It would be wrong to say that Jane Hirshfield gets a bad critical rap, but perhaps it is a little limiting. “Everybody wants to put you on a peg; they want to hang me on the Zen peg,” she laughed, speaking by phone from her NorCal home. Such labeling isn’t entirely surprising, since Hirshfield, who will read from her works this Thursday at UCSB, was trained in Buddhist discipline. Truth be told, her images — like “the plum tree outside the window / shoulders perfection” — often resonate from meditative depths. But it doesn’t take long to hear her grounding in the world between Beowulf and Virginia Woolf, either.
“I think the English sonnet, as written by Shakespeare, Milton, and Donne, is every bit as compressed and lyrical as a haiku in offering us a complicated and nuanced examination of the human heart,” she said before trundling through whole catalogues of writers from Osip Mandelstam to contemporary Eastern Europeans, may of whom, she admits, use images primarily to examine ideas of transience and desire. In other words, it’s a bit like Zen. “But all of my poems are personal; don’t make any mistake about it.”
Hirshfield lives in a real world, and her reading, and a three-day stint teaching at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, is how she keeps solvent within the versifying biz. “I would say that 99 percent of all American poets are employed as academics,” she said, but she prefers life as raconteur educator. “I’m a ronin scholar. I have no children, so all this moving around — sometimes I feel like a very small rock band.”
Her verses are full of music and incisively perceptive. She talks about a moment sliding through “the green coat on old copper” and discusses aloneness from two perspectives: “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul / right solitude oils it.” Her poems also reward rereadings and will surely be even more pleasurable coming from the source. But does she think contemporary poetry is sturdy? “I do. It’s an age that needs lyric poetry, and for the most part, lyric poetry has stepped up to fill the need. Maybe the audience isn’t as big as thriller novelists or rock stars, but as long as people still bring poetry to weddings and funerals, poetry is alright.”
Hirshfield speaks at UCSB’s Campbell Hall this Thursday, February 16, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for info.