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A famous poet explains how great verse can help solve big social problems (and reads you a poem!)

Award-winning poet Jane Hirshfield (Photo by Michael Lionstar)

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.” On the same day, she released her new book of poems, “The Beauty.” She spoke from her home in the San Francisco area.

Q. Your book has a very heady subtitle: Can you explain how poems transform the world?

I think we know the world needs changing. Things are going awry left and right. I firmly believe that in our very practical, technological, and scientific age, the values of all the arts, but of poetry in particular, are necessary for moving the world forward. I’m talking about things like compassion, empathy, permeability, interconnection, and the recognition of how important it is to allow uncertainty in our lives.

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. They’re about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.

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Q. 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 why Claudia Rankin’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 mindset. 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 as your own experience.

Q. In your own new collection, do you address explicitly, or implicitly, social issues and transformation?

Every poem – I hope – has at its heart a moment of transformation. If there’s no moment of transformation, there is no poem. There’s a poem called “My Species,” and I’ll read it to you:

That poem is a plea for transformation. That is a poem of both description and hope. Will we ever say we have had enough? Will we boil and boil long enough that we will at last find ourselves tired of our own bitterness.

Q. Can you remember a moment in your own life when a particular poem transformed you?

Every poem in “Ten Windows” has done that. But I’ll talk about a poem by the 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 this poem was that, 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. It became 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.

Q. Do you think that, for some, poetry or literature has replaced religion as the place people turn to in times of despair or incomprehension or struggle?

“Replaced” is a harsh word. But for people who are now secular, and I place myself amongst that group, many of the things that used to come to us through religion — mystery, awe, vastness, interconnection, compassion – now come to us through poems. People say to me, “Poetry, that’s kind of a tiny side niche, isn’t it? No one pays attention to poetry anymore.” Yet where you find poems in most people lives is at wedding and at funerals. Poems are turned to in the great transitions of a life, when we are at sea in 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.

My Species

a small purple artichoke
in its own bittered
and darkening
grows tender,
grows tender and sweet
patience, I think,
my species
keep testing the spiny leaves
the spiny heart

Excerpted from The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield. Copyright © 2015 by Jane Hirshfield. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Burns’s short story collection, The Missing Woman, will be published June 1. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in the UK.

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