(Ed. note: This is part two of Brian Bouldrey's three-part interview with Jane Hirshfield, occasioned by her just-released collection Come,Thief. Kevin Young selected Hirshfield's poem "The Cloudy Vase" for the Best American Poetry 2011. Go here for a schedule of Jane's upcoming readings. Go here for Part 1 of this interview.)
Brian: So much of the music, the poetry of your poems rises from the subject. I don’t know how often you are quizzed about prosody, but because the audience for Best American Poetry is made up of fellow poets, I wonder if we can talk a bit about form and meter and working in and around tradition. Perhaps we could start with an extreme—the prose poem “Left-Handed Sugar”, which does NOT have line endings. What made you decide to make this a prose piece (I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s rainforest pieces)?
Jane: It’s a choice driven wholly by music, by tone. Prose poems for me arrive inside the music of “sentences” and “thinking,” rather than in the more lyrical music of “poetry.” Yet they’re still poems—so what’s there as a vessel to catch them is “prose poem.” I always know when I’m writing a prose poem from the first phrase—it comes in that set of sounds. “Left-Handed Sugar,” with its account of a failed experiment in engineering a new diet sugar, is funny; it’s also talky, prosaic. Any form, in poetry, is woven from a set of poetic conventions and expectations. Mostly they’re learned by experiencing other poems in the same form. You get a feel for prose poems the way you get a feel for how the hips move in salsa, by seeing and by doing.
I think of a poem’s physical unfolding on the page as a kind of musical notation system, a way to conduct tone, pace, and mood. Line breaks in free verse are sometimes difficult for people, because sometimes they are an eye-pause rather than an ear-pause, but they also fundamentally signal “Read this as a poem, that’s the kind of attention that’s here.” That’s why it matters that a prose poem is a prose poem—you read it differently than you would if it were simply another prose paragraph in the middle of a magazine article. It is, first, a poem.
"A prose poem arrives inside the music of thinking."
Brian: What other elements of form—meter (or rhythm, meter’s prosaic cousin), rhyme, stanzas, figures of repetition—have you been playing with here in “Come, Thief?”
Jane: In any poem, there’s always some formal, musical mandate—sound awareness conveys feeling and intelligence, and also evokes them. Awareness of music catalyzes increased reach—you feel more, you think things you wouldn’t otherwise find. Poetry, someone once said, is “thinking with the whole body.” There are some poems in this new book in which prosody is more heightened. They’re in what I think of as “wandering rhyme”— rhymed poems, but not regularly rhymed. Though no one has yet invited me into a New Formalist anthology, I’ve done this kind of poem in each of my books, from the beginning. Just as a prose poem arrives inside the music of thinking, the wandering-rhyme poems arrive in a carriage pulled by the horses of sound—the music is their First Cause, so to speak. This is true of “A Thought,” “Suitcase,” “It Must Be Leaves,” “Three-Legged Blues,” “Pompeii,” “One Loss Folds Itself Inside Another,” “I Ran Out Naked in the Sun”—a whole run of the poems that come late in the book are rhyme-made… I put them together partly to give the reader more of a chance to notice. Formal, rhymed, “traditional” poems are closer to “experimental” poetry than they are to free verse, you know—closer, that is, to poems with Dada-ist roots, or poems that have been run through a specific instrument of accident or distortion. In both traditional form and, say, poems whose cut up lines have been pulled from a hat, what’s said is the result of some accidental, outer introduction. What could be more arbitrary, really, than looking for a word that sounds like “beach” or “frustrate,” and then saying something that’s been magnetized by the coincidence of consonants and vowels?
Brian: One poem in the book stands out here, because it’s written in a traditional form—“A Hand Is Shaped for What It Holds or Makes.” Can you talk about that one?
Jane: Every poem I write bows toward prosody, one way or another, even if it’s the faintest slap of water against the hull of a boat. If the ear and breathing aren’t awake and engaged, for me, it’s not a poem, it’s just jottings. I don’t know quite why certain poems take that on more strongly, but it does seem to me that certain forms are engines for certain kinds of thought and feeling. There are three villanelles I’ve long loved—Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking.” Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” It seems to me a form not to enter into lightly or arbitrarily; you have to wait for something that requires this particular pattern of return and discovery to work itself through. This poem did that—it arrived inside villanelle’s music, and the music then shaped what it went on to become. It is, you probably noticed, a loosened and skewed villanelle—only the last words of the line repeat exactly, not the full lines, and one stanza has an extra 2/3rds of a line tucked in. But every departure from strictness in the poem is there for a reason, and I was aware of those reasons even while writing the first draft. The over-running line is about a former love’s face: “the lines have ranged, but not the cheek’s strong bone.” It does what it speaks of, ranging, while under it, the form keeps its structure.
A Hand Is Shaped For What It Holds Or Makes
A hand is shaped for what it holds or makes.
Time takes what’s handed to it then—warm bread, a stone,
a child whose fingers touch the page to keep her place.
Beloved, grown old separately, your face
shows me the changes on my own.
I see the histories it holds, the argument it makes
against the thresh of trees, the racing clouds, the race
of birds and sky birds always lose:
the lines have ranged, but not the cheek’s strong bone.
My fingers touching there recall that place.
Once we were one. Then what time did, and hands, erased
us from the future we had owned.
For some, the future holds what hands release, not make.
We made a bridge. We walked it. Laced
night’s sounds with passion.
Owls’ pennywhistles, after, took our place.
Wasps leave their nest. Wind takes the papery case.
Our wooden house, less easily undone,
now houses others. A life is shaped by what it holds or makes.
I make these words for what they can’t replace.
Brian: I am mindful, with every conversation you and I have, of the poets you admire and call into the conversation—your recommendations have always sent me running to the shelves (Richard Wilbur, Kay Ryan, long before she became widely known, etc.) Are there poets that have influenced your writing—and perhaps more dangerous a question, are there poets that you feel you had to write yourself out from under the influence?
Jane: I am utterly promiscuous in my loves, a sponge for so many influences it’s almost impossible to name them. Not just the usual American and English and Irish influences, though all the obvious ones are in me, not only the Western and Eastern classics, from Horace and Li Po to the more modern “classic” international writers like Pessoa, Cavafy, Milosz, Neruda, Borges, and Szymborska. But I might fall in love with one poem by a Dutch poet I’ve not otherwise heard of, and three years later write a poem that carries that poet’s fingerprint. I might fall in love with a medieval Sanskrit poem of erotic courtship. The one influence I have actively skirted is at the same time one of the strongest in my development—the strength is why I had to be wary not to fall entirely under the spell: traditional Japanese poetic forms. These poems shaped my sense of poetry from the start, but I’ve felt a kind of taboo about writing in their exact modes. I also avoided writing in the style of San Francisco poetry that was prevalent when I first moved West, in 1974—I didn’t want to imitate the Beat poets, or take on the coloration of the local scene, though I love and learned from what they did to break open the possibilities of how Americans write. Years later, I learned this was Basho’s advice to his students: “Don’t imitate me, don’t be the second half of a cut melon.” He also quoted a much earlier Japanese poet, Kukai: “Don’t settle for what the old masters found, seek what they sought.”Part 3