Jane Hirshfield is the author of many books of poetry and a book of essays. She is also the editor and co-translator of Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (Harper Perennial, 1994). Her most recent book of poems is Come, Thief (Knopf, 2011). A longtime practitioner of Soto Zen, she was lay ordained in 1979. Susan Moon conducted the following interview with her by e-mail in the fall of 2012.
Inquiring Mind: Is it possible to be a poet without exploring the sacred?
Jane Hirshfield: Before I can answer that question, I’d like to look first at “sacred”—such an interesting, and for me slightly troubling word. Etymologically, the sacred is something “set apart.” Yet “sacred,” for me, signals something closer to a connection so widely, wildly, and intimately felt that we’re changed by it into a wholly different comprehension of being and meaning. To be in the condition and presence of the sacred, in any tradition, is to feel yourself inextricably part of something larger than the narrow, personal, ego-defined self. What’s meant by “something larger” differs. In some traditions, it means “God.” In some it means “oneness.” In some it means, “things as they are.” In some it means, “sunyata.” But in all, I think the essential experience is the same. Stepping into the sacred is a shift into seeing and feeling at on a different scale of being, a change of eyes and ears, of heart and mind and breathing.
Now, to the question. Certain ideas, images, architectural spaces and gestures are doorways into that changed condition. They remind and awaken. My own feeling is that every good poem does just this. Poems are made of the stuff and syntax of interconnection, and the recognition of interdependence brings into them, however subtly, some feeling for our shared, mutual fate inside fragility, inside the shifting forms of existence. I love Galway Kinnell’s description of this aspect of poetry: “The title of every good poem could be ‘Tenderness’.”
Good poetry brings everything in this world inside your own life, inside your own skin. And many things follow from that, if you let them. So yes, I think the practice of poetry is in some sense and some part a practice of almost inevitably spiritual awareness. The most misanthropic, angry or correctly politically raging poems are arguments of the spirit, as well as exploration-expressions of emotions and mind. Think of Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” That is not a Buddhist acceptance of transience, not a Christian embrace of resurrection. It does not support “good doctrine.” But it’s still a poem deeply of spirit, and its life-allegiance is not outside awareness of the sacred.
IM: On the other side of that question, is it possible to commit oneself to the dharma, to the path of the dharma, without paying attention to poetry?
JH: Yes, of course. The practice of the dharma as we know it, here in America, is full of resonant phrasings that work in the ways that poems do; they are memorable, they sharpen the knife edge of awareness, they awaken, they open whatever in us is narrow. But so can many things that live in the wordless.
I trust that the dharma could be transmitted entirely by gesture and action and a certain quality of attention, let alone by the vessels of paintings, sculptures, baskets, baked-clay glazed cups. Shikantaza meditation isn’t worded, and in Zen, transmission is traditionally marked not by words or lineage papers but by the embodied gift of robe and bowl. Something to wear, something to eat from. Such a recognition might be sealed with a poem, but the transmission is outside of words and outside of teachings.
Poetry is a good gate, but the gates of practice are infinite, just as the dharma itself comes to us in many different shapes, traditions and forms. Fingers pointing at the moon are not the moon. (I’ll allow though that even saying that sentence shows that to speak, in words, of the dharma, to convey the unconveyable thing, you may need at least sometimes to speak in the language of poems. But speaking isn’t everything, even for a poet.)
IM: What did you learn from your Zen practice that applies to the practice of poetry?
JH: Awareness of things as they are, both inside and outside the boundaries of “self.”
IM: What did you learn from your poetry practice that applies to Buddhist practice?
JH: Awareness of things as they are, both inside and outside the boundaries of “self.”
IM: Can you be committed to both of these paths at once, or is it better to do one at a time? Put another way, is it necessary that one path be primary and one the other secondary, like a first and second wife?
JH: I don’t think a human life separates into layers. Though sometimes we lean one way, sometimes another, we are fundamentally homogenized milk—whatever, whoever we are, will be fully present in each moment, body, speech, and mind. I could of course say equally almost the opposite: in any moment, we are only whoever we are in that moment. There are many, many moments in my life when I am not “a poet,” and many moments when the feeling of practice is edged out by exhaustion, desire, aversion… The “practice” part lies in noticing that, and in then, having noticed its absence, inviting the large self back into the small one. As for priorities, it’s the same as with a personal relationship and practice—if either person in a couple feels that practice and relationship are in some condition of competitive priority or ranking, that relationship is already in trouble.
I think the fundamental thing here is the sense of “commitment,” which I myself would call the sense of intention. When the intention of practice is awake, no activity is outside of practice.
IM: Do you think that commitment needs to take a certain form to be fully lived? Did you yourself feel you had to choose between full-time practice and being a poet?
JH: One of the things I’ve always been drawn to in Buddhism is the validation of lay practice as a path equal to any other. I know—many places you will hear some statement that “priest practice is better,” or “monk’s practice is better.” But even though we may need the intensity of focus in priest practice and monk practice to hone and renew and transmit, I am terribly grateful that, as a layperson who returned to writing, I could still spend years living in exactly the same way as priests and priest-ordained monks. The three years I spent in monastic practice at Tassajara remain the diamond at the center of my life. That I don’t now look, from the outside, like a priest or monk, that I don’t live inside a practice community or follow a schedule, doesn’t change that. Inside a monastery kitchen or inside my own, I either cook with a sense of practice or I don’t.
Something in me has always loved the idea of invisible practice, “teahouse practice,” the old woman who runs a roadside teahouse, and no one knows why they like to go there and not somewhere else.
