Home > Conversations > Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield
Published: Sat Jul 1 2006
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Bañando en Tiron / Bathing on Holy Saturday (detail), 2017, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2006 On Poetry Writing Process Travel
Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield is the author of six books of poetry, most recently After (HarperCollins, 2006), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. Her work also includes a book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997), and she has edited and translated The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) and Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). About her work, the poet Rosanna Warren has said: “Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield’s poems clear a space for reflection and change.” Hirshfield has received The Poetry Center Book Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, Columbia University’s Translation Center Award, and the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal. In the fall 2004, she was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets. She has taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, and Bennington College. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where we interviewed her at her home overlooking her garden and the bay.

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler: You have devoted your life to both the practice of poetry and the practice of Zen Buddhism. How did these two strands come to define who you are?

Jane Hirshfield: One answer: early on in my life I read Horace, Thoreau, Japanese and Chinese classical poetry, “The Four Quartets,” and Whitman. Another answer: I came to California in 1974 in a red Dodge van with yellow tied-dyed curtains, looking for a place to live and for what I thought might be a waitressing job that could support me while I wrote. But on the way, I took a detour. I was curious about Zen and knew there was a monastery, Tassajara, in the Ventana Wilderness inland from Big Sur. Because it was the summer guest season rather than the stricter winter practice period time, I was able to drive in over the rather perilous 14-mile dirt road and stay for a week as a “guest student.” I then went on to similar weeks at each of the two related practice places in the same lineage, one in San Francisco and the other in Muir Beach. I decided to stay a few months, until I understood what Buddhism was all about. After a few months, what you understand is that you know nothing about what Buddhism is all about. I became a full-time Zen student for eight years, three of them in monastic practice. I think of this time as the diamond at the center of my life. Whoever I now am came out of that experience.

In Buddhism, unlike Catholicism, leaving a monastery is not a failure or a rejection. A monastery is a training place, and one of the traditional models for Zen practice is to go back into the ordinary world and ordinary life. There’s a famous series of images, “The Ten Ox-Herding Paintings” which depict the course of understanding as a passage through difficulty, impossibility, and the extraordinary, until the ordinary marketplace is reached again at the end. This model of intensive training and return is one of the things I liked about Zen from the beginning, and that the “spiritual” isn’t something available only to specialists, but something more like water—ubiquitous. Going back to regular life was what I always thought I would do. As it turned out, poetry was still waiting for me when I emerged.

A central teaching of Buddhism is that nothing lasts. Not love, not monasteries, not life itself. But in any case, no one enters a Zen monastery for life, not even those who become priests. It’s a training situation, a time to practice intensely, without distraction, to learn the flavor of undisturbed concentration.

IK and KT: Was writing a part of your life while you were in the monastery?

JH: During the years I was at Tassajara, I wasn’t a writer, I was a monk. Everything was very strict and very simple. We were told, “Do nothing but practice Zen,” and I wrote one haiku during that three years’ time. Yet when I returned to poetry, a rather different person in many ways, I brought with me two things particularly useful to any writer: the monastic model of non-distraction and silence, and the desire to call forward a complete attention. The ability to stay in the moment, to investigate it through my own body and mind, was what I most needed to learn at that point in my life. To stay within my own experience more fearlessly. I think that’s why I needed to practice Zen, rather than go to graduate school. You cannot write until you know how to inhabit your own experience.

I do want to make clear that I’m not among those who think M.F.A. programs are somehow bad or injurious for a young writer. It’s just that for me, it would have been too much a continuation. I needed to be shaken out of my life’s habitual forms and means, and I wanted an expanded field of knowing. Some of this was at the level of the physiological. I grew up on the lower east side of New York City; Tassajara is in the middle of a wilderness. There was no electricity, no heat. There were plastic windows in winter, screens in summer, only cold water in the sinks, kerosene lamps for light. To live so fundamentally, close to the way human beings have lived through most of our development, was transformational and restorative. It grounded me in ways our ordinary culture could not have done. Zazen meditation also teaches you how to be with whatever comes up inside you, to not be afraid of it or run from it. Sitting through that many hours of meditation, you discover that it’s possible to stay with whatever is going on. These are skills useful as well for someone who wants to write poems.

IK and KT: What was your daily life like in the monastery?

