Poet Jane Hirshfield On How To Read Poetry And Restore 'Amazement'

03/20/2015 08:30 am ET | Updated Mar 20, 2015

Jane Hirshfield has written eight volumes of award-winning poetry -- she just published a new collection, entitled The Beauty: Poems -- and is currently a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, so few are more well-positioned to demystify poetry for readers. In her new essay collection, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Hirshfield continues a prose exploration of the poetic form commenced in her earlier collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.

To understand poetry may be as simple as experiencing the beauty of a finely wrought verse -- for example, you can read Hirshfield’s stunning “Fado” here. But as the art of the poem grows less familiar to readers, who feel less sure of what poetry is meant to achieve and how they’re meant to experience it, Hirshfield’s thoughtful explication is vital. She reveals to us what poetry truly is, and what it can offer us. Below, Jane Hirshfield talks about the best-kept secrets of poetry -- plus, an excerpt from Ten Windows:

What do you think poetry offers that other mediums don’t?
Poetry is perhaps the instrument able to play more parts of a life at once. It draws from the feelings and from the mind, from this moment’s physical heft and physical fragrance, from one person’s tilt of memory and the world’s shared stories, from biology, physics, cooking, from language’s own hidden knowledge and from music itself. Poems’ statements are multiple, kaleidoscopic. In the registries of grief, they show us that beauty still exists. Amid happiness, they remind us of longing and transience. The tug-of-wars and flood-plain meanderings of poems aren’t contrariness or a way of ducking. The call-and-response of form isn’t arbitrary or ornamental. Poems offer ways to say a larger yes to what in our lives is not answerable by the straightforward and simple. I mean by that almost any moment of any day, if you look closely.

What led you to fall in love with poetry?
The question might equally be, why do some people lose their love of it? All who are small and new to words love poems, their giddy sound-and-sense-making. That’s why toddlers babble happily and why lullabies put babies to sleep. Look at the words of lullabies, fairy tales, children’s books, though; they are chinked through with terror. “And down will come "Poems’ statements are multiple, kaleidoscopic."cradle, baby and all!” Even in infancy, poems are teaching us that terror is part of a human life, and that it’s all right to go to sleep anyhow, because some age-old singing will hold you. Whatever the darkness brings, you will survive it, as others have ... until someday you won’t. Poems include the unincludable, too, and make even that welcome. They remind that our lives are larger and more mysterious than we sometimes feel them. I needed that life raft, as a child. I still do.

What is the most important thing to do when reading a poem?
Listen, without worrying too quickly about whether you understand or not. Give yourself over to a poem the way you give yourself over to your own night dreaming, or to a beloved’s tales of the day. And then, try to listen first to a poem the way you might listen to a piece of music -- the meaning of music isn’t some note by note analysis or paraphrase, it’s to find yourself moved.

What makes a poem “good”?
You feel a poem is good if, having read it, you find yourself at its end a different person -- larger, more permeable, wilder, more awake, more informed, more saddened, more free. The specific flavor or quality of the change almost doesn’t matter, so long as the movement is toward increase rather than narrowing. Galway Kinnell once said, “The title of every good poem might be “Tenderness.” You can feel that in Whitman, in Dickinson, in Neruda, in Cavafy, in Bishop, in Basho -- read any of them, and you can’t help but feel your human fate and their human fates are shared ones. Good poems do this without simplifying our human particularity, range, and oddness. They are themselves singular, memorable, and as unmistakably real and consequential as any other event in a life.

Reading good poems, you feel yourself singular and also part of a common existence. “Common” is a word not usually thought of as praise. But one thing good poems do is take what seems ordinary and burnish it with the motions of paid attention, until its radiance and astonishment can again be seen. Doing dishes. Adding 2 + 2. Looking out a window. Existence itself is nothing if not an amazement. Good poems restore amazement. They are also, always, instruments of further discovery. They sieve from the air what isn’t yet knowable and can’t be held on a page, yet is ineradicable within us, once it’s been given.

How does reading poetry change us as people?
It makes us more permeable, more compassionate, more rigorous, and, in needed ways, smarter. I mean that in the broadest sense: more awake and alert to subtlety and connection, more open to new feelings and new understandings. Empathy with not only people but ants and trees and mountains; sound-work’s lattice, on which surprises of thought can climb; developing the capacity for abiding in the complex and multiple and open -- all these things make us smarter. I don’t, though, want to put forward some idea of poems as primarily useful. Or at least, let me say this: one way poems "Existence itself is nothing if not an amazement. Good poems restore amazement."may be useful is by showing how thin usefulness is. Animal joy, the babbling of babies to their stuffed bears, limericks, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnets of praise and despair -- sometimes the dismantling of rational response is the most needed thing. So much of the illness of the contemporary world comes from living in silo-mind, fixed inside received concepts and purpose. Good poems take down the silos. They are windows flung open.

What do most people not understand well enough about poetry?
Perhaps that a poem is there, available, waiting for them when it might be needed. Poetry isn’t something difficult or dutiful, not academic, not a test. A lyric poem is at bottom an intimate speaking, the seismograph and footprints of actual life. It’s true that the poetry is the part that escapes defining and can’t be pinned down. But that’s all right. The gift is that the poem remains an amplitude that can be entered again, because the words for saying it over again are there.

Excerpted from the preface to Ten Windows:
Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. It is also a changing of vision. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us -- more range, more depth, more feeling; more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstunted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share.

This book continues the investigation begun in an earlier volume, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. The questions pursued by poems themselves are speckled, partial, and infinite. These books, though, pursue as well a single question: How do poems -- how does art -- work? Under that question, inevitably, is another: How do we? Inside the intricate clockworks of language and music, event and life, what allows and invites us to feel and know as we do, and then increase our feeling and knowing? Such a question cannot be answered. “We” are different, from one another and, moment by moment, from even ourselves. “Art,” too, is a word deceptively single of surface. Still, following this question for thirty years has given me pleasure, and some sense of approaching more nearly a destination whose center cannot ever be mapped or reached.

Excerpted from Ten Windows 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.

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