Jane Hirshfield is the author of two new books, The Beauty (poems) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (essays), both appearing from Knopf in spring 2015. She is a current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her poem “My Pronoun” from the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review can be found here.
What was your original impetus for writing “My Pronoun”? Did you begin with a line or phrase? With the title? With the poem’s overarching animating idea?
My poems almost always begin with words and a music, half-thought, half-heard. These first phrases are kite-strings. If they have any meaning at all, something wanting to come into attention will be giving them lift and arc. At first, there is only the string and its tug. Then, as the poem unfolds, the kite’s shape and colors begin to come into view.
“My Pronoun” explores questions I’ve felt throughout my life—what is self, what is ego? How do they fit into some larger connection to your own life and the lives of others?. Fall too far into self-concern, it begins to feel both a great loneliness and a kind of nausea. Wander too far outside individuality, how would a person live his or her own, particular life, or any life at all? This poem holds some of my perplexity about these matters. It holds the sting I sometimes feel when saying “I” and holds, I hope, the world’s opulent richness. Self/Other is an insoluble conundrum. Luckily, entering conundrums (conundri?) is what poetry exists to do.
As for the title, I alternated for years between “My Pronoun” and “Mosquito.” I sent it in to Kenyon Review as “My Pronoun.” In a recent limited edition letterpress chapbook, My-ness/Minus, it’s also “My Pronoun.” In the book coming out from Knopf, it’s “Mosquito.” I suppose I could have gone to a title that includes both: “My Pronoun/Mosquito.” But that felt like letting myself off the hook, and poetry is a realm where I want to put myself on hooks, not off them.
Do you consider “My Pronoun” to be an ars poetica?
If an ars poetica is a deliberate attempt to summarize the writer’s relationship to poetry-writing as a whole, no. It is, though, a poem engaging a larger question through the lens of poetic craft. The supple uses of pronouns, the multiple stances any pronoun can inhabit—these are things I often speak about, when I teach.
I wouldn’t know how to paraphrase this poem’s destination, but it felt to me a condition worth trying to convey. The world exists. Sometimes all self and language can do is swoon before vastness. Is that an ars poetica’s summary position? Perhaps. But for me, this is a highly provisional arrival—a train station thought, not the capital city.
You have a new book of poems, The Beauty, as well as a new book of essays, Ten Windows, coming out this spring. Could you tell us a little bit about these two projects? How does working in your capacity as an essayist inform your poetry, and vice versa?
Both poems and essays summon an altering attention into my life. They do this in different ways, but share the desire to discover new possibilities of thinking and feeling, the desire to know the world in ways more saturated, open, surprising. . . . My first book of essays, Nine Gates, came out in 1997. It looked at things like shadow, threshold, concentration, and the way meandering can offer the straightest possible saying. Ten Windows continues that set of investigations, looking at things like paradox, hiddenness, uncertainty, possibility, transformation, in poems, in our culture, in lives. The poems in The Beauty hold their questions nearer the ground. They look at my skeleton and proteins, at time and desire, at spilling a cup of coffee and boiling an artichoke. Yet an artichoke can hold my bewilderment at violence, my grief at recalcitrance, and also my gratitude for the eventual sweetness that is possible in us.
All writing is a form of close-reading. Essays and poems read the world, read the words and acts of others, read language itself, read the substance and tremblings and musics of our experienced day. For me, these two modes of attention augment and affect one another, but in ways too subtle to name. I don’t write or revise my poems by checklist. I don’t look to see if the qualities I talk about in the essays appear in the poems. Yet I believe that the more one pays attention, the more resources are at hand to be put to new uses. Many things cannot be said in any words other than those of some single, particular poem. Yet they exist not only after the poem was written but also before.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I will have to say: silence. Without the rest space between words, without time inside the mind and body of sabbath-concentration and threshold, I would be lost. So many parts of a life exist past and beyond and under the perambulations of language. Almost all of it, really. I want to listen with my skin, my feet, my pulses, my taste buds. Words enrich. They also distract from what we might see and feel when we aren’t caught up in them. And still, languageless though most experience is, whatever comes in through the feet and skin and taste buds will come into the writing. Proust is the obvious example of such portals’ importance.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Best and worst are too high for me to leap over. I sometimes suggest to young writers that they might try to open the window a few inches more than feels comfortable. For advice I’ve received, there’s a poem in the new book about that, so that’s the advice that comes to mind: Ted Weiss, when I was eighteen or nineteen years old and in college, advised me that poems should avoid saying “or.” Choose one thing and stick to it, he said, and your reader will be happier. These many years later, I turned that suggestion into advice about life, not poetic craft. The poem ran in The Paris Review and then was picked up by Harper’s. It’s short, so perhaps I can quote it here:
A Cottony Fate
Long ago, someone
told me: avoid or.
It troubles the mind
as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog.
Now I too am sixty.
There was no other life.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
New poems, one by one, and continuing to retune a lecture about very short poems. I’m interested in very short poems, and have always loved them. I’m exploring the moment-to-meaning ratio of their detonation, and the way a few syllables can point to something immeasurably large, not only in haiku and tanka, but in epigraph, aphorism, limerick, landay, and in just plain very short poems. The ones of my own I’ve been labeling “pebbles” in recent collections are part of a lineage that goes through the fragments of Sappho and Heraclitus and the short poems of Pessoa and Brecht at least as much as they go through the lineage of Basho and Ono no Komachi…
What’s odd is writing at length about something so small. Especially when all I really want to do is say them aloud: “Listen to this. Now listen to this.” That could be enough. One of the most exuberant pleasures of the very short poem is the way it demonstrates how much you don’t need to say that will still be understood completely.