Jane Hirshfield (born February 24, 1953) is an American poet, essayist, translator and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Born on East 20th Street in New York City, she is the daughter of Robert L. Hirshfield (a clothing manufacturer) and his wife, Harriet, a secretary. She was writing in big block letters by the age of 8: When I grow up, I want to be a writer. Her first literary acquisition was a collection of haiku, initiating her life-long attraction to things Japanese: The first book of any kind I ever bought for myself, at age eight, was a Peter Pauper Press book of translated Japanese haiku. After attending both public and private schools, she joined Princeton University’s first graduating class that included women. Shortly after graduating from Princeton with a bachelor’s degree in 1973, she had her first poem published in The Nation. She decided to follow a monastic lifestyle, during which time she knew she’d stop writing poetry. I had to be willing to walk away from poetry, perhaps forever, before I felt like I could do it at all. She put aside her writing for nearly eight years, to study at the San Francisco Zen Center, including three years at Tassajara, living in deep wilderness without electricity. 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. She received lay ordination in Soto Zen in 1979.
In 1982, while she was working as a cook at Greens at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Alaya, her first collection of poems, was published. Six years later, her collection Of Gravity & Angels won the California Book Award. Her interest in Japanese poetry, reflected in that first purchase of a book of haiku, guided her to translating Japanese women’s poetry. With Mariko Aratani, she published The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Skikibu (1988) promoting the work of two female poets from ninth- and tenth-century Japan, a golden age for poetry, and the only one in which, Hirshfield says, women writers were the predominant geniuses. Since then, she’s authored numerous poetry collections and two collections of essays. Her fifth book, Given Sugar, Given Salt, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and her sixth collection, After, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize (UK) and also named a ‘best book of 2006’ by numerous journals. Her eighth collection, The Beauty, was long-listed for the National Book Award and named a ‘best book of 2015’ by The San Francisco Chronicle. A recent collection Ledger (2020) is available online. A forthcoming new and selected poems, The Asking is due to be published in September, 2023. She has written two books of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998) and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (2017).
To support herself as a poet, she has evolved what she calls a “tripod” of vocations: teacher, reader, and editor. She has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, The Bennington Writing Seminars, and as the Elliston Visiting Poet at the University of Cincinnati. She has also been a visiting poet at various universities and serves regularly on the staff of several writers’ conferences. Her readings, from Maine to California, have given her a second means of sustenance. Third, and not least, she has a distinguished record of translation and editing (see below).
Her honors include the Poetry Center Book Award, the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Literature, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, Columbia University’s Translation Center Award, and the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2004, she was awarded the seventieth Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets. In 2019, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Jane Hirshfield moved to Marin County in 1979 to live at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach. Since 1982 she has lived in a small white cottage looking out on fruit trees and old roses in Mill Valley in Marin County, California, from where she rides an Arabian trail horse in Mount Tamalpais State Park, doing Volunteer Mounted Patrol. I can see Mount Tam from my bedroom window. She also belongs to a local book club whose members are mostly scientists.
In each of her recent collections there is a section of brief poems entitled Pebbles. Like Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll who called the brief poems in every one of his collections, Breviary, Jane Hirshfield uses the word “Pebbles” to describe what she says in an interview with Brian Bouldrey are not haiku, but … short, slightly intransigent poems that require some response in the mind of the reader before they are finished. These epigrammatic poems take their title from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem Pebble, which ends, Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye. Some, as you can see below, are deceptively simple, such as Humbling: An Assay which is comprised of only two words: Have teeth. Others, despite their brevity, are more intricate. Each is meant to be read as an individual, free-standing poem, but putting them in a series seemed more polite to the trees, rather than have 17 pages of a book with only a few lines on each. They are not, she argues, quite the same thing as an aphorism, a haiku, an epigram. They have their own flavor, for me. That flavour may owe something to the study of Japanese haiku, but it also draws from a wider cultural and poetic tradition. Despite their concision and compression, they are often discursive, declarative and dramatic. They are often, betimes, humorous.
Although best known for her translations (most with Mariko Aratani) of Japanese poetry, Jane Hirshfield has opened her poetry to many international influences. A series of poems in Ledger is inspired by the opening phrase of the famous death poem of the Roman emperor Hadrian. “Little Soul” he begins his poem and Jane Hirshfield begins her series of seven poems with the same phrase. She has also provided her own translation of the celebrated Latin poem:
Little soul, drifting, gentle,
my body’s guest and companion,
what places do you now go to live in,
without color, unyielding, naked,
never again to share our old jokes.
