Just some misplaced Joan of Arc (strega) Sun 14 Nov 99 22:58
Jane, I've been thinking about "Women in Praise of the Sacred," and about how putting it together - chosing the works, getting to know them well, writing about them, and finally, feeling the whole uninterrupted thread take shape between your fingers - had to have had a significant impact on you as a woman, a wrinter, and a person with a spiritual practice. I know it would have left me changed. Since reading it, I've wondered how it affected you. I guess this is my chance to ask.
Indra Sinha (indra) Mon 15 Nov 99 00:44
>the trick seems to be to enter an alchemical attitude: to realize that >distraction is not distraction, but the eventual gold, only known now >in its primary state. A wonderfully perceptive remark! Itself pure gold. Thanks.
jane hirshfield (jh) Mon 15 Nov 99 09:04
THank *you*, Indra. Strega, it's interesting. "Women In Praise of the Sacred" for me was a little like the Japanese co-translation, "The Ink Dark Moon," in that in both cases the influence occurred before the books. The books came out of the ripening of that influence, rather than being the inception of it. But it's true that researching "Women" gave me a crash course in women's history that I hadn't had before, as well as in world religion. For me the most startling things were seeing so radically how virtually every woman in teh book had experienced some fracturing in her life, and that out of that breakage, often devastating, the person we know emerged. That was helpful to me, enormously, in my own relationship to the various fracturings in my own life. Even though one gets devastated all the same, some small part of the consciousness recalls that larger framework. And the second startling thing was finding out about the Beguines--what I now think of as the first women's movement, occurring in the 12th-14th century in Northern Europe. Then there were the occasional particular realizations--one I loved, because I had already begun writing about those lions we were speaking of above in my own poetry, was finding that association between the goddesses of abundance and their companions the lions. That gave me, again, a larger framework to understand something already a theme in my own unconscious. I think that is part of how poetry works in our lives, in general--some current already present in us meets an outer mirror, in someone else's poem, and it suddenly clarifies and magnifies.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 15 Nov 99 17:15
> was that silence a failure, or a gift? Oh Jane! That's so lovely!
carol adair (rubicon) Mon 15 Nov 99 21:23
So many things are both. That's really one of the knowledges poetry causes us to know. Speaking of translations, Jane, there is something that I've always wondered. Here, let me give you two poems from The Ink Dark Moon (Love Poems by Women of the Ancient Court of Japan): Shikibu Why haven't I thought of it before? This body, remembering yours, is the keepsake you left Komachi Those gifts you left have become my enemies: without them there might have been a moment's forgetting. I can feel such a difference between the two poets whose poems you translate here. Shikibu "feels" stronger, more muscular, more "used" by the world. As I read her poems, I can feel her humor and her power. Shikibu feels sadder, more fragile. (I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong. But they do feel different.) How did you manage to get the voice into these translated poems, so that they actually "sound" like different poets?
jane hirshfield (jh) Tue 16 Nov 99 13:08
Ummm, which of the above "Shikibu"s in your post ought to have been "Komachi"? I have my own sense of this, but don't want to interfere with finding out yours before I say anything. (For newcomers, the full names of the two poets are Ono no Komachi, who wrote around the year 850, at the beginning of the Japanese lyric tradition, and Izumi Shikibu, who wrote around the year 1000, at the height of the Classical era.)
carol adair (rubicon) Tue 16 Nov 99 21:20
Ah! I hate that! What I meant, of course, was that to me "Komachi" feels sadder, more fragile. But my exact reaction to these poets is not really the point. My point is that these two, in The Ink Dark Moon, have very different voices. I should think that "voice" would be hard to get into a translation and thus all short poems by long-ago and courtly Japanese women would sound much the same to us .... if they were all translated by the same Jane Hirshfield. However, I do hear a difference when I read them aloud. And I'm wondering if you worked to give each her own particular sound, if you knew enough about them to make their voices different, you know, as a playwright or novelist makes characters sound different. Would you also talk generally about the act of translating. What did you do to get this book together?
