ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
JANE HIRSHFIELD: (Reading) An hour is not a house, a life is not a house. You do not go through them as if they were doors to another. Yet an hour can have shape and proportion, four walls, a ceiling. An hour can be dropped like a glass. Some want quiet as others want bread. Some want sleep. My eyes went to the window, as a cat or a dog left alone does.
RATH: That's one of our most celebrated poets, Jane Hirshfield, reading a selection from her new collection "The Beauty." Hirshfield actually has two books coming out next week - the book of poems and a book about poetry, "Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform The World." I asked her to explain her idea of a window moment in a poem.
HIRSHFIELD: Some poems - and not all poems and it's not necessary for a poem to be good to do this - but some poems have a way of sometimes quite literally looking out a window. They change their focus of direction. They change their attention. And by doing that - by glancing for a moment at something else, the field of the poem becomes larger. What's in the room with the poem is bigger.
So an example I use at the end of the chapter is two very well-known English war poems in which the authors turn towards nature. And simply by reminding us in the midst of an account of war-making that the natural world exists - that it goes on - we suddenly feel the unnecessity of our human wars. And we also feel the grief of them.
RATH: Well, you know, even though it's not structural analysis, I still - reading this book of analysis alongside the book of your poetry, I kept wondering, you know, does writing this analysis make you more self-conscious when you're writing your own poetry? Like, whenever I saw a window in one of your poems, I was thinking oh, is she thinking about the window moment as she's writing this?
HIRSHFIELD: I'm very lucky in that I have one of the worst memories you will ever meet. And therefore, I remember nothing I've said when I'm close-reading other people's poems. I don't have an internal checklist that I then bring to the writing of my own. My entire body, mind, heart when I'm writing a poem are simply inside that experience. I do think that having spent, you know, something like 30 years now closely attending to other people's poems and to what I feel makes them as magnificent and mysterious as they are, that must affect my relationship to my own writing. But one thing happens in one room and the other happens in another.
RATH: This book of essays, "Ten Windows," it's about the transformative power of poetry. And for me, one of the most powerful is in how well you write about tears and grief and how that can be part of this transformation. And there's a poem of yours I'd like to read from this collection. I think it might be the shortest poem in this book. It's called...
HIRSHFIELD: "Two Linen Handkerchiefs."
HIRSHFIELD: Yes. "Two Linen Handkerchiefs." (Reading) How can you have been dead 12 years and these still...
So the poem is broken off in exactly the way a life is broken off and exactly the way grief breaks off, takes us beyond any possible capacity for words to speak. And yet it also - short as it is - it holds all of our bewilderment in the face of death. How is it that these inanimate handkerchiefs, which did belong to my father and are still in a drawer of mine and which I did accidentally come across - how can they still be so pristinely ironed and clean and existent when the person who chose them and used them and wore them is gone?
RATH: And there's something about this - I can't explain what it is in the words, but that - I know that you're an ordained Zen Buddhist - I don't know if you call it minister, right, or is that the term?
HIRSHFIELD: Oh, no. I'm an ordained lay practitioner.
RATH: Lay practitioner.
HIRSHFIELD: I'm a Universal Life minister, but that was just so I could marry some friends.
RATH: (Laughter) OK. Well, just thinking about this idea that I think I've come across in Buddhism of - that grief can generate compassion in this way. And that's what I kind of feel in this poem.
HIRSHFIELD: Oh, I'm so glad you're bringing that out because I think compassion in a way is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust do for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are. If a person reads this poem when they're inside their own most immediate loss, they immediately, I hope, feel themselves accompanied. Someone else has been here. Someone else has felt what I felt. And, you know, we know this in our minds, but that's very different from being accompanied by the words of a poem, which are not ideas, but are experiences.
RATH: That's Jane Hirshfield. Her collection of poetry called "The Beauty" and a collection of essays called "Ten Windows" are both out on Tuesday. Jane, it's been such a joy speaking with you. Thank you.
HIRSHFIELD: I loved our conversation. Thank you so very much.
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