Jan Hirshfield with some of her books.
Jane Hirshfield is not only a leading American poet with eight highly acclaimed collections under her belt, a slew of awards and prestigious fellowships, and wide teaching experience but she is also now officially a leading face and voice for American verse as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
She was born in New York City on February 24, 1953. She was a member of the first class of Princeton University to graduate women.
As a young woman teaching part time at distinguished universities her tastes and influences were wide. She studied and became fluent in Japanese and was drawn to Zen Buddhism receiving a lay ordination in 1979 in Soto Zen at the San Francisco Zen Center. Buddhism deeply influenced both the style and the thematic content of her work as a poet. She also became an accomplished translator of Japanese poetry, particularly that of women.
Her interest in Zen and in ecology was encouraged by Gary Snyder, the legendary Beat and post-Beat California bard of the woods.
Since the publication of her first collection in Alaya in the Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series in 1982 Hirshfield’s recognition as a poet has grown steadily. Among her most acclaimed collections are Given Sugar, Given Salt in 2001, and most recently 2015’s Come, Thief.
Her awards and honors include the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, Columbia University’s Translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, the Poetry Center Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the seventieth Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets. Her work has been included seven editions of Best American Poetry.
In addition to her work as a freelance writer, editor, and translator, Hirshfield has taught in the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars, at the University of California at Berkeley, and at the University of San Francisco. She has been a visiting Poet-in-Residence at Duke University, the University of Alaska, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere, and has been the Elliston Visiting Poet at the University of Cincinnati.
Hirschfield’s work often focuses on social justice and the intimate relationship of humanity and the natural environment. It connects the deeply personal with the broadest concerns. Yet it is not overtly political and never strident. Instead it is infused with a Zen combination of subtlety, clarity of expression, and a deep awareness of the moment. Like a koan her poems invite a meditation by the reader.
On the Fifth Day
On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.
The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
and the ones who worked for the bees.
Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.
The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.
Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,
while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.
The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking,
of rivers, of boulders and air.
In gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.
Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.
They spoke, the fifth day,
That was far from the first time that Hirshfield wrote boldly.
As the Hammer Speaks to a Nail
When all else fails,
fail with conviction,
as a hammer speaks to a nail,
or a lamp left on in daylight.
If two does not follow,
say three, if that fails, say life,
lacking iron, try shadow.
If shadow too fails,
if your voice falls and falls and keeps falling,
meets only air and silence,
say one again,
but say it with greater conviction,
as a nail speaks to a picture,
as a hammer left on in daylight.
Spell to be Said Against Hatred
Until each breath refuses “they,” “those,” “them.”
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book's first page says “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another.
Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly “I.”
Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless chair.
Until the unsurprised unbidden knees find themselves nonetheless bending.
Until fear bows to its object as a bird's shadow bows to its bird.
Until the ache of the solitude inside the hands, the ribs, the ankles.
Until the sound the mouse makes inside the mouth of the cat.
Until the inaudible acids bathing the coral.
Until what feels no one's weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one's earning is no longer taken.
Until grief, pity, confusion, laughter, longing see themselves mirrors.
Until by “we” we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by “I” we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and sounding and
Until by “until” we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger,
the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.