jane hirshfield (jh) Wed 17 Nov 99 09:48
Well, the translator (or I, when I translate, in any case) serves the poem at hand. If the voice of the particular poet comes through, the credit should go to the poet, not me--it means that her sensibility so infuses what she writes that it survives even the radical uprooting of actual words, actual sound-qualities, and comes over into the new language. I think in the case of Komachi and Shikibu, that is what you are seeing/hearing: the flavor of their sensibilities, the ways they encounter the world and their own emotional responses. For anyone who doesn't know The Ink Dark Moon, I must say right off that I'm only half a translator--not the best way at all, but the way this book had to be done. I know about Japanese poetry, about the Buddhist worldview that so suffuses these poems, about the realm of eros which equally suffuses them; I know some vocabulary, and some of the grammatical particularities of Japanese poetic technique. But I cannot read one character: the book had a co-translator, Mariko Aratani, to whom I was introduced by the Well's own <green> when she was editing the magazine Yellow Silk. She was doing a special issue on Asian themes, and called me to see if I had any work for the issue. I said I didn't, but that she ought to get some of the Heian era women poets' work for it. She asked me if I might do that, and I answered that I couldn't, not knowing Japanese. Then she offered to put me in contact with Mariko, her cousin by marriage, a native speaker of Japanese who came to this country when she was 27 and was a weaver and pianist. Mariko turned out to be an ideal collaborator. She got a copy of the Collected Poems, a scholarly annotated edition, which oddly enough contained both the poets I was interested in working on, and only those two. I had fallen in love with Komachi and her myth and the No plays about her when I was eighteen, studying Japanese literature in translation in college. And Shikibu is considered the greatest woman poet in the tradition. After doing a couple dozen poems together for Yellow Silk, we were both so happy with the project that there was no question about continuing on. I was sure I could find some publisher for the book, and did: Scribner's for the original hardback, and then Vintage Classics for the paperback, which is in something like its 14th or 15th printing now. We would go through the book together in once a week meetings, with Mariko giving me a sight translation and then, if the poem had any potential at all to work out in English, me writing down the Japanese words in our alphabet, and below each word the English possibilities, and any background cultural notes Mariko thought to give me. She was both thoroughly versed in what I needed to know and transparent enough that occasionally I would come back to her, after my week working with these notes, and propose that the poem might have a different meaning than she'd proposed; sometimes she would explain to me why that was wrong, but other times she would agree that I was right. The whole year we spent meeting and working this way, I felt as if I were headily in love--the poems were so extraordinary, such a field of discovery. (For anyone who wants a closer look at the process, there's an appendix on translation, giving some examples, in the back of the Vintage edition; and also a chapter about translation in my essay collection, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. In the essay I go into a number of different philosophies of translation and what it means to me in general, as well as talking about the particular problems/excitements of doing The Ink Dark Moon.) Basically, I feel as though what a translator must do is immerse herself so thoroughly in the original poem that she is steeped in its qualities--its images, sensibility, music. Then comes a moment when all that has to be let go, when everything vanishes, and the poem reemerges, through the translator, in the new language. Then, of course, one double and triple and quadruple checks that new poem; refines and tests and questions. Mariko and I did at least three major stages of review for the whole book, and I did many many drafts on my own along the way. Between us, I hope we made a whole, though I still think it would be better if I myself had known both languages. BUt I didn't, and it was a book I'd waited fifteen years fro someone else to do...
carol adair (rubicon) Wed 17 Nov 99 10:01
Well, thank you for taking on the task because I get to read their poems over and over. Sometimes one poem will spend a whole day in my mind. Has given me a place to go during faculty meetings. Kept my mouth shut on soming tasty instead of open in argument. Can you tell me what difference you see in the two? How are their characters different to you? How would you protray them if, say, you would write a play that contained them both?
jane hirshfield (jh) Wed 17 Nov 99 16:11
I am terribly bad at portraying character--one reason I write the kind of poem I do, and not plays, or fiction. But my view of the two is I think the mirror of yours--no doubt influenced by the No plays about Komachi I've also read, I see her as a fiercely proto-feminist woman, able to be both undone by desire and eros and utterly independent; sometimes filled with longing, other times virtually sarcastic in turning a man away from her door. According to the legends, when she grew too old to serve any longer at court, she went into the mountains outside of the city of Kyoto (then Heian- kyo) and lived as a half-wild crone, growing wise in the ways of Buddhism as well as poetry. She epitomizes connection to the natural, and a wisdom outside of convention. Shikibu has left us (probably just because she lived 150 years later) a much larger body of work, so we see more sides of her perhaps. Both women must have been immensely strong, both broke with convention in their youth and later, both developed artistic originality, emotional vulnerability, and sheer intelligence to an astonishing degree-- but Shikibu in the end seems to me somehow more integrated into the society she was part of. I hesitate to say frailer (both women show both frailty and strength in their work, and the exposure of the frailty is one sign of the strength), but as a simple example, she ended her life within the framework of the society, married, a student of the dharma; while Komachi in the stories ends her life a wild woman, and teacher to wandering priests who encounter her on the mountain pathways. The stories about Komachi actually differ, so one can pick the myth one likes: broken or whole, suffering or liberated. This abandoned house, shining in the mountain village-- how many nights has the autumn moon spent here. To me, that is a portrait of both wreckage and enlightenment. In its very complexity rests its triumph. In Shikibu's work, though, we find motherhood, humor, independence, fierce eros, dharmic understanding. I'm happy to have them both, to have learned from them both, at an early stage in my own life, some of the lineaments of human existence.
