar, but he never directly taught me in any formal or even informal way, and certainly never looked over my poems with me or made anything more than the briefest comments about my work--he translated two poems, put something of mine in his anthology, he recommended to his own Polish publisher that they should do a book. He asked me to write a poem for his wife, when she died. The request came back again, from within, when he himself died. That elegy is in the new book as well; they're side by side, recognizable if you know but not explicitly identified. (It is what he wanted for others, and what my muse seemed sure he would want for himself--to be recorded, however inadequately.) Does any of this make him my mentor? I think that would be overstatement, and an unearned claim, though he was as important a figure in my adult life as there's been. Theodore Weiss was my poetry teacher as an undergraduate, and another exemplary person showing me what a path in poetry looks like, but also not a mentor, as I understand that relationship--a deeply intimate and direct tutoring, whether in life or in poems. What I've learned from all those I've learned from (and that number would be both large and hybrid in nature, and includes the dead equally with the living) has been not without intensity, but from a greater distance than mentor/student. And so, never having been quite that deeply entwined in a single, other person's modes, I've never had to break with them. It's not unlike something I said earlier here, that for me life itself is the teacher-- I tend to take my instructions broadly. I tend also to counterbalance my own native timidities with a certain balkiness before the advice of others. I want to figure things out for myself, and it seems have always been that way, even when I've also been thirsty to learn what's there to be learned. So William Matthews once said something to me about a poem (I was in a workshop that had a number of visiting poets come guest-teach-- perfect for me) that I only recognized to be right two years after he said it. It remained, percolating, all that time, until I could come to see it for myself, not just take his word.
Tiffany Lee Brown (magdalen) Sun 26 Feb 06 19:10
that's a great answer. thanks, jane. i've always felt sort of envious of these tight mentor/mentee relationships i imagine tons of writers having, while in reality there may be very few who establish such relationships.
Michael Gruber (mag) Sun 26 Feb 06 20:30
Following up on the celebrity idea. Famous poets are, in this country at least, never _famous_ famous. That's reserved for performers, but I suppose there is one class of people who are both poets of a type and performers, and these are the singer-songwriters that invented rock music. It strikes me that what they do is closer to what poetry started out as, back in the archaic time, and what it briefly became again in early modern Europe, and what it still is in parts of Asia and Africa: ecstatic and popular, which typical printed poetry is not. My questions: why do you think we have two separate kinds of poetry? And do rock lyrics ever rise to the level of what you would consider poetry? And did you ever want to write songs for music?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 27 Feb 06 13:38
I think we probably have two hundred kinds of poetry--nursery rhymes, hymns, skipping-rope chants, inauguration poems, advertising jingles (RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD is a rare double spondee, composed by the great Beat poet Lew Welch during his day job), the private murmur of lyric grief, the public grief of Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," John Lennon's "Imagine," any number of great songs by Dylan or [fill in anyone here, from Otis Redding to Carole King to the woman I met who wrote "You're Still the One"--apparently one of the most chosen songs ever for weddings and anniversaries]. It's all poetry, so far as I'm concerned. Poetry is a big house, with rooms for anyone who wants to move in. (continued next post)
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 27 Feb 06 13:52
The heated debates that sometimes occur about "what is poetry" come when by poetry a person means a certain experience, a certain relationship to meaning, and not just the most wide-embracing definitions, which might be something like "speech made memorable by certain devices of meaning and sound." When I myself write about poetry, I usually mean something a bit less capacious, more intense, subtle, and awakening. Within that smaller circle of definition, I do think certain song lyrics can also be poetry. The sung is, as you say, at the root of poetry's inception. It's as if the river gave birth to tributaries, rather than vice versa, and words married to music are the river, the ur-source, which has now spread out into many different rivulets and streams and underground aquifers and puddles--all of which, in the most generous sense, are poems. Why not? It's interesting--so much misunderstanding arises out of unexamined definitions in the back of the mind, or unexpressed ones. Maybe poetry is, again going back to the infamous urinal, anything that wants to call itself poetry. The stretch to make that urinal art is the artwork, not the object, which without the mind is just a batch of fired and glazed clay, not even a place designated for pissing into.
