Jane Hirshfield, the award-winning poet, translator and essayist, has lofty ideas about poetry’s role in human lives, which she sets out in her new book about poetry, “Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World” (Knopf, $24.95). On the same day, she released her new book of poems, “The Beauty” (Knopf, $26). She spoke from her home in northern California.
How can poems transform the world?
One of the current great problems in the world is fundamentalism of every kind — political, spiritual — and poetry is an antidote to fundamentalism. Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. Poetry is about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibility. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is the sense that there’s always, still, a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.
The killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore is just the latest in a series of incidents reflecting the problems of race in America. Is there a place for poetry in that struggle?
There’s not only a place for it, there’s an absolute necessity for it, which is one reason Claudia Rankine’s book “Citizen” has been so honored and visible. What poems give us is a way to feel through the underlying dilemmas, a way of recognizing that your own life and the lives of others are not in any way separable. If you don’t recognize that what happens to anyone happens to you, we will go on committing violence to one another. Poems written in the aftermath of injustice and dehumanization and tribal allegiance offer us a way out of this fixed mind-set. If you read poems, you know there is no separation. And you know it not because you were just told it as a cognitive statement, but because you felt it through the experience of the quiet engagement with another person’s recorded experience — that when reading it you feel it as your own experience.
Can you remember a moment in your own life when a poem transformed you?
Every poem I write about in “Ten Windows” has done that. But I’ll talk about a poem by one of the two foremost women poets of Japan’s classical age, Izumi Shikibu, which changed my relationship to my own life, permanently and lastingly. This is in a five-line form called “tanka”: “Although the wind/ blows terribly here,/ moonlight/ also leaks between the roof planks/ of this ruined house.” What I understood from the poem was this: If you try to wall yourself off from pain, difficulty, distress — if you try to build a house so solid that the cold wind won’t be able to enter — you will also be keeping from your life beauty and joy. The poembecame for me a kind of vow toward permeability. It really let me understand that if you want to live a life of fullness, then part of that is a willingness to experience all of it — to experience love and to experience loss. And to understand that you don’t get either without the other.
Has poetry replaced religion as the place people turn to in times of struggle?
“Replaced” is a harsh word. Where you find poems in most people’s lives is at weddings and at funerals. Poems are turned to in the great transitions of a life, when we are at sea amid changes too vast to feel in any way the master of. One of the things poems do is demonstrate that you aren’t alone — that other humans have been here before, and have found a way to sustain aliveness, to find beauty within the condition of grief. And this allows you to go on. And I think writing or reading them, it’s the same experience.
Burns’s story collection, “The Missing Woman,” will be published next month. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in Britain.