Poetry and the Revolution of Being: Jane Hirshfield on How Great Art Transforms Us


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“A work of art is not a piece of fruit lifted from a tree branch: it is a ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world.”


Poetry and the Revolution of Being: Jane Hirshfield on How Great Art Transforms Us

“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity,” Rebecca West wrote in her stunning 1941 reflection on how art transforms mere existence into meaningful being, “and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”

Few cups hold life more sturdily and splendidly than poetry. Understanding the wellspring of magic that grants the poetic form its power can only be done, must only be done, by plumbing the deepest groundwater from which all great art springs and tracing the rivulets that slake the most eternal thirsts of the human spirit.

That is what Jane Hirshfield, who composes poems of contemplative beauty and unquiet wakefulness and who has limned the inner work of creativity with uncommon insight, accomplishes in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (public library). She frames the guiding spirit of her inquiry:

How do poems — how does art — work? Under that question, inevitably, is another: How do we?

Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)
Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)

Hirshfield writes:

Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. It is also a changing of vision. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? … And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share…. Inside the intricate clockworks of language and music, event and life, what allows and invites us to feel and know as we do, and then increase our feeling and knowing? Such a question cannot be answered. “We” are different, from one another and, moment by moment, from even ourselves. “Art,” too, is a word deceptively single of surface. Still, following this question for thirty years has given me pleasure, and some sense of approaching more nearly a destination whose center cannot ever be mapped or reached.

Her insight into the interior machinery of this poetic transformation radiates beyond poetry to illuminate all powerful art, while still speaking to poetry’s unexampled power:

A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem—protean, elusive, alive in its own right…. We feel something stir, shiver, swim its way into the world when a good poem opens its eyes. Poetry’s work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving…. The eyes and ears must learn to abandon the habits of useful serving and take up instead a participatory delight in their own ends. A work of art is not a piece of fruit lifted from a tree branch: it is a ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world.

[…]

All writers recognize this surge of striking; in its energies the objects of the world are made new, alchemized by their passage through the imaginal, musical, world-foraging and word-forging mind.

This altered vision is the secret happiness of poems, of poets. It is as if the poem encounters the world and finds in it a hidden language, a Braille unreadable except when raised by the awakened imaginative mind.

Art by Oliver Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón, a picture-book about what poetry does

And yet for all its kinship with other forms of art, poetry does work us over in a singular way, which Hirshfield captures with exhilarating precision:

Poetry itself, when allowed to, becomes within us a playable organ of perception, sounding out its own forms of knowledge and forms of discovery. Poems do not simply express. They make, they find, they sound (in both meanings of that word) things undiscoverable by other means.

[…]

A poem is not the outer event or phenomenon it ostensibly describes, nor is it the feeling or insight it may seem to reveal or evoke. A poem may involve both, but is, more complexly, a living fabrication of new comprehension — “fabrication” meaning, not accidentally, both “lie,” “falsehood,” and, more simply and fundamentally, anything created and made: the bringing of something freshly into being. Fabric, whether of material or mind, is an interwoven invention: some substance — silk or cotton, wool or image — made stronger, larger than itself, by the dual-natured meeting of warp thread and weft thread. A work of art holds our lives as they are known when fully engaged with the multiple, crossing experience-strands of self, language, culture, emotion, senses, and mind.

Above all, poetry unpeels the rind of habit from the living instrument of our perception. More than two centuries after William Blake wrote in his most exquisite letter that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” Hirshfield writes:

The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look… To form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.

In this way, a great poem, like any great work of art, is subject to the central paradox of all transformative experience — the self that is cannot imagine the self that can be, for the very faculty that does the imagining is found on the other side of the transformation. But poetry, Hirshfield suggests, equips us with that rare faculty of recognition that bridges the experiential abyss between actual self and possible self:

A poem plucks the interconnection of the experiencing self and all being. In poetry’s words, life calls to life with the same inevitability and gladness that bird calls to bird, whale to whale, frog to frog. Listening across the night or ocean or pond, they recognize one another and are warmed by that knowledge.

Ten Windows is a hearth of a read in its entirety. Complement it with Hirshfield on the art of concentration and Jeanette Winterson on how art transfigure us, then devour some exquisite poems that embody this transformative power: “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton, “While I was fearing it, it came” by Emily Dickinson, and “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska.


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