JH: The wake-up bell rings at 3:30 in the morning. I would always get up a little earlier to make a cup of coffee before zazen, which starts at 4:00. Other people made macha, the powdered green tea used in tea ceremony, or just slept as long as they could, but I always made a cup of coffee. This was, and still is, my great morning luxury. I had an alcohol stove, and I got very good at knowing just how much alcohol to pour into the aluminum bowl to get the water to boil: just as the water boiled, the fuel was used up and flared out. It made a lovely blue light in the room.

The regular daily schedule in those years was two 40-minute periods of zazen meditation, with ten minutes of walking meditation in between, morning service, breakfast in the zendo (the meditation hall), study hall, another period of meditation or sometimes a lecture, a brief work period, and then lunch, again in the zendo. Meals in a zen monastery are taken in silence, in a stylized form of eating not unlike tea ceremony, called oryoki, in which every gesture is mindful and has its choreographed form. The purpose of monastic life, in any tradition, is to make every moment equally part of the central intention—even unscheduled time is not “time off.” Where could you go off to, when your life is the field of practice? In the afternoon there was another work period, bathtime, and then evening service, dinner in the meditation hall, two more periods of meditation, and bed.

At times during each three-month training periods, we would instead get up at 2:30 in the morning and stay in the zendo virtually continuously, until maybe 10:30 or 11 or midnight. Sesshin, as this is called, goes on for a week. But even during the regular schedule, you would spend a great deal of time in silence. During the work periods, you aren’t supposed to chat, just pay attention to your work. Whatever you are doing, that is where your consciousness resides. Of course, this is a very idealized description. Everybody gets distracted, and everybody brings into a monastery whatever person they were the moment before they stepped through the gate. But everything about the schedule and the practice and the other 40 or 50 people who are there reminds you why you decided to enter that gate, so that when you forget, you are called back to this moment: reminded to notice, to pay attention to whether there is a feeling of separation or inhabitance and intimacy between you and what you’re doing.

IK and KT: Did you think about writing during those years?

JH: If I had wanted to write, I would have been off somewhere writing. I wanted to do what I was doing. I think I knew at some level that I wouldn’t be much of a writer in any case if I didn’t do this. There were some things about being a human being I needed to learn before I could move forward with anything else.

IK and KT: In Nine Gates, your book of essays, you write: “Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer.” At the same time, you talk about the need to go more deeply into the self and silence to write. How do you negotiate that dichotomy between needing to go deeply into the self and needing to be deeply connected to the world?

JH: The best answer is perhaps that of Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Zen master, who said: “To study the way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to awaken into the ten thousand things.” This means you don’t find intimacy with others, whether other people or wicker chairs, by jumping outside your own skin. Intimacy arises by the permeability inside your own life. We’re here, we’re in these bodies, we’re in these minds, we’re in these hearts, we’re in these spirits. You walk through the world on your own two feet, with your own tongue and your own eyes. Intimacy comes to us through this life that we are given, this ordinary life. I don’t see a dichotomy at all between going more deeply into self, into silence, and finding the permeability to see an old apple tree outside the window or a woman sitting across from you on a bus. It’s the only way we can see: with our own eyes. Anything else is some Platonic idea, which is not for me a path that holds much interest.

IK and KT: Were you a Buddhist first and then a poet, or a poet first and then a Buddhist?

JH: If I think about this, the question begins to feel constrictive. At any moment is a person “this” or “that?” To label oneself is to close off the possibilities of being. But in the sense you are asking, the ordinary, narrative sense, poetry came first. I began to write poems as soon as I learned to write. After my first book came out, when I was 29, my mother pulled out of a bottom dresser drawer a big piece of paper I was given, probably around second grade, on which was written: “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” I have no idea where that came from. But writing was the way for me to craft a self I could unfold on my own, in private, and to find a life that was mine, one that didn’t belong to others.

Still, the two paths have intertwined for me from the beginning—the first book of poetry I bought, from a stationary store on East 20th Street, was a one dollar Peter Pauper Press book of Japanese haiku. I was maybe eight years old. I don’t know what drew me so strongly to those poems or what I could have seen in them at that age, but I recognized something that I absolutely knew I had to have in my life. The path has also been circular. Poetry brought me to Zen, and Zen returned me to poetry. In 1985, I took on the co-translation that became The Ink Dark Moon, a collection of poems by the two great women poets of classical-era Japan, whose work I had first read in a handful of English translations when I was 17. Their poetry, steeped in both eros and Buddhist views, was part of what turned me toward Zen as well as part of what shaped my sense of poems—how they move, what work they do. I had no idea then that I would work further on these women’s poems; if anything I thought that a path not taken. I did know that I wanted the book to exist, and I waited 15 years for someone else to translate it, before suddenly finding the chance to do it myself after all. So you see, each mode—poetry, Zen—has always returned me to the other. Thus far, they have been the left foot and the right foot of my life. It may, I suppose, look exotic. But from the inside, this life has felt like the most ordinary course possible, one choice simply following another.

