In 2021, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Jane Hirshfield discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Jane Hirshfield: I wanted to gather poems from many quadrants of the the literal and figurative and stylistic map. That means there are poems by some poets whose work has sustained me for decades, and there’s work by newer poets, whose voices I first came across only during the months in which I was gathering. If I saw a poem by a writer I wasn’t familiar with that stopped me in my tracks, I’d find an email and ask them for something. Poem-a-Day is about expansion and discovery, surprise and reach. In a way, this month of poems was curated within the spirit of the dice and the birder’s notebook—it’s a gathering of what happened to be visible for me during the time I was filling the slots. If I were to start again now, it would include different poems, different themes, different voices.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
JH: During this past year, a few poems have been continual, sustaining, companions. One is James Baldwin’s “Untitled.” The way the words are placed on the page exerts such a strong pull on the compass:
when you send the rain,
think about it, please,
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
am beneath that water.
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light.
Baldwin has been for me a lifelong beacon, a writer of clarion perception and radical sanity, a practitioner of both surgical, eloquent, diagnostic precision and of profound and abiding love for—and faith in—his fellow beings. A love that we humans have yet to earn any right to.
This poem, though, comes from a different part of his life. It is a poem of interior relationship to the difficult and to the large. For the pandemic time, it has felt to me especially relevant, in the way it holds both the catastrophic and the comic in one human-sized prayer. It knows that, for a different kind of being than we are, the worst possible crisis might be experienced not as deluge but waterfall. Physics is beautiful to the physicist. Human suffering is a Theater of Nectar, to the gods. Baldwin’s poem lets us stand inside both perspectives. It sees deluge as sunlit waterfall, and it sees, with Chaplinesque compassion, the vulnerable human who needs a little less waterfall, needs some breathable air to survive what is overwhelming, whether beauty or nightmare. To see light and not be blinded sometimes means seeing less: what a startling and complex recognition that is. Obvious in the physical sense, less obvious in the realms of psyche and soul.
“Untitled” is, I think, one of the most tactful poems of our relationship to great suffering ever written, not least because that it is about suffering is slightly disguised. It’s a poem made, too, of voice, and of voice and art’s promises. That a person standing under deluge can find such words and stance as this poem creates is in itself a surety-token that suffering can be navigated, can be survived.
Poets.org: Who are you reading right now?
JH: As with the curation of this month’s poems, my reading is half-chosen, half at the service of migratory flocks. The most recent books to arrive here are Arthur Sze’s astonishing New & Collected Poems, Martin Espada’s Floaters, David Woo’s Divine Fire, and a book of ’poetic fables,’ Lonesome Jar, by Jeong Ho-seung, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, who keeps me abreast of contemporary Korean literature by sending me books from time to time. Also recently read: a beautiful little hand-bound chapbook of new poems by Dorianne Laux, Salt. And then, Ron Padgett’s Big Cabin leapt into hand not long ago. A book that again and again returns its writer, and then its reader, to the remembrance of this one, intimate moment we actually live in.
Certain books stay perennially close, and perennially consulted. Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz, Holub, Tranströmer, and Sorescu, Anna Swir. Larkin, Auden, Yeats, Heaney, Bishop. Kenneth Koch. Lars Gustafsson.
Their deaths in recent months returned me to both Jean Valentine and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. One early Ferlinghetti poem I reread many times: “The World Is A Beautiful Place.” With the exception of only a few of its lines, it could almost have been equally written by Wislawa Szymborska. Noticing that startled me and got me to thinking. They are poets of almost the same generation, who came of age in entirely different worlds, yet shared a certain sensibility, understanding, angle of view, even tone. I began hearing Szymborska’s poems differently after reading that one by Ferlinghetti; they became more overtly ferocious. And I began then to wonder how much of Western poetry goes straight back to the groundbreaking Russian poet, Mayakovsky, who may be one of the earliest 20th-century poets to take up the practice of speaking his mind so directly. Though Mayakovsky goes back to Horace, and Horace to some predecessor I likely don’t know.
Poets.org: What are you currently working on now in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?
JH: I’m attempting to tiptoe back into writing new poems. My most recent book, LEDGER, came out from Knopf in March 2020. Its publication date, March 10th, was the very day the U.S. changed, the day that everything after was cancelled. I spent the first part of this year of staying home doing written interviews, learning how to record videos—I’d never even taken a selfie—and learning how to read and speak and teach and listen to things over Zoom.
I often have a fallow year after a book comes out. This one was compounded by Covid-19, by the political crisis and social crisis, and then my mother’s death in July, at 98. I only wrote three or four poems I may end up keeping. Now, just as the world nears re-opening, I’m finding my own life a little less tasked by outer things. And so I try to cast some new lines, to see what might rise to meet them and to see something about who I am now, what the world is now. The old crises are still here—the crises of climate and biosphere, the crisis of our perennial, and increasing, human failings. I don’t know how my poems may enter them differently now. But one of the gifts of long silence, for me, is that the voice that returns is a voice changed. When I’ve forgotten who I was, how I spoke, what questions I used to ask, something new can emerge.