flying jenny (jenslobodin) Wed 17 Nov 99 20:23
Such an evocative description of the translating of these poems...
carol adair (rubicon) Wed 17 Nov 99 21:16
So I'll grab you here to ask if you found them possessing your own poetry while you were working with them? And can you find traces of them in your own creativity these years later?
jane hirshfield (jh) Thu 18 Nov 99 09:15
I think the influence came long before the translation--the influence came when I first fell in love with the few poems I read when I was 18, that led me to do the translation 15 years later. The feeling of a compressed image capturing a single gesture of the heart's turning affected me immensely as a young poet. While I was doing the translation, though, I resisted as much as I could having it influence my work--for instance, I've never written in the tanka form myself. It would be too easy to enter their strategies, but I am the product of a different time, and the hybrid product of multiple poetic traditions, and for me to work too closely to the way they worked, much as I love it, would be a lie of a kind. So yes, the influence is there, but in subterranean ways. The one very clear effect that doing the translation had on my work was a liberation from attachment to the first draft. In translating, you try many different solutions, you play with word choice, order, grammatical voice. Some of that spirit entered the process of my own writing, and made me a much more joyous reviser of my own poems. (Let me add here a technical point: trying different grammatical voices is something that comes up in translating from the Japanese because many of the poems aren't placed in first person, second person, third person at all. But in English, they have to be most of the time. So to choose a voice for the poem, in the grammatical sense, isn't taking a liberty, it's just something that needs to be done. The same is true of choosing articles: definite article "the", indefinite article "a," no article--all are possibilities the translator must entertain. Doing that, you notice what a strong effect changing an article has upon meaning. This is a lesson I've taken with me, and tried to pass on to students, ever since: the immense power of very small changes.)
carol adair (rubicon) Thu 18 Nov 99 10:39
"the immense power of very small changes" So (no surprise to those of us who sweat at the desks!) it's not just inspiration alone! The great attention to detail required of a translator is, perhaps, also required of an artist. Some of my students object that such attention is not natural, is artificial. They want to just let it flow naturally. I tell them that art is artificial. And, of course, that makes them mad at me. In Nine Gates , you write that the artificial nature of poetry allows one to tell or hear a deeper truth. I'm thinking of the way a poem is not natural language. You write that poetry "looks different on a page" to give the reader "instructions to enter the changed consciousness that poetry asks." Can we discuss the craft side of poetry? Especially of your poetry?
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 18 Nov 99 14:43
This is a fascinating discussion and exploration of your work, Jane, and Carol you are doing a fabulous job of asking questions I would never have known to ask, so I almost hesitate to interrupt this glorious flow to ask for some clarification so that I can understand better: what is the tanka style you referred to in your last post, Jane?
carol adair (rubicon) Thu 18 Nov 99 17:08
Linda! Please ask. I welcome and encourage anyone to chime in any time. I'd love to hear other questions. And thank you, Linda for your kindness.
jane hirshfield (jh) Thu 18 Nov 99 19:32
Yes, Linda--not an interruption, a useful question. "Tanka" is the name for the basic form Japanese poetry was written in from the seventh century until the addition of the better-known haiku form a thousand years later--the form is also sometimes referred to as a "waka". It consists of five "lines" of poetry, written in measures of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 7 syllables. Rhyme in the usual sense is not present, though the sound qualities of the words does matter. This thirty-one syllable poem is translated freely in my versions: I kept the five lines, but not the syllable counts, since English and Japanese "use" syllables at rather different rates. Carol, my response to your students' comment was instantly to think, "Not natural? Lordy, *life* demands a concentrated attention, let alone art." When I turned to sitting zazen, it wasn't so much to learn to pay attention to my writing (though that was one thing that happened), it was to learn to pay attention to existence. And that is also, I think, one effect that comes to our lives through our relationship to art, both the art we may make and the art we receive from others--by participating in the concentration of art, we learn to bring that kind of attention to our daily lives. We do, of course, sleepwalk through many of our hours and days, even years. But I wouldn't say that's something to hold up as a desirable thing. To be fully human is hard work, but part of being human seems to be liking to do hard work, it it's real work, worth doing. So sure, let's talk about craft. Poetry is art, is artifice, is *made* as well as inspired. I love getting down in the trenches--like those tours they give, I hear, in Paris, of "underground Paris." The waterpipes and sewers, the foundations of the buildings, the vaults filled with bones. Yeats's rag and bone shop was a reference to the psyche, but there's also the rebar and mortar shop to be acknowledged.
carol adair (rubicon) Thu 18 Nov 99 21:26
Can you start with lining? Lining is a big puzzle in this house.
carol adair (rubicon) Thu 18 Nov 99 21:37
I'm still laughing at your waterpipe and sewer picture there!
jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 19 Nov 99 09:22
Glad you liked it! Line length in free verse is probably an abiding mystery to all of us. And yet, one gets a feeling when it's right or when it's wrong for any particular poem. Poets definitely use line differently from one another. Philip Levine likes very regular line-lengths, no doubt the residue of his early use of syllabics (making every line of a poem the same length). Galway Kinnell's lines, from the beginning, are highly irregular and Whitmanesque. I think each of develops an early prediliction for how we use the line, which might then change some over a lifetime. I know mine has. But my relationship to it has remained the same: I see it as a kind of hybrid cue to both ear and eye. A line break sets up a certain unit of words as functioning together, but not necessarily an audible pause. For the pauses and flows, I rely on my punctuation and the reader's sense of natural spoken phrasing. So line break draws attention to certain subterranean rhythms, sometimes smoothing a poem, sometimes roughing up its surface; but for me it signals to the mind more than to the ear. For people who have difficulty parsing free verse poems at all, I always suggest that they read it aloud, ignoring the line breaks. Follow the punctuation and the meaning first. For most poets' work, the sense of the thing will step forward that way, by letting the ear lead. The pleasures of the line break are more subtle. I see them as a kind of counterpoint, though definitely an additional dollop of meaning and aesthetic pleasure. Like a jazz drummer, they sometimes work with the other elements of the poem, sometimes tug interestingly against them. I always feel a great certainty about a finished poem's line breaks, though it may be that no one else could "justify" them. The shape of the poem on the page as a whole signals something about it: its speaking voice, its way of evenness or crescendo, the nature of its mind. But I think that in reading any particular poet, first we have to let the poet instruct us in his or her own particular use of the line; then we can enjoy the understanding of line use that they've set up.
carol adair (rubicon) Sun 21 Nov 99 16:23
quick note: Free verse: "rhythmical lines varying in length, adhering to no fixed metrical pattern, and usually unrhymed. The pattern is often largely based on repetition and parallel grammatical structure" (Burto, A dictionary of Literary, Dramatic and Cinematic Terms)
carol adair (rubicon) Sun 21 Nov 99 16:30
What a wonderful answer Jane. Thank you. You really give me something to say to those who charge that free verse is no more than strangely lined prose. I think readers, as well as writers, have early predilections for how a poem looks on the page. When I was a little girl,for example, I didn't want anything to do with "skinny" poems. I liked the long, fat kind with story and sentiment and big tones. I liked poems that filled a page as does Noyes' - The Highwayman - "The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. The road was a ribbon of moonlight ovr the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding - Riding - riding The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door. ...." Or poems that made a large noise as in Kipling's - If - "If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you: If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you But make allowance for their doubting too; ...." I only liked the big ones until I found Rosalie Moore's, Catalog. Do you remember that? "Cats sleep fat and walk thin. Cats, when they sleep, slump; When they wake, pull in -- ...." It still can make me laugh.
carol adair (rubicon) Sun 21 Nov 99 16:31
And thinking this way makes me want to ask you what were your favorite poems when you were very young. But before I do, I want to finish our talk of technique - of craft. Which of the technical poetic elements, especially which of the elements of sound (rhyme, rhythm, etc) interests you most right now? How does sound play in your poetry?
Judy Bunce (judyb) Sun 21 Nov 99 18:00
I just want to pop in here to say how much I'm enjoying this online interview. Thank you Jane and Carol -- it's obvious that you're both putting a lot of time and energy into creating something for our pleasure.
jane hirshfield (jh) Sun 21 Nov 99 18:44
Thank you very much, judy! It is nice to know that there are some listeners, and anyone reading this should feel free to ask a question, offer an opinion, whatever. Carol, your question interests me because it reminds me how sometimes the poem emerges from one set of energies, sometimes from another. The technical elements of poetry are essential, integral, fascinating, exhilarating to me-- but they don't drive my writing. The poem comes forward as words, rhythms, sounds, a mysterious arrival I then work with; but no technical element is something that I might be particularly "interested" in in an abstract sense at any given time. Even when the techniques of my poems have shifted (say, when I began using stanza breaks after a long time of mostly not having any), it's more something I notice after the fact: "Oh, isn't that interesting, I've started writing poems that think with stanza breaks." Rather than, "I think I'd like to explore the stanza break for a while." If anything like that does happen, it is more in the level of cognitive terrain; somewhere along the line I notice I've begun to write about the heart, or lions, or objects, or the idea of the self as being composed of many selves... and I get conscious enough to be interested in that as a driving phenomenon of my work. But even then, there's always a receptive quality to the interest. It's not an act of will, but an act of inner listening. "Will another poem with a lion in it arrive?" "Will there be any more objects?" For me, poem-making is always a very mysterious collaboration of conscious and unconscious perception; of listening and making; of active curiosity and total surrender. And for me, the receptive part is the stronger.
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