Here’s a Chinese poem I first heard during a sesshin lecture in 1976:
On her wrist a golden bracelet,
fully an inch too big.
But then, when someone questions,
she says, “No, I’m not in love.”
Isn’t that wonderful, that obvious denial of the obvious thing? All kinds of things lie behind it—simple modesty; the essential unknowability of the most important things; the refusal to speak in public about what is private. Meanwhile there is the bracelet, bright as gold, telling everything anyone needs to know.
IM: Is that connected to why you don’t like to mention Buddha or Buddhist teaching in your poems?
JH: It is. I don’t want any system of thought to put up a wall between my poems and people who have some other system of thought, or some wrong idea about Buddhism or Zen. Poems are about being human. Practice is about being human. If my poems hold human experiences and feelings, whatever of practice is in me will be in them, without need of signal or label.
IM: At first glance, it would appear that the spiritual path encourages a person to let go of ego and that the artist’s path can foster attachment to ego. But are there ways in which the practice of poetry also fosters letting go of self-clinging? Might a poem teach the dharma?
JH: Any good poem is a vessel of transformation. If a person isn’t changed between the first line and the last, or in the moments after the last lines when the poem completes itself inside your own life and understanding, there’s not yet a poem. A poem is language that hears itself and speaks differently because it does; it’s also the step-by-step enactment and reenactment of some kind of discovery, alteration and enlargement. Poems, I think, lead us toward the same thing sesshins do: into a relationship to self, world and understanding that isn’t available to us by any other means. If it could be had more easily, we wouldn’t need the poems, or the sesshins.
Every good poem is a release from self-clinging, a reminder that identity is not fixed, a reminder of interconnection, transience, intimacy, compassion, the large. Identity may certainly hover around all that: “I’m an artist!” “Look at me!” “See what I made!” But it can hover as strongly around “I’m a priest! I’m a teacher!” While writing, while sitting, identity unfixes. It becomes more like water, a substance through which things swim, through which things can be seen. When we get up, we either bring that feeling with us or we don’t.
IM: Do you know any stories about people who were enlightened while hearing or reading a poem?
JH: Aren’t there many such stories, especially if you include the sutras and koans and their commentaries under “poem”? But I’d like to say something else here—that every good poem, heard or read fully, can hold some small or large measure of enlightenment. People have “awakening” experiences from poems pretty frequently. And it can happen reading Wordsworth, Whitman, Rilke, not only Hildegarde of Bingen, Mirabai, Rumi or Hakuin. We should also ask, though: Is it the words or the ears? Surely it’s mostly the readiness of the ears. The particular words are just the last salt grain that precipitates saturation.
IM: Buddha taught that “right speech” is speech that has the four qualities of being true, kind, beneficial and appropriate. Is poetry right speech?
JH: What an interesting, tricky question. So many people have an allergic reaction to “niceness,” and if you described a poem as only “true, kind, beneficial, appropriate,” I think even I would flee it unread. Poems, and right speech itself, have to be a lot larger than that in what they are willing to hold and in what we might think of as both their openness to the full range of human experience and their skillful means. Consider Tibetan thangka paintings, with their fanged demons, skull necklaces, lavish couplings… Think of Manjusri’s sword, which seen simplistically would appear an instrument of violent intentions. Whatever serves liberation is right speech, whatever serves delusion is not. Propaganda in verse serves delusion. Poems that hypnotize rather than awaken serve delusion. (That’s the reason Plato banned poets from his Republic.) Good poems, I think, will have in them somewhere the dark, tiny mustard seed of right intention and tameness. They will have in them some question about their own premises. They will have in them fierce demons and wild couplings, their bodies the color of emeralds and rubies amid gold earth-folds drawn with a single camel’s hair brush.
IM: What’s the difference between reading and writing poetry?
JH: Sometimes, there feels none at all. To write can feel like hearing something unspool in the ears, to read can feel like a moving pen in your hand. And yet, they are of course different. Reading, even in the profoundly participatory way that Catholics call lectio divina, the text is there. We change, but it does not. Writing, the text is being found, and the risk is that something worth anyone’s ever reading again might not be found at all. You hunt and harry and question, you become fallow field and reactive litmus strip plunged into some solution, you wait, you ask, you listen. Sometimes you even think—though deliberate thought, grounded in effort, is a far smaller part of writing poems than one might think. It’s too crude an instrument.
You have to become a different person, to write—or I might equally say, you have to become yourself. As you do to meditate. There is some kind of magnet, and a person sets it, the way a hunter might bait a trap. But you can’t say what will come, you can only see what it is, and then work with it after. This sounds a lot like living a life, doesn’t it? So much is out of our own control. Yet we are not powerless, and the small shifts we are able to make—a syllable, a verb tense—these make all the difference, somehow.
Like the Small Hole by the Path-Side Something Lives in
Like the small hole by the path-side something lives in,
in me are lives I do not know the names of,
nor the fates of,
nor the hungers of or what they eat.
They eat of me.
Of small and blemished apples in low fields of me
whose rocky streams and droughts I do not drink.
And in my streets—the narrow ones,
unlabelled on the self-map—
they follow stairs down music ears can’t follow,
and in my tongue borrowed by darkness,
in hours uncounted by the self-clock,
they speak in restless syllables of other losses, other loves.
There too have been the hard extinctions,
missing birds once feasted on and feasting.
There too must be machines
like loud ideas with tungsten bits that grind the day.
A few escape. A mercy.
They leave behind
small holes that something unweighed by the self-scale lives in.
(Reprinted from Poetry by permission of the author)