IK and KT: In your essay, “The Question of Originality,” you write: “Originality requires the aptitude for exile.” Can you talk about any experiences of exile you may have had, and how they may have fed your work?

JH: I think the sense of exile I have always felt led me to practice Zen. I should add that Zen is what was congenial to me, but I certainly don’t believe there’s only one correct spiritual path—there are as many spiritual paths as there are people, and probably sparrows and frogs and pebbles as well. Still, for me, the not uncommon sense of being exiled from presence in the world brought me to both Zen and poetry. Perhaps urban, contemporary life is already an exile of a kind, perhaps it was more familial, perhaps it was spiritual. There is a Taoist poet in Women in Praise of the Sacred, Yu Xuanji, who said at the end of one poem, “Everywhere the wind carries me is home.” That was not something I felt as a child.

I’ve been thinking about that statement a lot as I travel more and more in my work as poet. What is it to be home, what is it to be not-home? One of the brief pebble-poems in After looks at this question, the one titled “Why Bodhidharma Went to Motel 6.” Exile is not only physical. In one sense it is simply the human condition: the expulsion from paradise. We’re born into exile. There you were, having a fine and entirely protected time in the womb, and suddenly you are out in the world, where there’s cold and hunger and abandonment. One great question we’re given as human beings is: what do you do then? Can you make friends with your suffering, or are you going to exhaust your life trying to avoid it?

Still, when I wrote that sentence in Nine Gates I was probably thinking less of myself than of poets like Czeslaw Milosz, who knew a very outward exile. A large part of his greatness came from how he dealt with that: exile from a childhood paradise, exile from his mother-tongue country. My own exiles have been only the ordinary American, human ones.

IK and KT: Most writers write from some sort of obsession. Could you say that the tone of your work comes from the place of Zen in your life—could you say that was your obsession?

JH: I don’t want to be obsessed with anything, and I’m not sure I agree with that idea. In some cases, it’s clearly true, in others, maybe less so. Rilke wrote of being defeated by ever-greater angels—those angels, I suspect, must be different, one from the other, not the same angel over and over. But I’ll also say that the obsessions of Zen are not the practice itself, which is after all centered on the possibility of liberation. Obsessions are what cause a person to enter a life of practice, and I think for most of us, these are the universal questions, the inevitabilities of suffering, and time, of loss, old age, sickness, and death. Suffering is inescapable. Your work is to discover what you will do in your life with the suffering that is given you. I don’t know that attention to these conditions can be called an obsession. They are what is. It’s the task of the human being to live with what is, and to see our lives for what they are.

Any given poem is, for me, an attempt to know more largely and intimately whatever condition of being I am in at that moment. Each poem is the comprehension and provisional resolution of a particular question. We find ourselves off-balance, and the poem attempts to recapture balance, or more truthfully, to spring forward into some new balance that will itself remain momentary and provisional. But the word “obsession” feels, to me, pit bull-minded, applied to poetry. It feels more to me that we each have things we are especially prone to notice. Some poets notice love. Some poets notice time. Some poets notice the New York City subways or dogs or the circumstances of a particular era of their personal lives.

One thing I would like to do—not in a driven way, but in the way of a request—is to notice an increasing range of things in my poems. The German poet and aphorist Novalis proposed that a person spends the first half of life looking inward and the second half looking outward. Once you’ve come to some kind of terms with who you are, the world is very interesting, and it’s wonderful to be able to pay attention to it. I think anyone who claims their poems aren’t personal is wrong. But the poems also expand the field of what I’m able to notice as a poet. Writing generates attention. To do this work expands my own life, which is a great deal of the point. If I’m lucky, I may do something that helps expand the life of others as well.

IK and KT: You are saying that a poem is an attempt to know more. Or as Paul Celan said, that attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.

JH: Simone Weil said something closely related to that: “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” You know, the path of Zen is about attention, about a full inhabitance of your own life, but it’s also about the lives of others, and about suffering. Your suffering is not discontinuous from the suffering of the world. So attentiveness is a practice which inevitably leads to compassion. Whether it’s regarding a weed or a war, to raise the feeling of compassion is the first step toward being able to do anything useful, toward working with a situation with some hope.

