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Robert Hatch Photography
By:
Kim Rosen

Poet Jane Hirshfield on the Mystery of Existence

Writer Kim Rosen raises questions about Zen, openness, and the “desperation” of the creative process.

In the ’90s, I had an inner opening that shifted my entire worldview. Though I’d not been drawn to poetry for years, I found myself turning to Rumi, Kabir, and Mirabai. But I hungered for poems that spoke to the stuff of the world I was living in as well as the timeless truths of the mystics. Luckily, I discovered the work of Jane Hirshfield.

In addition to her seven books of poetry, Hirshfield has published several classic books of essays and played a major part in bringing the words of women mystics to modern audiences through the anthologies she edited and co-translated, which include Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems . She was a full-time student of Zen Buddhism for eight years, three of them in monastic practice.

You have been a Zen practitioner for many years. How have your own spiritual path and your evolution as a poet been interwoven? Does your Zen practice teach you about writing poetry? Does your writing teach you about Zen?

They are left foot and right foot.

Zen is the taste of your own tongue in your own mouth. It’s a way to find something very simple that’s already present within you—a subtler, sharper, nondistanced, and nondistancing awareness. Everything else emerges from this intimacy with your own life, this opening into attention. We become the instruments of our lives and become part of the orchestra of the larger existences that our lives in turn are part of.

The same basic attention and permeability are the beginning of poetry writing. Whatever I’ve done in both practice and poetry is a search for ways of seeing and speaking, of feeling and understanding, that draw from the limitless well of the limitless real. I’ll add, I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all. Labels just get in the way. The fundamental wildness and mystery of existence slip every leash we try to put on them, and both meditation practice and the writing of poems are leash-slipping acts.

Your poems, to me, are not only artistic creations but they point also to a way of life, a way of meeting life. And yet they are not preachy at all. When I read them, I don’t even know I’m being changed until I rise from the poem, go to the door, and hear myself intoning, “Come, thief!” with a surprising openness to anything that might arrive. What is the relationship within you between the teacher/spiritual guide and the poet?

“Openness to anything”—you may have already named the central thing. When I start to write, I’m not a guide or teacher; I’m not even a poet. I’m a person far out at sea, and the poem is a raft made of whatever floats past in the water. Those almost accidental rescuing pieces are words, rhythms, musics, ideas, the memory that is mine and the memory that is all of ours and the memory that is held in language itself. The experience of writing, for me at least, isn’t confidence or wisdom; it’s closer to desperation. You are naked as Odysseus when he’s lost his ship and all his men, before he’s met by the courageous young girl Nausicaa—a version perhaps of the rescuing muse, who helps us find our way back into the world shared with others but only if we bring our own resourcefulness to the situation as well. There is some faint memory that this raft business has worked before, some memory of knot-tying, of the intention to live. There is that in us that recognizes: “this is water; this is land.” A poem is land found, as if for the first time. If I already knew what it would hold, I wouldn’t need the poem, and if what it holds were knowable by any other words or way, I wouldn’t need the poem. 

There’s, of course, another stage of things, after the first draft is written, in which other knowledges and intentions do come in. You have to know enough to be dissatisfied with the easy phrase, with the false or timid gesture, and also with the masks of style or stance. You have to want, more than anything else, to make your own discovery each time. You have to welcome both your own strangeness and

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