Award-winning poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, including The Beauty (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award; Come, Thief (2011); After (2006); shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize; and Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics Award, among others. Hirshfield has also translated the work of early women poets in collections such as The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) and Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). Inspired by both Eastern and Western traditions, Hirshfield’s work encompasses a huge range of influences. “Greek and Roman lyrics, the English sonnet, those foundation stones of American poetry Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, ‘modern’ poets from T. S. Eliot to Anna Akhmatova to C. P. Cavafy to Pablo Neruda—all have added something to my knowledge of what is possible in poetry,” Hirshfield explained to Contemporary Authors. Equally influential have been classical Chinese poets Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, and Han Shan; classical Japanese Heian-Era poets Komachi and Shikibu; and such lesser-known traditions as Eskimo and Nahuatl poetry.
Hirshfield published her first poem in 1973, shortly after graduating from Princeton as a member of the university’s first graduating class to include women. She put aside her writing for nearly eight years, however, to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. “I felt that I’d never make much of a poet if I didn’t know more than I knew at that time about what it means to be a human being,” Hirshfield once said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.”
Hirshfield’s poetry works with short forms, spare lines, and careful imagery of natural and domestic settings. Her poems frequently hinge on a turning point or moment of insight. Her early work, including Of Gravity & Angels (1988), focused more intently on natural settings. By The October Palace (1994), she was exploring themes for which she would become well known, such as awareness, consciousness, and the vicissitudes of perception. In her latest work, Hirshfield has continued to investigate the nature of the self and “ethical awareness,” in the words of poet Rosanna Warren. Warren noted that Hirshfield’s language, “in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature.” Hirshfield’s ability to marry philosophical meditation with domestic observation has been widely remarked upon. In the Georgia Review, Judith Kitchen said of Given Sugar, Given Salt: “It’s about how to negotiate the difficulties of living while, at the same time, paying homage to what life has to offer. The poems are penetrating; they reveal a quick intelligence and an even quicker intuition.” Hirshfield’s intuition is matched by the formal assurance of her craft. Publisher’s Weekly described the world in her poems as “allegorical scenes like bare stage sets,” noting how Hirshfield yet manages to “introduce elegant observations in conversational free verse, in words drawn from common American speech” into seeming emptiness. Steven Ratiner, in the Washington Post, noted of Hirshfield’s technique in Come, Thief: “The reader’s attention rests comfortably on a few spare images, while the mind is allowed to wrestle with what’s unseen, unsaid.”
Hirshfield has also published two important anthologies of poetry by women. In the late 1980s she began collecting sacred verse by women after the poet and translator Stephen Mitchell asked for her help in compiling his anthology of sacred verse. “I had a feeling that women had always written about these things and that it was just a matter of finding them,” she explained to Joan Smith of the San Francisco Examiner. “It was like a treasure hunt.” The result of Hirshfield’s research, Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, spans the centuries from 2300 B.C. to the early 1900s and includes the work of seventy poets from many cultures, spiritual traditions, and social classes. “The Ink Dark Moon and Women in Praise of the Sacred were each done in the effort to make more widely known the work of historical women poets whose words I found both memorable and moving, able to enlarge our understanding of what it is to be human,” Hirshfield explained to Contemporary Authors. “They were also done to help counteract the lingering myth that there were no historical women writers of significance.”
In addition to poetry and anthologies, Hirshfield has also published two collections of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (2015) and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997). Based on lectures or adapted from previously published essays, Hirshfield’s prose touches upon such subjects as originality, the nature of metaphoric mind, translation, and the psychological shadow. Nine Gates cites numerous examples from familiar works written in English, as well as from Japanese works in translation. “With her feet firmly planted in both the Western and Eastern canons, Hirshfield delivers a thorough and timely collection on our relationships to poetry, our relationship to the world, and everything in between,” stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer in praise of Nine Gates. Hirshfield’s second collection of essays, Ten Windows, explores the transformative power of poems by poets including Emily Dickinson, C.V. Cavafy, Elizabeth Bishop, and others.
Hirshfield’s many awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She has received honors including the Poetry Center Book Award, Columbia University’s Translation Center Award, the Bay Area Book Reviewer’s Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, and the Hall-Kenyon Award. In 2004, she was awarded the Academy Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. She was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012.
Hirshfield once told Contemporary Authors: “My primary interest has always been the attempt to understand and deepen experience by bringing it into words. Poetry, for me, is an instrument of investigation and a mode of perception, a way of knowing and feeling both self and world…I am interested in poems that find a clarity without simplicity; in a way of thinking and speaking that does not exclude complexity but also does not obscure; in poems that know the world in many ways at once—heart, mind, voice, and body.”