It’s my nature to question, to look at the opposite side. I believe that the best writing also does this. Great literature does not take sides with the small-minded. It’s not partisan or narrow. It tells us that where there is sorrow, there will be joy; where there is joy, there will be sorrow. A uni-dimensional poem would be boring. Sometimes the other side is so deeply buried, you really have to part the grasses of the poem to find it, but I would say that in a good poem, that second dimension is always there. There is always something startling and absolutely unexpected, some undertow, some magnetic pull of a fuller truth.

The acknowledgement of the fully complex scope of being is why good art thrills. I keep coming back to this idea: acknowledging the fullness of things is our human task. We’re the part of existence that is able to do this. It’s what we’re good at—seeing the multiple facets and contradictory dimensions of lived experience, and not just walking through the world the way a deer or a turtle might, knowing its life acutely, but from wholly inside. Because we have the human fate of exile-consciousness inescapably present in our lives, we also get to look back from the perimeter and from the imagined ends, before and after our individual fates. We are able to see what isn’t necessarily our own first point of view. This need not be self-dividing or coldly objective. It can be an increase of the intimate: “To forget the self is to awaken into the ten thousand things.”

Horace memorably said that the purpose of poetry is to delight and instruct. There has to be delight, I think. If there isn’t joy, why bother? If reading a poem isn’t both pleasurable and interesting, go do something that is. If a work of art’s not beautiful to us—though at times this might mean the most recalcitrant kinds of beauty—we wouldn’t give it our attention. Literature must seduce. It must entrance. And instruction, which is somewhat out of fashion these days, need not be a bullying didacticism. We are meaning-making animals, and meaning, to me, when resonant, can itself also be beauty. It may well be that beauty, at base, is always also a kind of meaning. A mathematician can be moved to tears by a proof.

IK and KT: We are meaning-making animals, as you say. In your work, meaning is often conveyed through the image. Do you think of the image as an international language?

JH: Absolutely. That’s why the poetry of image is so much easier to translate than the poetry of music. I have been told that Russian poetry is hard to translate because so much of the poetry’s power and effect lies in the music. In Chinese poetry or Japanese poetry, while the music is also essential, the images are not so hard to carry across, and the translation can try to make what Octavio Paz called an equivalent music. I think of the power of Issa’s haiku: “On a branch floating downriver, a cricket singing.” The poem is entirely image, without comment. But for anyone who hears it, even if you never make this conscious, it is also a portrait of the condition of our life. We’re on some branch, carried precariously in the current. And what are we doing? We are singing. We have our lives. You can see this with bitterness or you can see it as gallantry, but you cannot stay detached from its larger meanings. This is what a good image does. And this one carries worlds of resonance along with it, so simply. A somewhat different world might be evoked in each person’s mind by Issa’s image, but the image is so solid that it can hold them all. None is wrong. Every image is a portrait of a state of soul. If you say, “door handle,” I am already passing through.

IK and KT: In Nine Gates, you quote the Zen saying: “Behind each jewel are three thousand sweating horses.” Can you talk about your writing process? Are there three thousand sweating horses behind each poem?

JH: Sometimes more obviously than others. I do think that the entire life is behind any poem, whether the poem comes quickly, or only comes with enormous struggle and 85 revisions, three months’ worth of revisions, or 30 years’ worth of revisions. Fast or slow, the horses are always there.

Most of the time, the finished poem is on the page within a few hours, or days, a week or two at most. The exceptions are what interest, I suppose. For example, my poem “History As the Painter Bonnard” went through an enormous number of drafts over several months. It came out of the time of the 1989 Velvet Revolutions, as they were called, as in country after country, Communist governments yielded to democratic ones. No one had imagined there could be political change on that scale without bloodshed. Later, of course, came Bosnia, but in 1989, this had not yet happened. So my first response was simple happiness—which I recognized as absolutely inadequate, given that the same part of the world had seen some of the worst suffering of the 20th century. Yet I couldn’t find any way to think about it more deeply. Finally it occurred to me: perhaps I could try writing a poem. The next thought of course was, “How? How do I write a poem about this?” Such a cognitive entrance was entirely alien to my usual process. The urgency of poetry was present, but no words, no image, no inner musical tone. The event was ungraspable, and that ungraspability was both the reason I needed to write and the barrier between that need and any conceivable poem. And so I hunted. For days I threw out a net. And finally at some point it came to me that the question of revision might be a point of entrance. When something is revised, what happens to what was there before? Then I remembered a word I’d learned from a painter, years before, at Yaddo—the term “bonnarding,” from the painter Bonnard, who never stopped changing his paintings, even after they’d been sold. Now it was started. But the poem still took three months to write, working almost every day. Draft after draft after draft. The difficulty in finishing reflected exactly the difficulty I had with the poem from the start. What did I feel about these events? The completed poem ends with the image of a child, who has been struck, putting his hand back into his mother’s hand, describing his relationship to her face as “neither right nor wrong, only thoroughly his.” For me, that image felt an accurate understanding of the history of Eastern Europe: “This is what happened, it is ours, we will walk with it the rest of our lives, the suffering cannot be taken away or undone, but we go forward.” Afterward of course, came the slaughters, and my doubts about simple celebration were proved all too right.

