Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World
Jane Hirshfield is one of our finest poets writing today and also one of our best essayists on the act of writing and the art of poetry.
Her ninth book of poetry The Beauty (March 2015) embraces her art and the world intimately. Her previous essay collection, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) has become a modern classic for its intuitive and mindful insights. Though Hirshfield is a practicing Buddhist, she is not confined by this, and speaks to the largest audience of poetry lovers. Her intention is not to explain a single poem but to help us understand what lies behind and under the act of poetry.
In this new collection from talks and essays, she provides close readings of a wide range of poets, including Dickinson, Bashō, Szymborska, Cavafy, Keats, Blake, Heaney, Merwin, and Bishop, among many others. Deftly she shares her skills at understanding the basis of the poem as well as its larger implications to the art of poetry.
We come to see how each poem is in part about Poetry. And what she reveals are such deep concepts as poetry’s hiddenness, paradox, and surprise as they touch the uncertainty in our lives. For her, language works as discovery—through image, statement, feeling, and music.
In the opening essay she declares: “Poetry’s work is not simply the recording of inner and outer perception; it makes by words and music the possibilities of perceiving. Distinctive realms appear to us when we look and hear by poem-light. And these realms clearly are needed—there is no human culture that does not have its songs and poems.”
And nowhere is her approach more clear and revealing than in the brilliant chapter: “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Bashō, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image.” Her grasp of Japan’s Matsuo Bashō’s intent and evolution are revelatory as are her smooth and clear translations. She truly gets Bashō intent and even his Zen essence, and then almost channels him to speak to us of life and language and poetry.
“A poem, he said, exists only while it’s on the writing desk; by the time its ink has dried, it should be recognized as just a scrap of paper. In poetry as in life, he saw each moment as a gate-latch. Permeability mattered more in this process than did product or will: ‘If we were to gain mastery over things, we would find their lives would vanish under us without a trace.’”
Seeing the haiku as “a study in sounds, textures, and scale, and in exposure, both exterior and interior” her essay enlightens the depth behind this seemingly simple form which Bashō proved the master of. Noting his heart-felt allegiance to the moment, she quotes him on form: “If you have three or four, even five or seven extra syllables but the poem still sounds good, don’t worry about it. But if one syllable stops the tongue, look at it hard.” For a few samples of his artful directness consider:
cutting a tree
seeing the sawn trunk it grew from:
why do I grow old?
a bird entering clouds.
don’t copy me
like the second half
of a cut melon!
She so tellingly concludes, “Bashō’s haiku are the record of what the world placed in the open begging bowl of his life and his perceptions.”
Though this essay alone is worth the price of the book, it is literally surrounded by long, insightful, often demanding studies of other fine poems and poets, and in fact the very nature of Poetry. Just as Jane Hirshfield opened gates for us to see poetry’s bond with life itself, here the windows are thrown open to a vision of poetry from the inside looking out.