Poet Jane Hirshfield addresses SARTS session at AAR

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Mark Burrows reflects on the session with Jane Hirshfield at the recent SARTS meeting.

What exactly is poetry? Or, more to the point: what sort of art is poetry, and what does the poet’s work teach us about the arts in more general terms? In keeping with SARTS’s tradition of inviting artists to address us as one component of our scheduled sessions, this year’s annual meeting featured poet Jane Hirshfield who explored such questions in her presentation “Given Sugar, Given Salt: Poetry, Art, and Inclusion.” 

Her talk shaped itself around poems she read, beginning with her translations of ancient Japanese poetry and then turning to a sampling of her own work taken from her six published collections of poems. None of us wondered whether these were “spiritual” poems, or even religious. After all, how else should one describe a poem like one of those she read and discussed in this session, “Tree,” which tells of her “decision” to allow a redwood to root in a “second growth” from a fallen stump, and begin to grow next to her home in Mill Valley, knowing that this is “foolish” but knowing as well that

Even in this
one lifetime
you will have to choose.

And choose what? To honor the tree by letting it do what it means to do? As she goes on to suggest in the poem’s final lines,

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

As she explored this poem with us, we each conjured in our minds the vision of a small house dominated by the mass of a slowly maturing redwood. We also imagined, following her lead, what it means that our lives are sheltered by such “immensities” that exceed our knowing, and even our surmising.

Each event in our lives—in their inclusivity—offers an occasion to reflect on such larger questions and deeper wonderings than our prosaic eyes at first allow us to see. Poets like Ms. Hirshfield assist us in facing such larger and unavoidable inevitabilities. Her poems tutor us to open ourselves to this “inclusivity” of life, both its “sugar” and its “salt,” which is able to discern larger meanings than we might otherwise notice if left to our own less attentive devices. Is the “immensity” she mentions a religious or spiritual category? Or is this sense of an “immensity,” as a tacit dimension of our human existence, an invitation to what she elsewhere describes as “an enlargement of being, the slowed and deepened breath that comes with the release of fixed ideas for the more complex read” (from Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry [Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2008], 33)? And is this a spiritual or religious “margin” of insight, properly speaking, or something else entirely?

The fact of Ms. Hirshfield’s religious identity—that she is a long-time practitioner of Zen Buddhism and has for many years been associated with Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery—did not arise until she herself addressed the matter after her talk, admitting that she did not want to be considered as a narrowly or specifically “Buddhist” poet. But is poetry, and art more generally, a specifically “religious” enterprise? Or, is there a poetry that is specifically Buddhist or Christian or affiliated with any other religious tradition? Or, is the specific religious affiliation of a given artist germane to the integrity or “witness” of their work? Is “inclusivity,” in other words, a proper recognition of art’s capacity to “see” and “speak” within a broader and finally more “ultimate” human horizon? In offering what she calls a “seven-word definition for Buddhism”: viz., “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.” Would this be different in the hands of a properly Christian theologian? One hopes not.

One moment in her talk points to the artistic mastery one finds in her poems, and illustrates the entrancement we felt during that session. She selected one of her poems, “Da Capo,” taken from a collection entitled Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997). Before reading the poem, she commented that this particular piece had elicited a vexed response from a reader whose attempt to make the soup described in the poem had been regrettably unsuccessful. Of course, the “directions” are hardly adequate as anything beyond a general summary of the ingredients required for making a lentil soup: “[S]lice carrots, onions, celery. . .” and so forth. Beyond a naming of the ingredients, Hirshfield offers few details about how to prepare the soup—nothing that would suffice for a recipe in a proper cookbook, something the poet certainly knows about as a one-time sous-chef at the celebrated vegetarian restaurant “Greens” in San Francisco. But this is a poem, after all, and the opening line, “Take the used-up heart like a pebble / and throw it far out”, should have been notice enough of this.

As she spoke about this poem, moving quickly past this disenchanted reader’s complaint, she remarked that “there is always a new place to begin” in our lives, no matter the difficulties we face. The poem begins with that opening line, describing what would happen if one threw one’s heart out into a quiet lake. “Soon there is nothing left,” she goes on to write. “Soon the last ripple exhausts itself / in the weeds.” What follows is her listing of the ingredients needed for lentil soup, and as the short poem turns from this, the reader follows a line that ends with a one-word imperative: “Eat.” This is not the command—or is it invitation?—uttered by a minister or priest at the height of the eucharistic liturgy, “Take and eat.” Or is it? Is it anything different than this, this poem which joins in pointing toward our yearning for communion and suggests the courage required to take up our broken or belittled heart and begin again—“from the beginning” (or, literally, “from the head”) as the Italian title suggests? The poem then moves adroitly away from admonition to invitation: “You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted”, closing with a line that returns to voice another imperative, this time one that looks forward: “Begin again the story of your life.”

Is this a poem about “inclusion”? Perhaps, in the sense that occasions of loss, crisis, disappointment, as “Da Capo” suggests, are never only about endings. They are moments of decision, calling us toward yet unanticipated new beginnings in our lives. But how exactly are we to “begin again”? Making soup is a metaphor that points toward creativity, and more than this: toward our capacity to sustain life in abundance and with attention to beauty in a physical, bodily sense. In this sense, Hirshfield’s poem invites us to move from the note of despondency that shapes the poem’s atmosphere at the outset toward an “enlargement” that finds voice in the poem’s concluding invitation. Here, we find ourselves facing at least one of the primary functions of poetry, and art more generally—though, true to her vocation, Ms. Hirshfield does not assert this in the poem. Neither does her poem make such an assertion; indeed, few poets or artists voice assertions about what it is that they make. What she did do was to suggest how a poem like “Da Capo,” beginning with two unrelated metaphors—the wounded heart thrown out “like a pebble” into a lake, and the domestic task of making soup—moves toward a way of reframing one’s own life, of beginning again, and in this sense is a poem about one of the many “lives of the heart.” In her remarks at this session, she suggested as much if in a less direct manner, commenting after reading this poem that “each moment in our lives is a new place to begin.” Conversion of heart, whatever this means, can never be confined to the past tense.

In one of her published essays on poetry, Jane Hirshfield suggests that “the part of art that is art, and not device, unshackles us from usefulness almost entirely.” But is this really the case? Is the invitation that finds voice in such succinct forms of the genre we have come to call “wisdom literature” finally “useless”? Such questions needed no answer among those gathered, in focused attention, for Ms. Hirshfield’s talk. We knew that the answer would come in the living, and in sensing the presence of an “immensity” that calls us to a more capacious and generous way of life.

—Article written by Mark S. Burrows.