IK and KT: Still, it seems that you are more a poet of praise than a poet of lament.

JH: Others have said this as well, that my poetry is unusual in its affirmation and praise. I do feel a central task of a life is to affirm what comes. What I hope can also be felt is that this agreement is not some simple cheerful passivity, but is hard won in the poems. Sometime during my second year of monastic life, I looked at the poems I had written in college, all nicely bound in book form for my senior thesis. Every poem yearned toward vanishing; every poem ended with ellipses, or with a conceptual or imagistic drifting off into fog. I was horrified. I thought, “My poems are suicidal, they want not to exist. I don’t want to be this person whose words want not to exist.” Such a realization is a turning point in a life. I think I had already made this shift to some degree, that working towards it was one reason I was drawn towards Zen. People think of Buddhism as nihilism if they don’t know much about it, but to practice Zen is exactly the opposite of nihilism. It is very much a practice of being in this world, of presence without separation. And so I vowed in that moment not to be ever again a person who yearns to disappear into emptiness. I vowed to inhabit, revel in, taste, hear, touch this world. Life will go away on its own in any case. We don’t have to worry about that, we will die. But what do we do in this moment, while we live? Whatever you’re seeing in the poems of radiance or grace comes out of this struggle to turn away from disappearance and toward presence.

IK and KT: A lifelong struggle towards radiance and grace sounds like a description of your journey in your spiritual beliefs.

JH: Except that Zen is not about belief. It’s more about what happens when belief is unfastened. Zen is traditionally called a teaching outside of words, outside of teachings. The teaching of Zen is: drink your tea. Find the taste of this moment on your own tongue. There are, of course, many words and many teachings, but they are words that welcome questioning, and are grounded, as electricity is grounded, in the real. The teachings of Zen are meant to be tested against what can be known from inside your own life. Most people, for instance, know that Buddhism has an unusual relationship to the concept of the self. But this isn’t doctrinal, it’s simply experience. If you sit down quietly and pay attention, you find yourself continuous with the rest of existence, and permeable to it. “Self” is one impermanent point of view, among many others. When I was a young Zen student, if I felt too full of myself I would try to find where my self might live. Was it in some random molecule in my elbow? Such a molecule isn’t much troubled with being “Jane,” it’s just busy being a molecule in the elbow. Its life is quite active and spacious. There’s a lot of nothing in between its electrons and inside its nucleus. You can’t get too excited about yourself if you are looking at yourself in this kind of way. On the other hand, if you fall too much into the realm of detachment and the selfless Absolute, your teacher will come and hit you with a stick and you will, very naturally, go “ouch.” You don’t get to abandon the regular world. Zen’s request is that you stay in both perspectives at the same time.

IK and KT: But what if I ask that question and substitute the words “spiritual beliefs” with “religion,” would your attitude change?

JH: My associations to the word “religion” are even less happy. I do realize that such associations are always idiosyncratic, but even in childhood a divine being never made much sense to me. The Judeo-Christian belief system I saw around me just didn’t hold a great deal of appeal. Zen is often described as a practice, but not a “religion.” In the Western tradition, Deism, which says that the body of God is distributed equally through all existence, comes perhaps the closest. Take the god-ness out of it, and you’re close where I am: What is is enough. You don’t have to add anything on to reality, to this very life itself, to feel awe, or to feel respect, or to see radiance. Radiance simply is. It isn’t necessary to do a conceptual somersault in order to place it inside a specific entity. It may seem simplistic, but I truly believe that if you put a person in a prison cell with nothing but the chance and the desire to pay attention, everything they need to know about the radiance of the world is there, available. I also believe that if you brought a group of mystics, from every religious tradition, into a room, they would understand one another completely. At the level of mystical experience, there is no difference in what people feel.

