Jane Hirshfield on why poets treasure pondering life’s abysses

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Jane Hirshfield, award-winning poet and essayist joins KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian from her home in Northern California to discuss her newest collection of poems, “Ledger.” Hirshfield starts by describing the day the world changed, which was coincidentally right in the middle of her book tour for her new book for “Ledger.” She awoke to an email box full of cancelled events, then that night she wrote a new poem, which included the line “you go to sleep in one world and wake in another.” For many,   

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

Poetry is so well suited to these times. Explain how being a poet has prepared you for this moment? 

Jane Hirshfield: I feel both very lucky in that psychologically, a person who treasures spending time alone, quietly pondering the universe, including its abysses, is singularly well-prepared for a pandemic. My psyche knows what to do with being sequestered in silence and having something very large that I need to be facing into. I also feel very lucky in a different way, in that poetry is able to serve. Because it is words that travel from hand to hand, tongue to tongue, pocket to pocket, pixel to pixel. A poem can go out into the world and help other people. 

One of the most difficult parts of all of this — if you're not a frontline person, an essential worker, a health worker or a caregiver — is that many people feel helpless. For me, one of the great pieces of luck is that I have not felt quite so helpless because the world has been returning to me the evidence that my words are helping people. 

Explain how poems, words, and imagery can help people?

Hirshfield: Poetry, art, the mind of art, the mind that likes to look at things in a way that includes the emotions, that includes the body, that includes everything we know, all of our history, the science, the imagination, it's a bit like water. It will find the smallest crack of entry and it will travel to that place and it will spread. It will disseminate itself and it will try to reach new destinations, new trees with new thirsty roots. 

How do you remain hopeful? There’s optimism in your poems balanced with the darkness — where does the light come from? 

Hirshfield: There was one poem that changed my life. It’s a very short poem, 31 syllables in the Japanese. 

“Although the wind blows terribly here, the moonlight also leaks between the roof planks of this ruined house.” 

That poem really changed my life because I then understood that if you do not welcome the cold winds into your life and the leaky roof, the storms, the pain, the suffering and the loss, you will also be cutting yourself off from beauty; the moonlite, the world, the fullness of your own existence. So that lesson is what gives me hope and has given me the tool to remember that whatever the suffering, difficulty, overwhelming unbearable condition I find myself in, if I just look, there will be some glint of beauty somewhere in the world. That opens a door within yourself to be able to leave the abyss and refind your way to a world, you can bear to live in and even more, that you want to live in.




Andrea Brody