On Tuesday, March 29, 2024, former Academy Chancellor Jane Hirshfield delivered the 2024 Blaney Lecture to a virtual audience. During the event, The Academy of American Poets invited audience members to email questions about the themes of Hirshfield's lecture, “Making the Invisible Visible: Some Thoughts on Poetry & Science.” Below is a selection of those questions and Hirshfield's responses.

First of all, I very much want to thank Jane Hirshfield for an extraordinarily creative and wondrous presentation. It was one of the most stimulating lectures I’ve heard in a long time. My question is as follows: Do you think that at least one aspect of our human striving to make the invisible visible is in some ways an unconscious attempt to control death and mortality? —John T.

As soon as I read your question, I thought, “It must be so.” Evolution, after all, selects for what will help us stay alive. Knowing more—about your habitat, your community of existence, yourself, everything you meet or see or swim through—is a tool of survival, and curiosity leads to an increase of knowledge.

We want a predictable world, one we can work with in predictable ways. That is in the realm of science: to create a world in which prediction proves ever more accurate and true. And science doesn’t, in its doing, much need to investigate its own motivations.

But then, the world is not predictable and we ourselves are not predictable; and so there is another relationship to the navigation of our knowledge of death and mortality, and that is the realm of art and poems: we must find a way to agree to what we would not choose. Our own non-survival, a loved one’s non-survival. And in art, this continual negotiation with impermanence is not, I don’t think, unconscious. We feel the world’s vanishings on our skin, in our breathing, in the heart and mind, and look for a way to respond because it is otherwise unbearable.

For every possible relationship to mortality, there is some poem. Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” or a poem written by fourteenth-century Japanese Zen monk, Kozan Ichikyo, written while facing directly into his own death: “Empty-handed, I enter, / barefoot I leave. / My birth, my death—/ just two moments / that became entangled.” Thomas protests, longs for control. Kozan Ichikyo finds a way to greet his own imminent departure from this world with something closer to a smile of welcome, a nod of recognition.

Sometimes we need one of these poems, sometimes the other. But both are what Wallace Stevens described so beautifully in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination as “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.” I think these thoughts are Stevens confirming your question’s premise.


Hello, Jane, do you know the word ¡Mira! in Spanish, meaning “to look”? I love this word. People say it a lot in the command form “¡Mira!” Especially to children.

Then there’s good old “mirage.” Not to mention “miracle.” Did you do this on purpose? Will you get a lot of “mir” words sent to you all week? Or is it just me? Do you have a huge list and just select from it each time you speak or write on this topic? I am wondering more than asking, I confess. Imagination plays a role here, doesn’t it? Was that in the first segment you left out?

This was a fantastic lecture in every way. I learned a lot and felt transported at the same time. It seemed to have a lot to do with a poem I am currently writing. I think I solved some problems of perspective and content by listening, which came as a total surprise. Your lecture said, “¡Mira!”

Thank you so much, Jane and the Academy of American Poets. —Sandra S.

Thank you, Sandra, for these rich thoughts. And yes, something about imagination was in a left-out section—the one on hypothesis and speculation, surrealism, and play. I had to leave so much out. I had seven entirely different openings, and cut them all. One I’m putting back into the longer version of the full essay—which I’m still working on—was on saccades, the little leaps of the eye that underlie our seemingly seamless and smooth seeing. That’s now going into a section on “Vision Itself,” and that section will also have something else I was sorry to have left out of the spoken version, the concept of Umwelt and a pointer to Ed Yong’s extraordinary account of beyond-human perception in An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.

I imagine that, at some point, I’ll bring out a third book of essays, and this piece in its entirety will be in it. After Nine Gates (HarperCollins, 1997) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf, 2015), that should mean there will be Eleven [.... somethings] in 2030 or so. Maybe sooner.

I do have Spanish-speaking friends who told me about mirar, and I love your reflections and expansion of that. Also hearing that the talk helped you with a poem you’re now writing. I did come to feel that, while this is not a “craft talk” in any usual sense, there’s a great deal of craft advice that can be drawn from it, if you read it with that in mind. In retrospect, that seems obvious: how could looking at looking not be relevant to the work of discovering and revising poems? But even I was surprised by some things that grew clearer to me by having looked in just this way. I do wonder if any scientists who may have stumbled their way to hearing this talk would feel something clarified about what they do, and how they practice science, in turn. Maybe not. But for science communication—I think there’s a pretty clear craft point about that, especially when science’s discoveries need turning into broader social action, the discovery needs to find its way into memorable language, into some phrases portable and powerful, meaningful enough to touch the whole person, in the way that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did. Scientists do already know this, of course. And that it can be as hard to do as any other part of what they—or we poets—do.

“Look!” does seem the most fundamental thing of all, the starting point. And when we humans look and see one another deeply, and feel seen equally deeply, we sometimes give that moment the name: falling in love. A capacity that is limitless and transformative. Robinson Jeffers once said, describing his life and his poems, “I have fallen in love outwards.”