When I was very little I remember walking with my mother. I was holding her hand, and looked up at her and said, “It’s really too bad we aren’t Catholic, and I can’t be a nun when I grow up.” It must have horrified her, or I wouldn’t remember. But obviously there was something about monasticism that I was drawn toward, even then, and recognized even then. The idea of a single-minded, undistracted life, dedicated to something I must have sensed mattered. I’m quite sure that it wasn’t Christianity itself that made me say that: not the particular belief but the mode of being was the magnet. Perhaps it was some premonition about the shape my life would take. And when, years later, I did find myself living that life, I felt a deep consonance. It felt to me the way human beings were meant to live.

IK and KT: How has your Jewish heritage influenced you? Was your family at all observant when you were growing up?

JH: Something is surely there—habits of mind and temperament recognizably from that tradition and culture. One grandfather was something of a mystic, and briefly joined the Rosicrucians; one great-great-grandfather, from Philadelphia, was a rabbi in the Civil War. I received virtually no religious instruction. We did have a Passover seder each year, and I liked the horseradish, the bitter herbs and the salted, hard-boiled egg, but the story didn’t really take root as “mine” any more strongly, say, than the Thanksgiving story of Pilgrims and Indians or the Christmas carols we sang at school. I suppose I feel that at this point in the world’s history, all these stories might better be felt to belong to us all, as our great, common, human heritage. To see them used as devices of division grieves me.

IK and KT: In some ways, your poetry collections can be read as reminiscent of a religious book of hours. Is this a comparison that makes sense to you?

JH: That wouldn’t have occurred to me, but let me think about that a little. A book of hours is ingrained in the different stages of a day. It’s meant to be attended to as part of an ongoing life. It’s beautiful, and its beauties extend beyond its own purpose. And it’s designed to call us to a more contemplative way of being. This last is something we need—human beings, good mammals that we are, fall rather easily into the consciousness of purposeful action: “I want this, I will go get it. I need to do this. I have to do that. If I don’t do this, something bad will happen. I’m hungry, I must eat.” Such is the basic murmur of mammalian consciousness. Spiritual practices are in part a set of techniques to free a person from enslavement to that mind. They allow us to look around a bit, to step back and see things as they are, to apprehend them as part of the larger whole. Art does this as well. All art, of course; I’m not just thinking here about my own books. We’ve talked a lot about spiritual life in this conversation, and we haven’t talked that much about art. But I think art plays much the same role in a human life as does spiritual ritual. Both stop you in your mammalian tracks and let you see and know your life through larger eyes and ears.

For instance, we don’t think of animals as knowing that they will die. This may be wrong; perhaps some of them do. But we know that human beings, at some point in our species’ history, developed the capacity to comprehend mortality, and it is very likely that this happened at around the same time as art-making and ritual come into the archeological story. “Death is the mother of the beauty,” as Stevens wrote. You will have more life if you remember that life is short than if you forget it. A work of art is just this kind of liberation: something that changes everything and yet is perfectly useless in any usual sense. So, to finally answer your question, I think this would be fine work for my poems to do, the work of a book of hours.

I suppose some people collect paintings because they think their value will increase in ten years or a hundred years, or because owning a certain object conveys social status. Thorstein Veblen was not wrong about “conspicuous consumption.” But I think poetry, as an art form, proves that cannot be the whole story—no one gains social status from knowing a poem. Art’s role in the contemporary world might well be precisely to be unuseful, to reveal the importance of uselessness in our lives. You can’t eat a painting. You can’t do anything except stand before it, know the world differently, and be changed. That’s what a painting does, and what a poem does. It halts the mind’s unthinking plummet and lets you see the experience as a whole.

Many words describing written and expressive form—“stanza,” for instance, and “statement”—hold in their etymology some connection to stopping, or turning, or pausing. Anything you really take in, you have to stop to take in. You can’t skim past it. I think we desperately want time to slow down in the ways it does when you really pay attention. All my life, I have been looking for the condition of being where things are so deeply themselves that they and I fall into each other, and everything seems to stop. Not merely Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion,” but a full falling away of “progress” and its indubitable pleasures into the entirely sufficient fullness of what now is present. To me this is almost, though I don’t like to say it, a mystical experience.

