I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all.” Poet Jane Hirshfield on the Mystery of Existence, Spirituality & Health Magazine, Mar./Apr. 2013
When I think of Jane Hirshfield, I think first of her kindness to my friend, Bay Area poet, Ann Emerson (poet #9 in this series), who died a few years back and who received compassionate and generous guidance from Jane at a conference some years ago. It meant a lot to Ann and was a high-point in her six-year journey through cancer with poetry. Once having read Jane Hirshfield’s work, you can’t conceive of her as being anything but kind. The empathy expressed in her poetry is vast.
I admit to being one of those who also thinks of her as a Buddhist poet. Her poetry is Zen-like in its attentiveness, its inward-looking meditative quality, a quality of the ineffable given expression. Jane Hirshfield is a Zen practitioner, lived for several years at Tassajara and is ordained in Soto Zen.
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.” Jane Hirshfield in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
Another New York girl who eventually migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, Jane Hirshfield was famously graduated from Princeton University’s first class to include women. She is the author of eight collections including The Lives of the Heart (Harper Collins, 1997), which won the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award and Given Sugar, Given Salt: Poems.
It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.
Even in this
you will have to choose.
That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books —
Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.
– ©Jane Hirshfield (from Given Sugar, Given Salt, Poems)
Originality requires the aptitude for exile.” The Question of Originality in Nine Gates
Her two collections of essays (must reads, no pedantry here) are Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (Harper Perennial, 1998) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf, 2015). She also translated a collection of poems by Japanese women with Mariko Aratani: The ink dark moon : love poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, women of the ancient Court of Japan (Vintage Classics). Her study The Heart of Haiku is available in Kindle Edition.
Reading Jane Hishfield’s work is both a joy and education for your writerly self and a balm for your spirit. If by some incalculable misfortune you haven’t met her yet, seize this day.
© 2016, words, Jamie Dedes; photograph by A. Phillips and generously released into the public domain