Joe Flower (bbear) Mon 27 Feb 06 18:31
The book we are discussing, Jane's "After," showed up today on the Chronicle's fiction best-seller list (there is only fiction and non-fiction) at #9 today, and unusual place for a book of poetry. So congratulations. But to get at this question of definitions from another angle, Jane: In this collection you did something I don't recall your doing before. You had pieces that are defined more narrowly (or at least differently) than just "poems." One group you referred to as "assays," and another group "pebbles." Clearly the "assays" are aimed at laying out a subject, assessing its components, its relative values and such. And the "pebbles" are tiny things. But could you tell us a bit more about how you came to establish these different categories, how they showed up for you, what they mean for you and your work?
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Mon 27 Feb 06 18:44
Waaay back there, some discussion about how language shapes our view of the world -- Linda Hogan was here a couple of weeks ago, and spoke (among other things) of the Navajo use of verbs. She says that English is a 'noun' language, where Navajo is a 'verb' language -- and that this leads to very different perceptions. And perhaps priorities -- though she did not say that -- & perhaps the concept itself would make no sense in Navajo. Just one more comment on language, of a sort -- the poems I tend to respond to most strongly, at this time of my life, are spare. Yours, Jane, and Linda's -- John Haines -- I've always imagined him writing a poem, and then spending several years taking words out. This new book of yours feels very like that to me. Very essential.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 27 Feb 06 20:19
First, spareness... one of the small ironies of the book is that the poem which is titled "To Spareness" is one of the longer poems... I have always loved small poems that carry large cargo. Haiku (seventeen syllables) and tanka (thirty-one syllables) and the sonnet (a mere fourteen lines) set my sense of the lyric from early on. Compression for me is one of the signals of intensity, and I go to poetry to know life more intensely. Some of it may also be temperament and mood. There are times when only a Whitmanesque largeness will fit what is needed, times when only the most stripped down language feels right, but I do though, like you Sharon, lean toward leanness, particularly in times of difficulty. Some poets have intense spareness inside longer poems... Anne Carson can be like that, and Susan Stewart. A line or phrase leaps out in its own independence, a bright shard of glass.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 27 Feb 06 20:34
To take up Joe's invitation, there's some connection to spareness in what you've mentioned. The pebbles are very short poems, with a particular feeling to them--a recalcitrance, something left for the reader to finish. Not riddles, not jokes, but they need the person taking them in to do some interior work to complete them. As if the poem were 2 + 2, and leaves it to you to draw the conclusion, 4. They ask you to make a connection or to have a response. The assays (the word comes from chemistry and mining, as well as being a cognate of "essay") attempt to look at their subjects with a kind of imaginative analysis of their "parts." They are mostly longer, and often meander a bit. They could have been called "meditative lyrics," but assay has a sharpness and objectivity to it I like. Some of them are odes--they talk to their subjects. The pebbles and assays are two sides of one gesture I think--each looks outward, but with the full self behind that looking. Novalis said, "you spend the first half of a life looking inward, the second half outward." I think that occurs in these poems more than a little--they face things (gravel, the sky, small particles of language like "to" "and" and "of") or human experiences (judgment, opinion-holding, speech) and try to offer some imaginative parsing of these things' nature. The pebbles do the same thing, but in the time of a single flashbulb going off: one take. But often, one swift take of something that is actually rather complex... lovers' power over one another, exercised or not; how anyone can fail to acknowledge global warming; how the absence of time might be conceived. So many of the assays are complicated explorations of a single thing, and many of the pebbles are simple presentations of a complex thing. One example of a pebble, one that is only one sentence-- *** Sentence The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to. *** That's an observation true enough of the literal horse, whose bones do not diminish with hunger, but when I wrote it, I was feeling my way towards another level as well. We ourselves, born into largeness of soul, may not be brought by our lives to the full expression of that largeness, yet its possibility does not leave us, and we do not leave it. The title's pun was intended--the poem is a single sentence, in the grammatical sense, but the "sentence" of a horse's or person's fate was also meant.