When I was twenty, and living in a farmhouse outside of Princeton, I put on a record album by Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. I fell so deeply into the music, there was only listening, and no sense of a self at all. Then the album ended. The needle made that little click, click, click sound it does when a record is over (a sound I realize will someday soon be unknown, as fewer and fewer people listen to vinyl recordings). It was night, and it was New Jersey, and it was raining. Because no “I” was present, and Miles Davis was also gone, the listening fell into the night and the rain and the vastness, and infinite rain and darkness were what I was. I burst into tears. My friend came running. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing is wrong,” I said. And nothing was. I wept at the largeness I had fallen into and become. It felt like a true understanding of existence.

I don’t think everyone would agree that such a moment is the highest order of conscious existence. The more standard attitude is to want to be active and purposeful, to change things, to stand as proof of some ideology or measurable achievement, to support some “higher” idea. And I am absolutely in favor of changing this world for the better in any way we can, before we destroy ourselves and perhaps the planet with us. But it seems to me that the desire to change things all too often means you are going to change them for the worse. This is the lesson of Voltaire’s “Candide,” and the lesson of many of the most disastrous events of the past century. The current war in Iraq is only the most recent example of such a devastating consequence. But if you can start by letting things be themselves, and feel yourself part of things as they are, then perhaps, like some 80-year-old man with an 80-year-old bonsai tree, you can look around and say, “Maybe if I trim this set of needles, the bonsai tree and I will be more completely ourselves.”

What I am trying to say doesn’t mean that you don’t give a hungry person food if you can; it doesn’t mean you don’t register to vote, or even, if that’s your fate, enter the halls of power yourself. It means, though, that you aren’t trying to change things for reasons of ego or power. Rather, it’s so the tree can know itself completely. Maybe a bonsai was a bad choice of example. A bonsai, after all, is stunted, captive, not natural. But we began by talking about art, and I think a bonsai is art—something made by us in collaboration with the actual energies of life. Bonsai’s only reason for being is to bring those energies into clearer view, and to bring our own beauty and fate and energies into clearer view.

IK and KT: Your interest in achieving the state of concentration you describe seems to be reflected in your poems, which tend to lean toward the lyrical and away from narrative. Can you comment on this?

JH: People have a native diction for understanding existence. Narrative is one of the most fundamental. For me, though, it simply isn’t how I parse the world. I have written a very few poems that hold stories, and these make me happy—a person is always glad to expand the repertory of the soul. But I don’t choose the kinds of poems I write. I am desperate for anything that comes, and what tends to come are poems seated in image, in metaphor, in perception juxtaposed against perception. Induction and distillation rather than story. Helen Vendler once heard me read; she came up afterward, looked at me for a moment, then said, “You are really a metaphysical poet, aren’t you?”

IK and KT: You mentioned Czeslaw Milosz earlier. He was a friend of yours. Was he also an influence?

JH: Bells in Winter came out in 1979, a year before Milosz won the Nobel Prize. I read the first poem, “Encounter,” and felt as though a new universe had opened. This voice was something I hadn’t heard before, and it penetrated me clear through. My response was physical—it was if the poem were a hand reaching into my body, holding the spinal vertebrae, shaking me. Even in that one, brief, early poem you can see the outlines of Milosz’s lifelong interest in transience and time, and see his compassion in the face of incomprehensible suffering. I have read him continually since then, and always with the same sense of discovery that Keats describes in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” Very few poets, for instance, have gone into old age with full capacities to describe the journey. In Facing the River and Provinces, Milosz does that. I have learned, and am still learning I hope, an immense amount from his work, from its beginning to its end, and the influence extends far beyond aesthetics and technique.

Milosz invited me into our friendship as a fellow poet. After he read my second book, he called with an invitation to dinner. “Is this Jane Hirshfield?” he asked on the phone. “Jane Hirshfield, the poet?” Not a phrase I was used to at that time. But I now think what he wanted most was a conversation about Zen and Buddhism. His great question was suffering, and he understood the parts of Buddhism that have to do with suffering and compassion as deeply as any non-practitioner I’ve met or read. For this, he felt an enormous sympathy of view. Other aspects though, particularly the transparency and provisionality of self, were entirely horrifying to him—for Milosz, the idea of a soul which lasts, which can be saved, was essential. He called himself a poet of the apokastasis, and disappearance without salvation was for him a hell-realm of meaninglessness. So many of his poems were—and are—overt acts of memory intended as rescue and preservation. After he died, I felt that I had done him a disservice. He wanted to talk to me about these things and I should have argued harder, against his horror, for the relationship between emptiness and compassion. I failed to give him the respect of treating him as a peer—but how could I? We were friends, yes, and I loved him, but I was not his peer.

