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Jane Hirshfield: Different than Your Average Western Poet


By Lilly Zoller


    The nineteenth century poet, Jane Hirshfield, was born in New York City on February 24, 1954. She was raised in a privileged family in New York in which she attended school and enjoyed reading and writing from a very young age. She was especially interested in and inspired by English sonnets, Latin lyrical verses, Japanese poetry and Aztec, Eskimo, and ancient Indian court poetry. She graduated high school and went on to college at Princeton University where she earned her Bachelor of the Arts. There she studied in the East Asian Studies Program where she crafted her major in creative writing and literary translation. In 1973, Hirshfield graduated in Princeton’s first graduating class of women and began her writing career. After feeling that she had not yet had enough life experience to write about, she went on to study at the San Fransisco Zen Center where she lived as monk in a Buddhist monastery for 12 years. Her time as a monk heavily inspired her writings and plays a very prominent role in many of her poems. This combination of typical life experiences and a deep connection to spirituality has made Hirshfield’s work different from that of other Western poets in the way that she tends not to be human centered in her poetry and much of her work is political in the way that it directly comments on current issues while having a strong feminist nature.

    Most noted for her poems, essays, books, and work as a translator, Hirshfield’s writings are typically consistent with the themes that include awareness, consciousness, perception, ethical involvement, judgement, certainty, and the objectification of material of existence relating to the matter of people or abstracted human nature. This can be seen in her famous works including “The Beauty,” “Come,” “Thief,” “After,” and “Given Sugar, Given Salt.”

    Hirshfield’s utilizes the method of objectifying all types of reality including even the most personal types. She explains this through zen phrases that are in touch with her surroundings. In “The Promise,” Hirshfield evokes emotion in form of visual imagery:

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.
Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
(Hirshfield 10)
The connection to body and the elements of the earth create a zen mood that is common in Hirshfield’s writings. But, this is paired with the relatable writing of a twenty-first century western poet which makes her style extremely unique. By connecting something as complex as the human body to the simpleness of a dog, the reader is able to clearly grasp the intended meaning revolves around the idea that everything is ever-changing. Different than most other traditional western poets, Hirshfield via simplistic language and zen undertones which sets her apart from many other writers of this time. Her writing is proof that she is “an eclectic poet not tied to any one tradition (Menard).” To many, the most legendary aspect of Hirshfield’s is her ability to seamlessly connect a variety of different cultures, experiences, and stories into one piece of poetry. Additionally, she is able to infuse it with rich imagery and descriptive language to enrich her work. This impressive poetic talent sets her apart from most other poets.

    Hirshfield often relies on simplicity to get her point across which is inconsistent with the work of many other writers. Not only does she write about basic objects such as chairs, dogs, and the snow, she writes about them using basic language and structure. She ponders the ideas on loneliness which is represented by a chair in the poem “A Chair in the Snow” where she writes “A chair in snow should be / like any other object whited / & rounded / and yet a chair in snow is always sad” (Hirshfield 1). The simple and minimalistic approach Hirshfield took in order to write this deep and powerful poem is unlike that of other poets who typically try to overdramatize action and create deeper connections. The basicity of the work has a deep affect on the reader which in this case drives the reader to feel empowered and noticeable even in a time of loneliness and hardship.

    In another one of her poems, Hirshfield writes “Once, it drank beer for breakfast / drifted its feet / in a river side by side with the feet of another. / Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy, / dropping its head so the hair would fall forward, / so the eyes would not be seen.” (Hirshfield 10). Once again, Hirshfield described the simple events of daily life in using everyday language with a zen twist. It is important to note that this style of writing is extremely unique in the way that it discusses the ritual events in a spiritual setting. This is unique because most other poets either discuss the complexities of spirituality and being zen or the simplicity of the mundane occurrences of daily life. Somehow, Hirshfield blends the two in a masterful way which creates her own genre of eclectic poetry that belongs only to her and is different than most others.

    Feminism is another topic that Hirshfield integrates into her poems while still sticking true to her classic style of zen and simple writing. Hirshfield views feminism as “giving women the power to live their dreams (Hirschfield).” This topic is commonly talked about in poetry but yet again, Hirshfield does it in a differently in the way that she relates it to everyday actions. In her poem “Tree,” the concept of feminism is related to a tree: “That great calm being / this clutter of soup pots and books— / Already the first branch-tips brush at the window. / Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.” (Given Sugar, Give Salt 102). Her points are very clear using the zen images of a piece of nature to evoke emotion and the basic idea of a tree to give the reader the best understanding of the situation which is unlike anything that any other poet does. Others support her unique way of discussing feminism by saying that she “completely at ease with being a woman. There’s nothing defensive about the range and intensity of her involvement with the world, be it a poem in the form of a scientific assay or one about cooking breakfast or her making available three books containing the work of early women writers. (McGrath).”

    Her detailed language and vivid visual imagery is consistent through all of her writing which gives it power and sets it apart from the work of other poets. In “What Binds Us,” she paints pictures in the minds of the readers that connect them with her writing. She writes, “And see how the flesh grows back / across a wound, with a great vehemence, / more strong / than the simple, untested surface before. / There's a name for it on horses, / when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh, / as all flesh, / is proud of its wounds, wears them / as honors given out after battle, / small triumphs pinned to the chest. (Hirshfield 16).” Hirshfield told the story of resistance and standing up for rights that one believes in through imagery and everyday language. While many poets might use imagery, none do it in the way that Hirshfield does in which she paints clear photos in the minds of the reader.

    Jane Hirshfield achieve immense success in her field by combining a series of different experiences and influences all into one style. This seamless mixture of various sources is exclusive to Hirshfield and sets her apart from almost all other poets. She leaves her readers feeling empowered and ignites the want to take action through her beautiful writing.

Works Cited

Hirshfield, Jane. "Things Seem Strong." The New Yorker. N.p., 26 Aug. 2016. Web. 06 Dec. 2016. Print.
McGrath, Leslie. "Human Lives: A Conversation between Jane Hirshfield and Leslie McGrath." VIDA Women in Literary Arts. N.p., 4 Nov. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2016. Web.
Menard, Pierre. "Jane Hirshfield Analysis - ENotes.com." Enotes.com. Enotes.com, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.Web.
Monroe, Harriet. "Jane Hirshfield." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016. Web.

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