Jane Hirshfield’s New and Selected is such a generous bounty—first of all it is essentially a new book of poems, a departure from older work into a new territory. So, allow me to dive right in, explaining why I am so excited about this book bringing together Hirshfield’s new and earlier poems.

Take for instance her poem, “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” which is so of this, our moment in time, and yet it also continues some of the other poems in her earlier book Ledger, where Hirshfield explored the idea of a civic poem that takes lyric as its medium of discourse. Here, as in Ledger, the lyric detachment we have grown to love over the decades of faithfully reading Hirshfield’s work attains a new dimension: this is a kind of detachment that is so charged with the communal presence one finds so necessary in this moment of crisis. It feels like a departure, a new tone, a new register, in Hirshfield’s work, which is exciting to observe as one considers this volume’s gathering of her writing over the decades.

Another new piece, “A Poem Holding a Wrist Watch…” seems to be in conversation with the more elegiac tone of an even earlier collection, After, a striking volume of powerful and insightful elegies which this reader has come back to, often, over the years. And yet, again, the new piece is very much a poem of a present moment—not a present moment in terms of it being a relevant part of a news cycle, but in terms of it being relevant to this reader’s living in one’s body right now, at this moment, that kind of present.

All of which is to say: this isn’t one of those monumental tomes where the reader gets to watch, somewhat uncomfortably, how the established author is resting on the laurels of the work done decades ago. This is a working artist’s book, one where we observe a distinguished poet very much in action. That, in our time, is rare.

But let me assume that the readers are new to her work. What, in fact, distinguishes it? Hirshfield’s voice is unmistakable in a number of ways. One is her defense of a lyric poet’s position in our world, a voice that is speaking always for one’s self—“my life,” “my doubt,” “my debt”—and yet it becomes a reader’s (any person’s, that is) inner voice, as they carry the poem with them, after having closed the book.

To this, I hasten to add that Hirshfield is a kind of lyric poet whose world is very real, very tangible—and yet there is a constant mystic presence, a longing for otherness in this work. “My life, you were a door” and then her selected poems begin.

Perhaps it is worth dwelling on this perspective of a lyric poet as a mystic. “If you want me to be a mystic, fine, I am a mystic!” the great Portuguese poet Pessoa once exclaimed. This tradition of poet as someone who looks at the world with clarity—opening a door to its mysteries—is an old one, from Rumi to Merwin. Are there dangers to such view of a lyric poet? Surely. A poet is no saint, after all. When Pessoa’s (in the above line from perhaps his most famous lyric) sense of humor is lost, when a lyric voice takes oneself too seriously, mysticism is tedious and poetry is more predictable, less vivid. That is the danger of being a mystic for a lyric poet: the situation when the longing is there, but vocabulary isn’t quite.

Luckily, over many years, Jane Hirshfield was able to avoid this pitfall. What distinguishes her in this tradition of clear-eyed mystics is precisely her restlessness, unwillingness to take herself for granted. She finds herself in conversation with many others, from Hadrian to Milosz and on. In all this, she doesn’t settle on just one poetic tool, but travels among spells, invocations, detachments. She fictionalizes her lyric modes, calling them “pebbles,” “lives of the heart,” “assays,” and so on. All of it, still, functions as “a door” of a short, distinctly lyric poem— and yet such different doors. This gives Hirshfield plenty of variation, over the years, and yet her voice remains remarkably consistent. Still, within this consistence, her tonal range is huge. I encourage the reader to begin with such poems as “In Praise of Coldness” or “I Ran Out Naked in the Sun”—and the range of this lyric poet’s many passions will become clear to you right away. With this book, Jane Hirshfield has given us a body of work that is like no other in its ability to take a short lyric and fill it to the brim with passion and clarity of perspective, with precision and openness to the unknown. She is one of the few contemporaries whose work has already commanded a devoted readership for many years—and, without any doubt, for many more years to come. We are in the presence here of something extraordinary; a voice that feels as timeless as it is very much of this moment.

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ILYA KAMINSKY: Looking back at many years of life in poetry as you put together your New and Selected, what did you notice about your process, your approach to the lyric form—and what sustained and surprised you as you put this book together?

JANE HIRSHFIELD: To write for me has been always a process, first, of listening, not speaking; I wait for word-following words, for image-following sentences, for tone-following tones, then transcribe what arrives until a new path through the impenetrable thicket comes—sometimes—open.

