Helping things come into their own
A poet finds both gardening and writing need a balance of 'deliberative labor' and 'allowing-to-arrive'
Jane Hirshfield's yard seems the perfect metaphor for her poetry. In front of her white bungalow in Mill Valley, Calif., lies a garden with vegetables, perennials, old roses, and a dozen fruit trees. Behind her house stand second-growth redwoods, tall and spindly. That juxtaposition - what she has cultivated for years and the potential for great growth - seems especially telling as she looks toward the second half of her career.
The first half, of course, has blossomed beautifully. Hirshfield has published five books of poems, a collection of essays, and a book of translations. Her awards include a Guggenheim and a $25,000 fellowship from the Academy of American Poets she received last November for distinguished poetic achievement. The latter places her in the company of America's most celebrated writers.
But as gratifying as that recognition is - an "absolute shock" she says - Hirshfield remains focused on her writing. It, like her garden, is an evocative mix of control and wildness, stunning beauty and unseen forces. "Gardening, like writing, comes from a balance of deliberative labor and allowing-to-arrive," she says in a telephone interview. "None of us can be foolish enough to think that we create the fertile world, whether the one of vegetables or the one of images and thoughts - but we can help it find shapeliness, and create a space in which certain things can come more fully into their own."
Creating a space in her life is exactly what the poet has done. Rather than teach full time, as she once did, Hirshfield teaches and gives readings several times a month, so that writing can be the center of her life.
She also unplugs the phone each day, so the outside world can't intrude when she works on a poem. "If I don't create the time to write, day after day will just slip by," she says. "The poems won't get written, and I won't have lived the life I most want to live."
Her work space - her bedroom - is conducive to writing. A bookshelf next to the bed holds titles by Czeslaw Milosz, Kenneth Rexroth, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others, and a stack of paper. On one side of the sheets are early drafts of other poems. "It's a bit like a compost heap," she says, "out of which new poems rise."
That recycling, or rediscovering, has been a constant theme for decades, on and off the page. Her garden, for example, was overrun with raspberry brambles when she bought her house 20 years ago. But until she began pulling the bushes, she couldn't see the paths, stone work, and plant beds that lay beneath. The same thing happens in her poems, where one precise image - a horse, a piece of clay, or a button is carefully rendered. Then she unearths layer after layer of association. "Writing a poem is an act of discovery, not the recording of some already completed experience," she explains. "It's a way to search for what you don't know or perhaps for what you know, but don't yet know you know."
This excerpt from the poem "Rebus" shows how her work unfolds from image to image:
You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust.
Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table....
This rebus - slip and stubbornness,
bottom of river, my own consumed life -
when will I learn to read it
plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire?
Not to understand it, only to see....
(From her book "Given Sugar, Given Salt")
Hirshfield's ability to observe carefully allows her to imbue her subjects with emotional resonance. "It's often true that something can best be understood and communicated through an image, rather than by trying to look at the inner life directly," she says. "Trees instruct us in the possibility of stability, foxes teach us elusive wisdom, rocks show us how to carry on no matter what. These images and the meanings they carry have been woven over millennia into the web of our human consciousness. They're in the language, and in our intuitive and instantaneous understanding."
Not surprisingly, Hirshfield views writing as a spiritual act. But she's quick to point out that any activity can be "spiritual," even standing in line at the grocery store. "The spiritual life, I feel, is a way to come ever more close to being fully alive and awake in this world."
What may be surprising is that Hirshfield, who spent three years in a Buddhist monastery, grew up in New York City, where she dreamed of owning - or being - a horse. She always loved to read, but no one in her family was a writer. Her father worked in the garment industry; her mother's father was a welder. After graduating from Princeton, she spent a year picking vegetables on a farm in New Jersey.
All of those experiences seem to have shaped her desire to reclaim what she loves and to bring together the disparate pieces. Even her translations of Japanese poems do this, by giving voice to women writers from another time and culture.
And what about her own voice? Where does Hirshfield go from here?
Her writing has been changing for years, slowly moving away from poems that function as if they were one long, extended sentence that ends in great mystery. In contrast, newer work contains less elusiveness and is broken into stanzas, each of which has a life of its own. "Instead of a whale moving through the page, perhaps it's a school of fish," Hirshfield muses. Her work also makes more-direct statements, another departure for the poet. "Statement-making requires, at least of me, a certain courage, a certain willingness to be seen for what you are."
Those who love her work do hope to see more of what she is when her sixth book is published next year. And readers won't be surprised at all to hear that she will give a reading next fall where William Wordsworth lived in England's Lake District. She will walk in the garden where he walked.
Her own garden, however, is what keeps her grounded, as do meditating, reading, and riding her red Arabian, Flame.
For these next decades of her career, everything comes back to the work. To cultivating and allowing things to be wild. To exploring how "a person can live in a world in which everything is going to change, to vanish."
• Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry for the Monitor. For more poetry coverage, go to www.csmonitor.com/specials/poetry/index.html