I’ve been trying to make a dent in the stack of writing craft books that threaten to overwhelm my bookshelves despite all my resolutions not to acquire any more of them. However, this week I’ve gone back to reread this lovely book by Jane Hirschfield. The nine essays contain so much depth and beauty that I’m sure I’ll be back to savor them many more times.
Hirschfield explores the magic of poetry, pulling back the curtain to show what makes some poems work. Her insights leave space for the imagination, equally inspiring for poetry readers and those who write.
In the first essay, “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”, she looks at concentration as the starting point of a good poem, calling it “a particular state of awareness”. She goes deeper and deeper into that concept, looking at how we invite concentration, the paths we follow, what we find. “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere.” She speaks of the role of difficulty, the way resistance and tension shape the work, and goes on to examine six essential forms of concentration: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Using poems by Yeats, Olds, Cavafy, and others, Hirshfield seduces our understanding.
Since trying my hand at translation, I was fascinated by “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”. Lauding the curiosity and open heart that makes us “desire to learn what lives within the incomprehensible speech of others”, Hirshfield looks at the central issue: “where does a poem’s true being reside?” I initially wanted to keep my translations as close to the literal meaning of the original as possible rather than writing my own poem inspired by it. However, I found my poetic sensibility taking over and leading me irresistibly to a middle ground. Her care in this essay to show the spectrum and journey of translation reminds me of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.
My favorite essay is “The Myriad Leaves of Words”. I’m grateful to Hirshfield for sharing her insights into Japanese poetry, especially the way she draws out the cultural differences and their effects. I keep coming back to some of the Japanese concepts she describes, like shin which “includes both the realms of the mind and that of the feeling heart”, and some of the techniques, such as the kakekotoba, or pivot word, one that carries two meanings. Lately I’ve been working a lot with haiku and tanka. I appreciate learning the Japanese words for some of the concepts, such as kigo for the season-indicating word and mujō for transience.
Most of all, though, Hirshfield has helped my understand the source of my obsession with these forms and why they–and poetry in general–occupy a central space in my life.
What book have you read that has made you enthusiastic about reading poetry?