Poet Hirshfield produces private words for public feast

May 12, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Poet Jane Hirshfield says there are two types of people who become writers. (And, she adds, a late start in the writing life is totally permissible.)

The first type of person is happily ensconced in the family, cherished and adored, and is taught to be a raconteur.

The other kind is a total introvert, a very quiet child, not given to sharing within the family. "You never knew when what you said would come back at you," said Hirshfield, who put herself in this category. She used to write poems and hide them under her mattress so her mother wouldn't find them.

"Every human being needs a place to become human...so you write," she said. "But writing is done in quiet and solitude so how I came to be reading in public is a mystery to me."

Hirshfield said she hid her poetry because it was private. "I didn't want to share it," she told a small group seminar meeting on the UC Davis campus. "The page was a refuge. I could go there when nothing else was working out and express the sorrow, grief and wild mourning of a 10-year-old and, later, the political rants of a 12-year-old against President Richard Nixon that would have slain him had he seen it."

Hirshfield, who lives and teaches in the Bay area, was invited to UCD this spring as one of the speakers in the "Places on Earth" series. Her books include "The Ink Dark Moon" (1986, Japanese translations), "Of Gravity & Angels" (1988), "Women in Praise of the Sacred" (1994) and "The October Palace" (1994). She also will be teaching at UCD's "Art of the Wild" summer writing program at Squaw Valley in July.

Today she describes herself as a mongrel poet. "I am absolutely eclectic in my sources," she said. "My initial idea of a poem was the English sonnets. Then I studied the Latin lyrical poets and the New England transcendentalists." She bought her first book of poetry for $1. It was a Peter Pauper Press collection of haikus. "I loved it, but I didn't understand it," she said. "Then I read classical Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation and Aztec and Eskimo poetry, court poetry of ancient India, South American poets . I've drunk at every spring I could find...I'll dance with anyone."

Hirshfield says her wide-ranging tastes establish her, as much as anything else, as a Pacific Rim poet. "We are the eclectics out here," she says.

"I write poems to fill the gap," she adds. "I write poems because I have to." For Hirshfield, poetry expresses puzzlement, suffering and occasionally sheer joy.

"I don't sit down idly to write a poem. Something in the outer world has to become the mode of entry...and poetry then makes that heart/mind connection. Poetry joins together a better understanding of what it means to be human on this earth."

Hirshfield, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, says part of the work of being a poet is learning what he or she needs to talk about. Therefore, she doesn't direct her students by giving them writing exercises.

"The Lives of the Heart," her most recent collection of poetry, will be released next year. When she reviewed those poems, she was surprised at how many times the world "heart" appeared. "Heart" is a word most poetry teachers forbid their students to use. "It's been pop-songed to death, sentimentalized to death," said Hirshfield. "But what is more important to us than love? It is the grounding power, the reason we don't fall apart. I don't think poetry can leave the heart out for long.

"One thing poets do is speak for the neglected and the ignored, whatever is not being addressed sufficiently, and some part of me thought the heart was not being addressed," she added. Her book, "Women in Praise of the Sacred," is a collection of centuries' worth of spiritual poetry by women. Many of these poems, she said, address the "beloved," and the reader can't distinguish the love poem from the sacred poem.

Hirshfield doesn't think spirituality is being neglected, but she agrees that people are looking for a pre-packaged answer. "America is a deeply religious country," she said. "On the Pacific Rim we are surrounded by people seeking ... maybe the neglect comes in the non pre-packaged quest. You won't find the answer in a building, in a book, in someone else's language. You have to seek for yourself. You have to taste for yourself your own tongue in your own mouth. That's where your own poems and practices will come from."

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