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 27 Feb 06 21:42
I love the pun in that poem, Jane. I'm particularly found of poetry that takes on multiple meanings. Are you pleased when you find ambiguity in one of your poems, and do you ever find multiple meanings you did not consciously recognize when you were first writing the poem?
Andrew Alden (alden) Tue 28 Feb 06 08:21
Whitman was not always so prolix, either. A number of his little pieces he called "says."
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Tue 28 Feb 06 21:12
I am, Mary, always very pleased to discover that one of my poems is smarter than I am, especially in that way. It is one of the reasons to write: it raises us beyond our own capacities. (Sometimes of course it goes the other way, and a poem has some alternative reading I wouldn't have thought of and wouldn't *want* thought of either...) And yes, Whitman's short pieces are a great reminder, thank you Alden. He is also one of the ones we excerpt smaller pieces out of the larger, lines, or small sections of larger poems that have become free-standing in the culture's mind. "I think I will go and live with the animals..." is one I think of all the time, when I find myself in the complaining mode. A great poem can be an antidote to petty mind, to sleepiness, to irritation, as well as to grief. (My apologies for being relatively late in getting here today. I am coordinating a Memorial Celebration for Czeslaw Milosz, to be held April 2 at the SF Main Public Library (1-3 pm, Koret auditorium), and I've never organized anything before in my life. It should though be a splendid event-- it seemed terrible to me that we'd had no memorial for him here in the Bay Area, where he lived for most of the last 40 years of his life.)
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 28 Feb 06 21:34
What a fine thing to be organizing.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Wed 1 Mar 06 14:37
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Joe Flower (bbear) Wed 1 Mar 06 16:26
Very interesting, Jane. I love insights that have the feeling of a well-crafted hand tool. You have said something in two different ways about why you write: >I go to poetry to know life more intensely. >one of the reasons to write: it raises us beyond our own capacities. It strikes me that this is different from the what we would normally assume is the "purpose" of art. I think the normal assumption would be that the artist's purpose - what the artist is attempting - is to create beauty. The drive, that is, is essentially aesthetic, the same drive that allows us to appreciate a sunset. You seem to be saying that the drive, for you, is not essentially aesthetic, but exploratory, almost scientific, as if poetry, the act of writing, were, for you, an engine of discovery, of hypothesis and experiment, as if language, and the connecting rods, pistons, and detonation chambers of poetry were for you a laboratory of discovery on the path to the guts of things, the GUTs, some Grand Unified Theory of everything. Expatiate, please. [note to self: never compose posts to an interview topic while drinking an amazing Chilean shiraz in a lodge in the Sierra that happens to have WiFi after a long day of exhilharating and terrifying skiing.]
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Wed 1 Mar 06 16:50
[note to Joe: *especially* when you generally live at sea level] I would say, exploratory, almost spiritual ...
