Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven books of poetry, including most recently Come, Thief, and the classic collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Who better to ask: Why write poetry? Here are her in-depth, thought-provoking answers to this two-part question.
Jennifer Haupt: Why do you write poems, and why would anyone want to write a poem?
Jane Hirshfield: One reason to write a poem is to flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, music, you didn’t know was in you, or in the world. Other forms of writing—scientific papers, political analysis, most journalism—attempt to capture and comprehend something known. Poetry is a release of something previously unknown into the visible. You write to invite that, to make of yourself a gathering of the unexpected and, with luck, of the unexpectable.
Poetry magnetizes both depth and the possible. It offers widening of aperture and increase of reach. We live so often in a damped-down condition, obscured from ourselves and others. The sequesters are social—convention, politeness—and personal: timidity, self-fear or self-blindness, fatigue. To step into a poem is to agree to risk. Writing takes down all protections, to see what steps forward. Poetry is a trick of language-legerdemain, in which the writer is both magician and audience. You reach your hand into the hat and surprise yourself with rabbit or memory, with odd verb or slant rhyme or the flashing scarf of an image. This is true for discovering some newness of the emotions, and also true of ideas. Poems foment revolutions of being. Whatever the old order was, a poem will change it.
When young people ask for writing advice, I sometimes say, “Open the window a few inches more than is comfortable.” As with all offered advice, the words are tuned first to my own ear and own life.
It may be that some other writer is quite unlike me: reckless, feckless, undefended, fearless before joy and grief, pain and incertitude. For this writer I am now imagining, words come easily, perhaps to the point of glibness. For her or him, poetry will serve in other ways. Art’s marrow-request for shapeliness, particularity of experience, arc, may be what is useful. The increase in density and saturation that poetry requires may be what is useful.
What we want from art is whatever is missing from the lives we are already living and making. Something is always missing, and so art-making is endless.
There is also the matter of connection. You can’t write an image, a metaphor, a story, a phrase, without leaning a little further into the shared world, without recognizing that your supposed solitude is at every point of its perimeter touching some other. You can’t read a poem—a good poem, at least—by someone else, and not recognize in their experience your own face. This is a continual reminder of amplitude, intimacy, and tenderness. The slightest dust-mote of the psyche altered is felt... there is magnitude in an altered comma. Art is a field glass for concentrating the knowledge and music of connection. It allows us to feel more acutely and accurately and more tenderly what is already present. And then it expands that, expands us.
J. Haupt: We live in a time of what seems continuing crisis—politics, questions of the environment and climate change, and even the “natural” disasters of earthquakes and weather are amplified in their interactions with our human-altered environment. Do you think poems and the arts, in general, have a role to play in our response to these things, and in the larger transformation of society?
J. Hirshfield: There’s a perennial debate about this. Is art’s purpose to do things outside its own existence? Does art change anything by its existence or non-existence? Should it? I come down firmly on both sides. And in either way of looking, I’d argue that art, if it is genuinely art, is a force for the good.
I know I would not want a vision of art that is purely utilitarian—that would not be not art, it would be advertising or propaganda. A sonnet is neither a wrench nor a voting booth. And yet, even useless joy is not inconsequential. Joy is reasonless and “accomplishes” nothing, yet is an indispensable enlargement of measure in any life. Why do we want justice, or any other diminishment of suffering, if not for the increase of simple happiness it brings? Or why would we want what Buddhism might call a right sorrow, for that matter, as we—I at least—do want that? We know when a pool is clarified when it is muddied. We know when a poem of darkness is opulent, in its saying, in its relationship to existence—Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort,” for example—and that the existence of opulent grief, fully offered, is a counterweight even to despair.
I’m not saying that art is a matter of beauty, solace, or calmness, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I’m not saying that art is about the rectification of character or making visible the existence of injustice, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I suppose I’m saying that good art is a truing of vision, in the way that a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. And that anything that lessens our astigmatisms of being or makes more magnificent the eye, ear, tongue, and heart cannot help but help a person better meet the larger decisions that we, as individuals and in aggregate, ponder.
That the rearrangement of words can re-open the fate of both inner and outer worlds—I cannot say why I feel this to be true, except that I feel it so in my pulses, when I read good poems.
Jane Hirshfield's poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, and seven editions of The Best American Poetry. Her honors include The Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award, the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Award in American Poetry, finalist selection for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. A frequent presenter at universities and literary festivals both in the US and abroad, in 2012 she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.