Further translations of this poem are available on the Emperor Hadrian page.
At various stages and in different books, Jane Hirshfield has translated the haiku of Kobayashi Issa. Four of those translations are included below. They have obviously had a deep influence on her thinking. Referring to the first (On a branch / floating downriver / a cricket, singing) she has discussed the meaning it has for her: This is our situation. We are probably in peril. We’re on a branch in the middle of a river. It’s not a good place for a cricket to be, especially if there are some rapids ahead. And yet, what does the cricket do? It sings, because that is its nature, because that is what it has to offer, because it delights in this moment in the sun, because it is on a branch and not yet drowned. And so I feel like our entire lives are in, you know, that haiku, 17 syllables in the Japanese. And I have never forgotten that. Of the second (We wander / the roof of hell, / choosing blossoms) she has this to say: when I first encountered that haiku, I thought it was a portrait of a kind of bitterness; that, you know, here we are on the roof of hell, and what do we do? And my feeling about it has completely changed over the years, because I now feel, you know, every inch of ground on this Earth has seen unfathomable suffering, some of it human, some of it not human, but there is no inch of Earth which is not soaked in suffering. But there is also no inch of Earth which is not soaked in joy and in beauty and in radiance. The last two Issa poems below are incorporated, if that is the right word, in poems included in her collection, After.
Ono no Komachi
Ono no Komachi was a Japanese poet of the early Heian period. She is considered one of the 36 Poetry Immortals of Japan. In addition to her fame as a poet, she was also known for her great beauty. Her name, Komachi, is often used to describe beauty in her native Japan. Jane Hirshfield has edited and co-translated, with Mariko Aratani, a selection of her work in The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990). In a brief video presentation, directed by Julie Hébert, she introduces the work of this poet, born around 834 in Japan. She was the first person to write about Eros so directly in a culture in which there is almost no poetry with personal reference to your own body. It’s all done through metaphors of birds and blossoms … I think of Komachi as a proto-feminist figure… As a young woman I recognised in these five-line poems – I felt my own life, and my heart in her poems. I thought, this is my experience.
The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan. While married to a Lord, she fell in love with the Empress’ son. A year after the Prince passed away, she had an affair with the Prince’s married brother. This caused further scandal. The Prince’s wife left him. He and Shikibu lived together for five years until the Prince died from a contagious disease during an epidemic. According to the introduction, Izumi Shikibu went into a period of intense mourning “in which she wrote over 240 poems to her departed lover.” In another video presentation, this time on YouTube, Jane Hirshfield describes the immense effect the first Shikibu poem below (Although the wind …) had on her. She calls it a poem which truly did change my life… the poem changed my understanding of the place of the difficult in my life and in all of our lives …And so I understood why it might be preferable to live in a ruined house rather than a completely protected one. And that for me was life-changing.
The Heart of Haiku (2011) is a short book (29 pages) written as an Amazon Kindle single. In it Jane Hirshfield investigates the evolution of Matsuo Bashō’s writing and poetry. The e-book, which includes many of his haiku, translated with Mariko Aratani, takes the reader on a journey through the key points in Bashō’s life such as the death of his mother, his early literary achievements, renga and the culture of poetry in early Japan, his introduction to Zen, and his walking journey’s that spurred the creation of several travel journals. Jane Hirshfield was unhappy with the title: my title was Seeing Through Words: Matsuo Basho, an Introduction. I think that tells you quite a lot about how I see this piece: I would never myself have made such a grand claim for it as The Heart of Haiku does. That initial essay is available on the Haiku Found site. Some of the translations included in that essay are reprinted below.
Brief Poems by Jane Hirshfield
from After (2006)
The woman who will soon
take a lover shaves her legs in the bath,
Would knowing or not knowing that she does this please him more ?
The lake scarlets
the same instant as the maple.
Let others try to say this is not passion.
The grated lemon rind bitters the oil it steeps in.
A wanted flavor.
Like the moment in love when one lover knows
the other could do anything now wanted, yet does not.
When his ship first came to Australia,
Cook wrote, the natives
continued fishing, without looking up.
Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended.
from Come, Thief (2011)
Like Moonlight Seen in a Well
Like moonlight seen in a well.
The one who sees it
Mountain and Mouse
One only more slowly.
Night and Day
Who am I is the question of owls.
Crow says, Get up.
When hearing went, you spoke more.
Now I must.
Opening the Hand Between Here and Here
On the dark road, only the weight of the rope.
Yet the horse is there.
from The Beauty (2015)
A Hand Holds One Power
A hand holds one power
whose exercise requires the hand be empty.
I Know You Think I’ve Forgotten
without coat without hat
Loyalty of a book
to its place on the shelf
in a still life.
the old loves continue.
a woman in a distant language sings with great feeling
the composer’s penciled-in instructions to sing with great feeling.
from Ledger (2020)
Like That Other-Hand Music
Like that other-hand
written for one who has lost an arm in a war,
you, hope, may again become useful.
No photograph or painting can hold it—
the stillness of water
just before it starts being ice.
Library Book with Many Precisely Turned-Down Corners
I unfold carefully the thoughts of one who has come before me,
the way a listening dog’s ears
may be seen lifting
to some sound beyond its person’s quite understanding.
It took with it
the words that could have described it.
This body, still walking.
The wind must go around it.
Three Monostich Poems and a Textless Poem
The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.
Humbling: An Assay
I said of the view: “just some trees.”
from the Japanese of Kobayashi Issa
On a branch
a cricket, singing.
the roof of hell,
The world of dew
is a world of dew,
do not worry,
I keep house casually.
More translations of poems by Kobayashi Issa are available on the Issa page.
from the Japanese of Ono no Komachi (translated with Mariko Arantani)
the long rains falling on this world
my heart, too, fades
with the unseen color
of the spring flowers.
The autumn night
is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
than gaze at each other
and it’s already dawn.
grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots . . .
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I’d go, I think.
Did he appear
because I fell asleep
thinking of him?
If only I’d known I was dreaming,
I’d never have wakened.
When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
dark as the night’s rough husk.
More translations by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani are available on the Ono No Komachi page
from the Japanese of Izumi Shikibi (translated with Mariko Arantani)
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Come quickly—as soon as
these blossoms open,
This world exists
as a sheen of dew on flowers.
these pine trees
keep their original color,
is different in spring.
Seeing you is the thread
that ties me to this life—
If that knot
were cut this moment,
I’d have no regret.
In this world
Love has no color-
Yet how deeply my body
Is stained by yours.
On a bamboo leaf
Than you, who vanish
I used up this body
For one who does not come.
A deep valley, now,
What once was my heart.
from the Japanese of Matsuo Bashō (translated with Mariko Arantani)
dusk, bells quiet:
night-struck from flowers
Bitter ice shards
the mud-rat’s throat
the roadside blooming mallow:
by my horse
roof leak drizzling
through a hanging wasp’s nest
frog leaps in
the sound of water
(More translations of this Bashō haiku are available on the Bashō Frog page.)
the cicada’s cry
soaks into stone
teeth hitting sand
don’t copy me,
like the second half
of a cut melon!
on a journey, ill,
dreams scouring on
through exhausted fields
The Beauty – A selection of poems
Twelve Pebbles (from The Beauty)
A large selection of poems on the Poets.org site
A selection of poems and translations on the Poetry Foundation site
The Wikipedia Page on Jane Hirshfield
A Ploughshares profile of Jane Hirshfield
First two chapters of How Great Poems Transform the World
Seeing Through Words: Matsuo Basho – An Introduction
Interviewed by Kaveh Akbar for Divedapper
Interviewed by Ilya Kaminsky for The Paris Review
Interviewed by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler for Agni
Interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being
Interviewed by Mitzi Rapkin for the Lit Hub site
Interviewed by Jim Wood for Marin Magazine
Best American Poetry: A Conversation between Brian Bouldrey & Jane Hirshfield, Pt. 1
Best American Poetry: A Conversation between Brian Bouldrey & Jane Hirshfield, Pt. 2
Best American Poetry: A Conversation between Brian Bouldrey & Jane Hirshfield, Pt. 3
Interview from FROGPOND with Jane Hirshfield on The Heart of Haiku
Interview with Jane Clark and Barbara Vellacott for Beshara Magazine