The Craft of Jane Hirshfield

The Book Club for Poets had decided, months ago, to discuss the work of whichever poet won the 2012 Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. That poet turned out to be Jane Hirshfield, and in many ways, this “chance” selection seemed uncannily appropriate for us. While expressing her own distinct voice, Hirshfield’s poetry also echoes many of the qualities we find in the work of poets we’ve already discussed, such as the spirituality of Li-Young Lee’s work and the gnomic quality we noted in both Kay Ryan’s and Emily Dickinson’s poems. The Book Club also benefited from the many interviews Hirshfield has given and the essays she has published. Two in particular—“Spiritual Poetry” and “Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking”—amplified points we made in our summer discussion about how craft can help us express the inexpressible.

In my summer post about Li-Young Lee’s poems, I focused on two of the techniques identified by Mary Johnson as ways of expressing spiritual experiences—rhetoric and paradox. In “Spiritual Poetry,” Hirshfield identifies further techniques, such as expressions of “abundance” and the use of dialogue. We see dialogue in “The Promise,” for example, in which the narrator of the poem engages in a one-sided conversation with several actors in her world—flowers, a spider, a leaf, her own body, the earth itself. Each time she commands “Stay,” these actors immediately change or flee. Especially effective, I think, is the metaphor that compares the inconstancy of the speaker’s own body to the well-meaning but futile—and comic—attempts of a dog to obey its master:

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

The one exception to the pattern of failure are the human “loves” of the speaker, who come in at the conclusion of the poem:

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,

The rhetorical device of repetition—Stay, Stay, Stay—at the beginning of the first five stanzas heightens the effect of each disappointing response and gives an ambiguity to that promise of the lovers in the final stanza. It’s possible to read that Always as a promise doomed to failure. (Like the cut flowers, no human lover is immortal.) Or we can interpret that Always as the exception to the rule: love outlasts even the people who inspired it and shared it with us. Or we can see both endings as true, simultaneously.

Several other Hirshfield poems we discussed use dialogue, such as “Bruises,” which addresses the narrator’s aging body and possibly an aging lover, and “Shadow: An Assay,” which explores several possible roles and meanings of the narrator’s shadow.

Much of what Hirshfield has said in print focuses perhaps less on specific ways of using language and more on the attitude of the poet toward the world. “Permeability,” for example, might mean allowing an image to contain multiple meanings. (“The moon in Japanese poetry is always the moon; often it is also the image of Buddhist awakening,” she notes in “Spiritual Poetry.”) But permeability is also an openness to all aspects of experience. “If a life is walled so tightly that it lets in no pain, grief, anger, or longing,” Hirshfield says in “Spiritual Poetry,” “it will also be closed to the entrance of what is most wanted.“ A poem that illustrates this willingness to be open is “A Blessing for Wedding,” which also demonstrates the technique of “abundance.” In the poem, the narrator lists images taken from someone’s wedding day:

Today when persimmons ripen
Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow
Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song
Today when the maple sets down its red leaves
Today when windows keep their promise to open
Today when fire keeps its promise to warm …

We noted, during our Book Club discussion, that the imagery is satisfying not only for its precision but also for its surprises (the egg releasing not a wren but its song) and for subtle echoes and variations: the red of the fox kits is echoed in the maple’s leaves and the fire, for example; the cold of the snow is balanced by the warmth of the fire, and the ripening of the persimmon is balanced by the dying of the leaves. The abundance and fullness of the images in the poem help create a sense of “the richness of all that passes—a passing we know ourselves part of” (Hirshfield, “Spiritual Poetry”). But the when the listing continues, the narrator does not censor out aspects of life that we might normally consider inappropriate for a wedding day:

Today when someone you love has died
or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
or someone who will not meet has been born
Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness
Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired
Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow
Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace.