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Wed 1 Mar 06 18:21
Joe, drink on, ski on, if the post above is the effect. You know, my reaction when I read the proposal that a person might make art in order to "create beauty" was genuine astonishment. It seems a realistic statement if I stop and think about it; it seems something an artist might plausibly intend to do. But I swear, it's never in my life crossed my mind that my hope or goal or intention as a poet would be the creation of beauty. "Create beauty? How on earth could a mere person do that," was my first thought. The beauty is there, we just stumble into it as a sign, as the inevitable accompaniment of luring into words some meaning/music worth the luring. And then, as I pondered this further, I thought: Keats. His famous line, which suddenly leaps from something so overfamiliar one can hardly hear it without backing away in the mind, the cliche bell ringing. Suddenly I heard it and thought, This, which we are talking about right now, must be what he meant. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Oh. The thought of aiming at beauty also feels a hubris, in its literal Greek meaning: a missing of the mark. A vanity as well, somehow. Yet I do think that truths, provisional though they are, and especially truths in the arts, but also other kinds, are recognized by their beauty. The way mathematicians call certain proofs "elegant," the way Occam's razor functions in explanation. It is perhaps one difference between what we might call "fact" and what we might call "truth." "Rings true," we say, of certain objects or thoughts. As if the heart were iron struck by iron, just right. I'd like to take both Joe's and Sharon's categorizations, actually. Is writing for me an exploration more like doing science, or is it a spiritual investigation? For me they aren't particularly separate. Zen is very much an experimental spiritual path, in which your life is the laboratory in which both beliefs, practices, actions, choices are tested. "See for yourself," Shakyamuni told his disciples, when they wept at his deathbed. Someone in a note described the assays to me as "interrogations." I thought that was perfect.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 2 Mar 06 10:28
That leads to another question. Do you see yourself as a teacher, in your words?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Thu 2 Mar 06 12:28
I think you are asking if I think my poems teach? (I of course teach in the regular sense--most poets do, it is part of earning keep.) It's interesting to me how much I wobble over that word, when it comes to art. The Roman poet Horace wrote that good poems should "delight and instruct." Yet how much a person pulls back from the thought of heavy-handed instruction. Maybe good poems carry something unlearnable in any other way, and less by overt instruction than by seduction? But whether or not my own poems do, that's not for me to say. Again, as with the question of "making beauty," to instruct certainly isn't my intention. My feeling is closer to that of student when I write, my hope, to learn something new.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 2 Mar 06 12:51
Sorry for the sloppy phrase... should have typed "with your words" but you read it correctly. It seems to me that learning often also teaches. I guess the only way to know what your poems do when they go out into the world is for people to make an effort to tell you, and yet one of the satisfying things about books is that printed pages don't make those demands on the reader. So that mystery remains. By the way... a poem of yours is on the street in SF someplace, right? Where would we go to find that? I keep thinking of it when I am around the city taking photos.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Thu 2 Mar 06 15:06
Oh, how embarrassing--yes, a poem of mine is on a brass plaque somewhere along the Embarcadero, at a Muni Stop, and someone on the Well kindly found the location for me once. But I've never visited it in person, and I no longer remember where it is. (And people do from time to time tell me things about my poems' effects on their lives--especially just now, I am getting a number of letters--but it would be bad form to go repeating such things in public, even anonymously, I think. Though I agree with you, one of the best things about books is that you DON'T have a responsibility to respond to anyone besides yourself. I get twingy is someone is reading my poems in my presence: a fierce desire to be elsewhere. That is a *private* moment I shouldn't be intruding upon.
Joe Flower (bbear) Thu 2 Mar 06 16:25
Same bar. Snowed in. Passes closed. The snow blowing horizontally, sometimes in spiral snow devils, sometimes whiting out the scene out the window. Hot toddies by the fire. "See for yourself." Exactly. There is something about a powerful poem that seems, oddly perhaps, testable. As if there were a hypothesis, a recipe for experiment, that we as readers line up against our own experience, and say, "Aha!" say "yes." Or respond with a moment of the sensation you talked about before - "a-wa-re." It works or it doesn't. I honor <sbmontana>s preference for "spiritual" over scientific. But I hold with Jane's thought that there is not that much difference. There is only one world, and we explore it every way we can. There is a warrior-like ferocity in Jane's exploration, the warrior "taking the line," the sword marking the line of "ki" to the heart of things. A friend just came in the bar. Got a merlot. I showed him the book. The second one he read, on my recommendation, was "The Bell Zygmunt." He said it was both powerful and concrete for him. He compared it at first to Donne's line, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . ." but then thought again of the Zen practice of ringing the bowl, and following the sound into the silence. The poem feels, to this reader, like an invitation to the warrior's clarity of purpose: We will go directly and with open eyes into the self unarmed.
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