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Jane Hirshfield

1953–

Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City on February 24, 1953. A poet, translator, essayist, and editor, she received her BA from Princeton University in its first graduating class to include women, and went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Her books of poetry include Ledger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020); The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), which was longlisted for the National Book Award, and Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Hirshfield is also the author of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997), and an an ebook on Basho, The Heart of Haiku (2011). She has also edited and cotranslated books with Mariko Aratani and Robert Bly

About her work, the poet Rosanna Warren has said:

Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature.... Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield's poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.

Poet Kay Ryan has praised Jane Hirshfield, saying:

She is that rare thing in contemporary American life, a true person of letters—an eloquent and exacting poet, first, but in addition the author of enduring essays and influential translations and anthologies. Now add to this a life on the hustings, bringing the good news about poetry to nearly every state of the union. Then further add her elegant ambassadorship for poetry in the greater world (think Japan, Poland, China) and you have something that satisfies the old sense of a person of letters—a writer who demonstrates in every possible way that this life matters.

Her honors include the Poetry Center Book Award, the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Literature, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, Columbia University's Translation Center Award, and the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Her work has been selected for seven editions of Best American Poetry and, in 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the seventieth Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets. In 2019, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

In addition to her work as a freelance writer, editor, and translator, Hirshfield has taught Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley, in the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars, 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. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017 and will be the guest editor for Poem-a-Day in April 2021 (National Poetry Month). Hirshfield lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Ledger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020)
The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)
Come, Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)
After (HarperCollins, 2006)
Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001)
The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997),
The October Palace (HarperCollins, 1994)
Of Gravity & Angels (Wesleyan University Press, 1988)
Alaya (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series, 1982)

Essays
Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997)

Anthology:
Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994)

Translations:
Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (with Robert Bly)  (Beacon Press, 2004)
The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Japanese Court (with Mariko Aratani) (Vintage Classics, 1990)
 

By This Poet

44

I wanted to be surprised.

To such a request, the world is obliging.

In just the past week, a rotund porcupine,
who seemed equally startled by me.

The man who swallowed a tiny microphone
to record the sounds of his body,
not considering beforehand how he might remove it.

A cabbage and mustard sandwich on marbled bread.

How easily the large spiders were caught with a clear plastic cup
surprised even them.

I don’t know why I was surprised every time love started or ended.
Or why each time a new fossil, Earth-like planet, or war.
Or that no one kept being there when the doorknob had clearly.

What should not have been so surprising:
my error after error, recognized when appearing on the faces of others.

What did not surprise enough:
my daily expectation that anything would continue,
and then that so much did continue, when so much did not.

Small rivulets still flowing downhill when it wasn’t raining.
A sister’s birthday.

Also, the stubborn, courteous persistence.
That even today please means please,
good morning is still understood as good morning,

and that when I wake up,
the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain,
the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.

Its alleys and markets, offices of dentists,
drug store, liquor store, Chevron.
Its library that charges—a happy surprise—no fine for overdue books:
Borges, Baldwin, Szymborska, Morrison, Cavafy.

—2018

Ledger

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is 3,592 measures.
A voice kept far from feeling is heard as measured.
What’s wanted in desperate times are desperate measures.
Pushkin’s unfinished Onegin: 5,446 lines.

No visible tears measure the pilot’s grief
as she Lidars the height of an island: five feet.
Fifty, its highest leaf.
She logs the years, the weathers, the tree has left.

A million fired-clay bones—animal, human—
set down in a field as protest
measure 400 yards long, 60 yards wide, weigh 112 tons.
The length and weight and silence of the bereft.

Bees do not question the sweetness of what sways beneath them.
One measure of distance is meters. Another is li.
Ten thousand li can be translated: “far.”
For the exiled, home can be translated “then,” translated “scar.”

One liter
of Polish vodka holds twelve pounds of potatoes.
What we care about most, we call beyond measure.
What matters most, we say counts. Height now is treasure.

On this scale of one to ten, where is eleven?
Ask all you wish, no twenty-fifth hour will be given.
Measuring mounts—like some Western bar’s mounted elk head—
our cataloged vanishing unfinished heaven.

—2016

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
were silenced,
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.

Bound to 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,
of silence.

—2017