IK and KT: A well known American critic says that Milosz cannot possibly influence American poets because his life experience was very different from theirs. I tend to disagree. I wonder where you stand on the issue. He lived in the United States for many decades. Is there such a thing as a Milosz school in American poetry?

JH: Seamus Heaney has talked about the Irish school of Polish poetry. I think there is very much an American school of Polish poetry, though I might not be able to name every practitioner. Ed Hirsch, for instance, has obviously taken on this Polish lineage, combining it sometimes with the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, both Biblical and contemporary. In his newest poems, ones I’ve been seeing in recent magazines, he has done this beautifully.

Nor do I think that what great poets offer can be confined to the circumstances of their lives, however much it emerges from the lived-through particular. The question you ask goes to the very heart of literature and its achievement: If we could not be influenced by work coming from lives different from our own, if experience could not be passed from person to person by art, what would reading be? To deny the power of art to transmit the whole of human comprehension from person to person is to deny it any standing, seriousness, consequence.

The Polish poets taught me to trust the presentational statement. My own poems took on more a flavor of thus-ness after I read Milosz; he himself sometimes echoed classical Chinese poems in this way. Another instruction came from the largeness of his universe and from the many different kinds of poems that he has written—big, small, personal, philosophical. His body of work gives you a vast permission to follow him in the search for “a more spacious form,” and also the search for a lyricism that includes evaluative consciousness, moral and spiritual, includes thought, includes history.

From Milosz, I took the permission to roughen, to think, to be very short, to go on. I could say I learned everything from him. But recently I read for the Wordsworth Trust in England, and before going to Grasmere I re-read Wordsworth. And then I thought, “Everything I do, I learned from Wordsworth. It’s all there, including even many of the concepts of Buddhism.” So you see, my debts are enormous and widespread.

IK and KT: You say that when you were in the monastery, you didn’t want to write. Do you have those periods of not wanting to write and also of disgust, when you feel, “What is the point?”

JH: Certainly I know that disgust, but fortunately it is usually a short-lived phase. Usually it comes when you read something so great that it makes you think “Why on earth would I ever bother to write anything?” You feel then your own hubris: you ought to just be quiet and read.

But all my writing life, I have had long silences. I wrote as a child and mostly hid the writing under my mattress, never showing it to anyone. In the summers, my parents would send me to camp, and so every summer I stopped writing, and every fall I started again. I became used to the idea that poetry has its own seasons and rhythms. When I was at Tassajara, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to write as a necessary shift of intention. My intention was to practice Zen. When I left, the intention of poetry came back, and I began writing again almost immediately.

When I stop writing now, it’s not a struggle, simply that inspiration does not come. Still, I feel it as a sign of some wrongness in my life, in my relationship to my life. After I finished The Lives of the Heart, there was a long period, almost a year, when I fell silent. There were circumstantial reasons, but I worried enough about it that eventually I started a dream notebook, wanting to keep some conduit open to my unconscious life. For many years, even after poetry returned, I kept recording my dreams, and then stopped. It wasn’t a decision, I simply stopped.

My history has always been that when I start to write again after a long pause, the poems as well as the self have changed. It’s as if the complete surrendering of the forms and musics of the person I was allow a subterranean evolution into something new. Silence can be a protected space, gravitational as sleep for the creative mind. When the old forms, images, and sentences don’t perpetuate themselves by repetition, the ear and eye freshen, the mind freshens. I think of a field lying fallow or well water having a chance to refill, undrawn. Mostly I trust these times, but I also realize that someday poetry may simply not come back. If that happens, I’ll have to think of something else to do with the gift of this life. The world doesn’t need new poems. One shouldn’t force oneself. The world will have enough good poems whether I myself am trying to write them or not.


Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, in the former USSR, and arrived in this country in 1993 with his family. His poetry collection, Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press), won the Whiting Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, and was named best book of the year by Foreword Magazine. He teaches at San Diego State University.

Katherine Towler is author of the novels Snow Island and Evening Ferry. The recipient of an arts fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, she teaches in the MFA program in writing at Southern New Hampshire University. (12/2006)

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Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, in the former USSR, and arrived in this country in 1993 with his family. His poetry collection, Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press), won the Whiting Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, and was named best book of the year by Foreword Magazine. He teaches at San Diego State University. (updated 2006)

Katherine Towler is author of the novels Snow Island and Evening Ferry. The recipient of an arts fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, she teaches in the MFA program in writing at Southern New Hampshire University. (12/2006)

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