The sense of my life as a set of ever-changing and also ever-recurring questions gave the book its title: The Asking. Questions are listened for. Response is listened for. Other things are also opened to rather than willfully made. A poem is the thinking and saying a person can do only with the whole life present, in all its dimensions. With emotions and story, music and history. With the body and all its senses, including memory, including the proprioceptive senses of ethics and non-excluding compassion. With whatever resides in the encyclopedia of association. With the reservoirs of knowledge, music, and multiple possibilities that reside in language itself. Then, too, there is the welcoming of chiaroscuro, cross-hatch, complexity, paradox—more than one thing happens in any poem that is worth its ink. Then, too, the need for peripheral vision: what can be seen or said directly doesn’t need a poem. And last, the need for silence, which allows a poem to enact and complete itself in what lives in us beyond and outside of words.

Different questions, for me at least over this lifetime, have needed different shapes of answer. Some poets I love speak with one texture throughout their lives. Others I’ve loved equally are more like Pessoa, with his eighty-seven heteronyms. Though even with Pessoa, a voice, a way of seeing, can be distinguished. We have our ways. We speak from inside this one body, and life that is recognizable temperamentally and audibly. I’ve loved since my twenties a poem by Pablo Neruda, “We Are Many.” He speaks in it of his self’s many sides. Poetry offers entrance into more and more sides. That is part of what being a writer means: inhabiting more and more of this world from the inside. And so, new ways of saying have come into my work. I do see this book, as you’ve said, as ranging broadly in how it enters its many tasks and questions and moments. The exploratory, centrifugal inquiry of the assays; the window-glass ping of the pebbles, that try to startle something awake with the fewest possible words; the “My” poems that ponder what is “selved” and what is not, in this semi-fictional and dear to us my-life existence; the elasticized, peculiar grammar of the spells. I’ve always been acutely aware of verb tenses and pronouns—a different grammatical voice lets you see different things, from different distances and angles. People tell me—and I must believe them—that my poems are always recognizably my poems. If that is so, it’s because I can’t help it. I’m not a good actor, I can’t imitate another person’s voice or life. I can’t even imitate my own. I’ve never been able to write a poem on willpower—only under duress.

One thing I never expected in bringing out New and Selected Poems, was how very surprised I would keep finding myself being, over the process. That I agreed to do it at all was the first surprise—I’d turned down the suggestion at least four times before. But somehow my reluctance to pare the work down to a subset of itself simply dissolved. Other things have been dissolving recently also. A lifelong nervousness about speaking in public without copious notes in hand. A few old hopes, and certain forms of hiding. Some forms of distress, too, have just gone; others, meanwhile, step forward. Even some of my bones are dissolving, an X-ray shows, along with the cushioning between them. What matters to me most, that’s been changing too. Perhaps all of this, not only the skeletal part, is a function of reaching a different life stage. The foreground/background balance Doppler-shifts.

Oddly, the longer my life, the more I—and the poems—am magnetized by care of and for the future. I take stock, of course—you can’t assemble a new and selected volume without retrospection, the oddity of visiting every subway stop of your life at once. But what will happen in this shared-fate world, past the time I will be here to see it, that has come to be what I care about most, in recent years. In 2014, I wrote the poem “Let Them Not Say.” It imagines the future judging how we navigated this moment of pivot, when both the biosphere as we’ve known it and our human relations with one another seem at risk of catastrophic failure. I had written of these things before. From the earliest books, there are poems that look at war, at societal suffering, at the suffering the world of other beings experience because of our choices. Food-ration lines in Poland in the 1980s, the incomprehensible slaughter in Rwanda, the first Gulf War, the worldwide disappearance of frog species… all raised poems. Still, after writing “Let Them Not Say,” something shifted. The book Ledger, whose first-written poem that was, shows it. When I was recording the audiobook of The Asking—fifty years of poems said over a day and a half in a studio—I could feel it, the way you might feel a sudden change in water temperature when you reach a deeper section of river.

I would not want to ever turn away from writing of the interior and individual life—that is part of lyric poetry’s mandate, and a full attendance is one of the necessary calibrations of our joined, communal lives as well. But more of the work has become engaged with the realms of shared fate. I feel less and less separation between my own life and those of others. The membrane of self has not vanished—my own life, body, circumstances, loves, losses, will always be mine to tend. You can’t cultivate a garden except with your own shovel and trowel, in your own tended ground, and your own uncontrollable weathers. Yet what is personal to me feels ever more permeable and transparent. I am more and deeply aware how much “I” neither begin nor end with my skin or my stories.

Bashō once described a haiku as something that should be not subjective, not objective. A student asked, “Don’t you mean ‘too subjective’ or ‘too objective’?” Bashō answered, simply, “No.” Inside Bashō’s—and poetry’s—refusal to choose sides between self and other, I think, is the largest yes we can say to our existence in this world we share with all beings.