Welcoming Jane Hirshfield

by Barry Spacks

the broad world we make daily, daily give ourselves to. — from “The Fish” by Jane Hirshfield

Chryss Yost has arranged a rich poetry program for the Santa Barbara Book and Author Festival coming up on Saturday, September 30. Poets will perform throughout the day in the Children’s Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, with an 11 a.m. reading by Bay Area poet Jane Hirshfield in the museum’s Mary Craig Auditorium. All events are free.

Hirshfield, recognized internationally for the Zen spirit she includes in her observations of nature and reactions to everyday experience, comes to town to receive the first Glenna Luschei Distinguished Poet Fellowship. This is an offering to Santa Barbara’s poetry life from generous poet/publisher Luschei, whose various permutations of the Solo imprint throughout 40 years — including Café Solo, SOLO, and Solo Café — was itself celebrated last month at a grand bash at Ventura’s Artists’ Union Gallery.

Two years ago, Hirshfield was awarded a fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets, an honor formerly held by the likes of Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop. Other awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, and the NEA. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the American Poetry Review, Poetry, and many other publications, and she’s been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “Writers’ Almanac” program as well as in two Bill Moyers PBS television specials.

Hirshfield’s sixth collection, After, appeared in February of this year. She’s also written and spoken with striking penetration as a critic and scholar, most extensively in her challenging collection of essays Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.

When I teach my UCSB course called “Three Poets of Spirituality,” I reach for Jane’s work as contemporary practice worthy of the company of Rumi and Rilke. I also use her anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred, which ranges through centuries of mystic song.

Let me quote one brief moment from a Hirshfield interview that gets at the very gist of what her chosen art hopes to accomplish at its highest bent.

“The great human joy is to lead a known life, and an interconnected life,” she explained. “To know what we are, within the self and in relationship to the rest of being, is to be enlarged. Poetry, and the attentiveness that comes with reading or writing it, brings that kind of knowledge.” And here’s a brief sampling from her poems — one excerpted, the other in full — to offer a taste, at least, of Hirshfield’s delicately luminous way with words, her quietly projected recognitions.

from This Was Once a Love Poem Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy … It spoke with passion of history, of art. It was lovely then, this poem. … The longing has not diminished. Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat, the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus.Yes, it decides: Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots. When it finds itself disquieted by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life, it will touch them — one, then another —  with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame. Late Self-Portrait by Rembrandt The dog, dead for years, keeps coming back in the dream. We look at each other there with the old joy. It was always her gift to bring me into the present —  Which sleeps, changes, awakens, dresses, leaves.Happiness and unhappiness differ as a bucket hammered from gold differs from one of pressed tin, this painting proposes. Each carries the same water, it says.

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