Might you share some of the photographers’ quotes about seeing? —Paula D.

Of course! I’ll probably keep adding a few more to this section of the talk as I come across things that fit, though it can’t get too long .... Here are three by Lee Friedlander, a photographer whose aesthetic centers on making use of the camera’s ability to see more things at once, [more] clearly than our own eyes and vision ordinarily can.

“Photography doesn’t just give you the tree. It gives you every leaf on the tree.”

“I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”

“The photographic moment … is very simple and complete. The mind-finger presses the release on the silly machine and it stops time and holds what its jaws can encompass and what the light will stain.”


Can Jane talk about ancient cultures and gods and how the need for the unseen might have motivated the advent of science? —Ariees R.

This question could elicit an entire talk of its own. The world’s folktales and mythologies do record our earliest attempts to understand the inexplicable weathers, joys, and catastrophes of outer and inner worlds. Traditional myths were instruments of investigation, narrative hypotheses offered before other kinds were possible. Beyond their role as explanation, though, they were— and remain—reservoirs of wisdom. We are story-making beings, and the earliest stories broadly shared were those of myths, history, and religions, their constructions of understanding and worldview. Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind describes some of the strengths of story for a social species that had found its way to language and needed to find coherence with one another on ever larger scales.

I also can’t recommend highly enough Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, which describes the way that the archetype of the Trickster figure holds worldwide, stories of breaking the status quo of social order, culture, and knowledge to make way for new understandings and new inventions. The stories of both Prometheus and Adam, Eve, and the snake tell us that new knowledge is an act of transgression. The new order betrays the old one and comes with suffering. Yet the stories tell us that’s always what is chosen, perhaps not least because an unchanging status quo needs no stories.

I wrote about this also, in one of the essays in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. That chapter uses Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses, and Hermes, the Greek embodiment of the Trickster, to describe the shift from oral culture and ways of thinking to literate cultures and ways of thinking, and the way that poetry, even now, requires the strengths of both. Hermes, in Greek mythology, invented both writing and musical instruments. His role in the pantheon was to break rules and discover. He steals, he wants. He is also the patron of travelers, the god whose statue sits at the crossroads and looks in more than one direction at once. Which is what we need to do, to see more broadly. One of the gifts of the mythological library is that the world is never made simpler, in myth. It becomes only more satisfyingly complex.


Jane, I’ve heard you speak a lot about “paying attention,” and you mentioned “Something always happens inside if you pay attention.” I agree. I have found that “paying attention” is a practice that I continue to and expect to keep finding a supremely elusive and slippery state. If it weren’t, then I’d know there was something amiss. May I hear your comments on this? And thank you for a wonderful talk. —Kaz O.

Waking, even sleeping, the mind seems to be almost always busy, attending to something. For our waking awareness, what we attend to is [what] all our lives are, and the ground they stand on. And yet I know what you describe when you say attention is also supremely elusive and that its ground is slippery.

The state of attending completely brings such joy. Writing a poem, solving a problem, making music, being “in the zone” for a sport, meditating—when we fall into a thing completely, attention becomes what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow,” a state of complete engagement, in which everything else drops away. But that is rare. Evolution once again comes to mind here. We need to scan for potholes and predators. We need to hear the cries of an infant or of the world’s sorrows, injustices, hungers, extinctions. Permeability is also a kind of attention, just of a different kind. Single-minded concentration serves us in one way, open-window awareness serves in another.

And then of course, there is distraction. I try to befriend even my distraction, to thank it for helping me attend to what comes. But fractured attention is neither restful nor useful, and it helps to try to preserve some undistracted space and time each day, a time and space to cultivate the ground of close and deep attention. The world is full of helpful techniques and tips for doing this. Meditation, list-keeping, turning toward whatever most interests. I suppose I mean to say that there isn’t only the kind of attention we usually think of when we look at that word. The word covers all of attention’s registers and ranges. And learning to move between them with some intention is a tool a human being wants.

Intention is attention’s assistant and companion. But even that is a little circular—how do you remember your intention? You have to attend to it. You have to notice when your days are slipping past in ways that don’t meet your intentions for them. I know such days well. I just keep trying. What helps me to set—or reset—the compass is what the talk calls “the happiness of seeing.” Attention makes its own magnet. Writing a poem, when it finally becomes a poem, is so great a happiness for me, I cannot abandon my intentions to keep doing this odd thing we do, taking pen and paper and asking the inner voice to say something new, reveal something new, like the peeled and cut lemons in a Dutch still life.

But still, when distraction is genuine, sometimes it has something to say, if you attend to it more fully. Anything can be interesting, looked at deeply. Sometimes, a person’s just too worn out to offer their attention. There’s a poem by Dorianne Laux I think of often, “Dust.” The full poem can be found easily online, It ends: “That’s how it is sometimes— / God comes to your window, / all bright light and black wings, / and you’re just too tired to open it.”

Even our attention-erasing exhaustion can be attended to later, and look—¡Mira!—what can happen then.


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