It’s not that the images get increasingly ominous here: instead, the speaker alternates between death and birth, drought and rain, hunger and starlight, sorrow and embrace. What the narrator is wishing for the married couple is not just happiness but fullness of experience. Only by being open can the couple fully experience their marriage, which must include joy and grief, sensuality and mortality: “Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly / Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears …”

Similar to permeability are the modes of expression that Hirshfield identifies in “Two Secrets.” These modes concern specific language techniques but focus even more on the poet’s attitude toward—relationship to—the outer world. Here is how Hirshfield defines these “inward and outward” looking modes:

Outer images carry reflective and indirect meanings as well. Poems … generally take one of three possible stances. In the first stance [subjective mode], outer reference serves the poet’s interior thinking: the world beyond the self appears, but the relationship is that of monologue, with a human-centered consciousness dominating. In the second stance [reflective mode], the poet and the outer world stand face to face in mutual regard; out of that meeting, the poem’s statements arise. Here the relationship is that of dialogue, with the wider world treated as both equal and other. In the third stance [objective mode], the poet becomes an intermediary, a medium through whom the world of objects and nature beyond human consciousness may speak; in poetry’s transparent and active transcription, language itself becomes an organ of perception. (131. Boldface added throughout. Phrases in brackets are Hirshfield’s terms, which appear also on 131.)

These modes are beautifully illustrated in Hirshfield’s own “Love in August.” The first stanza is written in objective mode, or “pure observation,” which, she says, is rare—in terms of entire poems being written in this mode—outside “Buddhist and Taoist traditions” (141). And, in fact, this stanza does read like a haiku:

White moths
against the screen
in August darkness.

This is a scene that will no doubt seem familiar to us, though the short lines focus our attention intently on each individual component of the image: the “white moths” seen first in isolation, then in location (“against the screen”), and then in contrast to the “darkness” of an August night. It’s hard for our metaphor-loving minds not to read significance into the ending of summer and into moths themselves, but the language is focused on the visual image of something in the “outer” world.

The even shorter second stanza is written in subjective mode: “Some clamor / in envy.” The narrator is projecting the human emotion of envy onto nonhuman creatures. It’s an imaginative leap that works, I think, to convey the restlessness and persistence of moths in response to a light they cannot reach. In less-skillful hands such anthropomorphizing runs the “risk,” as Hirshfield puts it, of “sentimental fog” and “solipsism” (“Two Secrets,” 131). But in “Love in August,” the poet uses the subjective mode with restraint and for the purpose of expressing the outer world vividly rather than using the outer world to look only inward.

The final stanza demonstrates the reflective mode—in which the nonhuman and human appear in equal stature, revealing something about both inward and outward realities, and the relationship between them:

Some spread large
as two hands
of a thief

who wants to put
back in your cupboard
the long-taken silver.

Because human interpretation is included here, we understand the relevance of the images, of the moths, to the human narrator: the moths themselves are a gift, and seeing them this clearly creates a sense of something being restored to us. But the moths are themselves “only”—and wholly—moths: though compared to something human, they aren’t forced to personify the narrator’s emotion or to suggest a reality “more important” than they are. It’s that intersection of the human and nonhuman—on the thinness of a screen—that is the gift.

In previous postings about our Book Club discussions, I’ve talked about the power of pattern and repetition in poetry. “Love in August” illustrates the power of variation. The layering and shifting of modes create much of our experience as readers of this poem. Consider how much the poem would lose if it were rewritten, for example, only in subjective or objective mode. Or think how less intense the poem would be if it didn’t contain the objective mode in the first stanza.

I think also that it’s important for us as poets to periodically ask the “big picture” questions about our craft. What do our own poems reveal about how we see our relationship to the outer world? And can we try to see the world in more varied ways?


Hirshfield, Jane. “A Blessing for Wedding.” In Come, Thief, 59. New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “Love in August.” In Come, Thief, 28. New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “The Promise.” In Come, Thief, 22.New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “Spiritual Poetry,  Poetry Foundation,; originally published June 28, 2006.

———. “Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking.” In Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, 125-52. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

© 2012 Martha Carlson-Bradley