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Jane Hirshfield

1953–

Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City on February 24, 1953. After receiving her BA from Princeton University in its first graduating class to include women, she went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Her books of poetry include The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), which was long listed for the National Book Award; Come, Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); After (HarperCollins, 2006); Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997); The October Palace (HarperCollins, 1994); Of Gravity & Angels (Wesleyan University Press, 1988); and Alaya (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series, 1982).

Hirshfield is also the author of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997). She has also edited and cotranslated The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (Vintage Books, 1990) with Mariko Aratani; Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2006) with Robert Bly; Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994); and an ebook on Basho, The Heart of Haiku (2011).

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 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. Her work has been selected for seven editions of Best American Poetry. In 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the seventieth Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets.

In addition to her work as a freelance writer, editor, and translator, Hirshfield has taught in the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars, at UC 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. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
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)

By This Poet

34

A Hand

A hand is not four fingers and a thumb.

Nor is it palm and knuckles,
not ligaments or the fat's yellow pillow,
not tendons, star of the wristbone, meander of veins.

A hand is not the thick thatch of its lines
with their infinite dramas,
nor what it has written,
not on the page,
not on the ecstatic body.

Nor is the hand its meadows of holding, of shaping—
not sponge of rising yeast-bread,
not rotor pin's smoothness,
not ink.

The maple's green hands do not cup
the proliferant rain.
What empties itself falls into the place that is open.

A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question.

Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.

Waking the Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep

But with the sentence: "Use your failures for paper." Meaning, I understood, the backs of failed poems, but also my life. Whose far side I begin now to enter— A book imprinted without seeming season, each blank day bearing on its reverse, in random order, the mad-set type of another. December 12, 1960. April 4, 1981. 13th of August, 1974— Certain words bleed through to the unwritten pages. To call this memory offers no solace. "Even in sleep, the heavy millstones turning." I do not know where the words come from, what the millstones, where the turning may lead. I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples, putting pages of ruined paper into a basket, pulling them out again.

This Was Once a Love Poem

This was once a love poem,
before its haunches thickened, its breath grew short,
before it found itself sitting,
perplexed and a little embarrassed,
on the fender of a parked car,
while many people passed by without turning their heads.

It remembers itself dressing as if for a great engagement.
It remembers choosing these shoes,
this scarf or tie.

Once, it drank beer for breakfast,
drifted its feet
in a river side by side with the feet of another.

Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy,
dropping its head so the hair would fall forward,
so the eyes would not be seen.

IT spoke with passion of history, of art.
It was lovely then, this poem.
Under its chin, no fold of skin softened.
Behind the knees, no pad of yellow fat.
What it knew in the morning it still believed at nightfall.
An unconjured confidence lifted its eyebrows, its cheeks.

The longing has not diminished.
Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat,
the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus.

Yes, it decides:
Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots. 
When it finds itself disquieted 
by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life,
it will touch them—one, then another—
with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame.