Kaveh Akbar and Jane Hirshfield have been in a running e-mail conversation since January 2016, when Akbar first contacted Hirshfield about doing an interview in his Divedapper series, before his first, widely acclaimed book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017), swept him into the constellation of contemporary poets. This excerpt from that ongoing, now years-long dialogue was conducted for American Poetry Review in conjunction with the publication of Hirshfield’s ninth book of poetry, Ledger, published by Knopf in March 2020.
Kaveh Akbar: So much of your new book, Ledger, and your work at large, seems to be orbiting a nucleus of bewilderment—bewilderment at trees, falcons, history, language, yes, but also bewilderment at our "little souls," bewilderment at humanity's capacity for cruelty to each other despite our overwhelming similarities, or at our capacity for inaction (or for doing, as one poem names it, "not-enough") despite the omnipresent existential threat of a dying earth. I wonder if you might talk about bewilderment, what you believe it can (and can't) do for us?
Jane Hirshfield: Thank you, Kaveh, both for the newest of your always-astounding poems and for starting us off with such an interesting question.
Ledger carries that title because it’s a book of stocktaking, trying to take account of and recount what feels an unaccountable time. Here we all are, trying to comprehend a precipitously incomprehensible era. These poems navigate my responses and responsibilities, as poet, as person, to that era. How could anyone not be bewildered amid what feels a kind of insanity? Rachel Carson wrote of the melting Arctic ice seventy years ago, in her first, 1949 book. It’s incomprehensible to me that we still haven’t taken any global, substantial, collaborative action. It’s incomprehensible to me that we continue to kill one another over symbolic differences, that compassion, interconnection, and the worldview of science can be so willfully trampled by the hungry-ghost wish for power and its material trappings.
“How did this happen? What have we come to?” is a line that appears early on in the book. To question, and not only assert, has long been a part of my practice, as a person and as a poet. In the aftermath of September 11, I wrote a poem titled “Against Certainty.” Others from that time question judgment and opinion. I want to be skeptical of my own first sureness. I want to write poems that lead me to look harder, with greater subtlety and more generosity of imagination and heart. Certainty closes off possibilities, complacency puts us to sleep, hard-set opinions and quick conclusions blind us to further looking. Uncertainty and doubt feel to me better. What you already know, what you already know how to say, you don’t need a poem for. Poems are for breaking our fixities of mind, heart, and language open. For breaking new ground of self and of world.
The etymology of "bewilderment" says that the person is being "thoroughly lured into the wild." Wild in this context is meant to be taken, I suppose, as a negative thing. But I long for time in the actual wild – I like to go solo backpacking. To find myself confused, perplexed, and uncertain is to enter a place of possibility and invention. Risk is the oxygen of poems, the gate you walk through to a wider life. The Commedia begins when Dante found himself bewildered, in a dark wood.
KA: I love so much your returning us to the roots (the brambled forest roots) of the word “bewilderment”—lured into the wild. It’s a charm against habituation, to bewilder is to make the stone stone-y again, the atrocity atrocious, the wild wild. I am thinking of the moment in Nine Gates where you write that good poetry “flenses the dulling familiarity from words, allowing them to gleam as they did when first made.” And how that gleaming allows us to listen to language, actually hear it again despite its crushing familiarity and (mis)use, during a moment in which the great weapon used to stifle and suppress critical thinking is an overwhelm of meaningless language at every turn, the empty language of empire being shot at all of us from a firehose. How murderously certain the language of climate-change denial, of anti-immigration, of the NRA. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. It sounds to me like you’re situating poetry, its capacity to engage mystery without attempting to resolve it (you write in Ledger: “I would like / to grow content in you, doubt”) in opposition to the rhetorical certainty of power, of empire?
JH: Just so. I’ve long felt certainty the most dangerous of human-made munitions. A person sure of their own rightness will do terrible things in its service. Our species’ history holds the story of the Hubble telescope, the story of kolam blessings drawn each morning in rice flour or chalk on doorsteps in South India and Sri Lanka. It holds also the story of Galileo’s prosecution and the killing of Trayvon Martin. In politics, it seems, the demagoguery of certainty can be, at least temporarily, fatally effective. The biosphere’s future and justice’s future depend on our not being so easily hypnotized.
Good poems choose a different rhetoric. Yeats’s statement is memorable, beautiful, demonstrably true, but as the physicist Nils Bohr once said, the opposite of a great truth can be another great truth. Doubt, penumbra, self-questioning make art and persons more resourceful, more resilient in their allegiance to the multi-faceted, multi-storied, real. The best poems hold both promontory boldness and humility. They are the opposite of simplistic propaganda. They acknowledge and include complexity, they acknowledge and include undertow, they are never only one color—they dapple.
I find myself thirsting in our age of bluster and bludgeon for nuance, breadth, and understandings that include both facts and questions, that include the lives of others, human and beyond-human. For understandings willing to be bewildered, to stand inside mystery, paradox, and Keat’s unknowing. Inside such understandings, we might find some less-blunt solutions to our fears.
I take some outward action every day—I send a postcard or make a phone call, I donate to those doing work I can’t personally do. In 2017, I read a poem on the Washington Mall to something like 40-50,000 scientists and their supporters at the first March for Science. That led to a small, ongoing project, Poets for Science, in partnership with Kent State’s superb Wick Poetry Center. Action is needed. I want to serve. But to navigate the shoals of my own despair in the face of what feels a willed blindness to the consequences of our current choices, I turn to silence and listening, to pen and page, to finding what words not already present to me might come.
The making of newly-mined and startling language is a quality I fell in love with in your own poems from the first few lines of your work I read. I alerted to your lines the way a bird dog alerts to a bird. New phrases, new thoughts, are foundational to any new strategy of going forward together. They also, simply, thrill. They expand the field of existence. I wonder, could you say more about how all this works for you? The balance between facing outward in your current life and actions and the more interior moments of poem-making, in which the idea of ‘face,’ at least for me, scarcely exists? The balance between meeting our larger, broken world and writing the poems that arise in you to be written, and the nerve-connections that make of the personal and the larger world one body?
KA: You’re very generous, and very very wise. To expand the field of existence, to enter our bit of unprecedented yawp into a conversation that has preceded us by millennia and will continue long after the last person forgets our names… that seems to me such a profound honor.
To answer your question more directly: I only have one brain, and it’s the same organ that controls my breathing, that reminds my intestinal muscles to contract. That same organ wants me to drink and use and, in so doing, die. What power do I have over that? It’s the organ that makes my heart beat! How have I been able to defy its command these past six years? Well, there has to be some me that isn’t my intelligence, that isn’t of my brain. I am just as confused as anyone as to who that me is, where it came from, what it wants, where it’s going. But my continued being-here seems sufficient evidence of its presence. And that’s the voice that calls the poems. My brain can edit, prune, trim, move things around. But the poems emerge from elsewhere.
In Islam, there’s a hadith about Satan inspecting Adam, the first man. He’s circling him, inspecting this new model of life. And in one version of the hadith, Satan actually enters Adam through the mouth, passing through him and exiting his anus. Emerging back into the world, Satan is delighted: “This creature is all hollow!” he cries. “All I need to do is show him all the things he can use to fill himself.”
I am growing to be dubious of my self-will, its insatiable wanting, its certainty that something—narcotics, money, power—might resolve the fundamental hollowness of its being. I am starting to think maybe hollowness is the whole point of our design, that there is a pure breath at our core fortified by quiet, by stillness, by reverent observation, and diminished by everything else.
Related, I think: in Arabic, the word ruh means both “breath” and “spirit.” Isn’t that perfect?
I do think our current unprecedented loadout of existential threats demands reciprocal unprecedented language. Our rigorous and reverent attention, listening, gives us access to such language. Ledger is an exemplary model of this. Poets like Solmaz Sharif and M NourbeSe Philip and Ilya Kaminsky have written others. I sit at your feet, and theirs, listening. Just as I listen to the lived experiences of refugees, and of my friends currently in Iran suffering the effects of murderous US sanctions. Just as I listen to the earth, when every day it seems to speak with a storm or weather event of unprecedented intensity. Just as I listen to the different people around the world I’m lucky enough to meet in my travels—most recently in New York, Nigeria, Louisiana, Berlin. Just as I listen closely to hear the me that whispers beneath my own expansive wanting.
The way you speak of the effacement in your own practice communicates to me (along with the entire corpus of your work) that you’ve already evolved along down these lines leagues beyond most of us. How does it work for you in your living, that effacement, or that ability to step beyond or beside self-will? What does active, reverent listening look like for you in this broken and breaking moment?
JH: To be loosened from leading my own life as if it were a horse on a short rope is for me a great relief. I’m not immune to the happiness that comes from ego, control, security, comfort, validation. I’d rather not be hungry and prefer my roof not to leak. Still, co-translating a poem about a leaking roof once changed my relationship to difficulty in permanent ways.
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Izumi Shikibu (circa 1000 C.E).
tr by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani
Living only in the realm of ego and safety feels simply narrower than the experience that comes when the self opens its self-grip, when who you are becomes suddenly large, unboundaried, and unexpected. Something in us wants to know the world unblunted by our own needs and perspectives. The one hunger simply becomes larger than the other. And so, wanting that wideness, you write poems, or sit zazen, or go with Whitman out of the lecture hall to look at the stars. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow describes how ubiquitous the experience of self-falling-away actually is. It’s rare, and it’s not rare at all. It comes while solving a math problem. It comes playing baseball or listening to music.
Bashō wrote, near the end of his life:
This autumn road—
This feels to me a haiku unafraid and a person free. It’s not about loneliness or loneliness’s rejection. It’s a reminder that a person can know themselves as inseparable from reality’s own shape and measure. Self isn’t needed. The road suffices. Autumn – season of beauty and beauty’s vanishing – suffices. My interpretation does depend, I realize, on a Zen understanding of what it might mean to be ‘no one,’ though Emily Dickinson’s understanding might do just as well.
Narrowed vision—physically narrowed eyes—goes with the emotions of hate, suspicion, aggression, self-protection, contempt. That tunnel vision is the opposite of wisdom, of compassion, of hope, of elasticity and invention. Widened eyes signal awe, anticipation, interest, engagement. Even fear can widen the eyes, for good reason: when we’re frightened, we need to see more, not less. Enlarged pupils are signals of arousal and happiness and love, but also of problem-solving. Dim light also opens the pupils: enlargement is the way we take more of the world into us.
As a person, as a poet, that is what I want. There’s a poem in Come, Thief, “I Ran Out Naked in The Sun,” about wanting more. Not in the ways of narrowing greed, but in the way of an opening, exposing hunger. There’s a poem in Ledger, “I Wanted to Be Surprised.” I hadn’t realized until this moment the continuity between those very different poems, written almost ten years apart. They’re both accounts of desire for a life that might go beyond its own safety, definitions, maps. The last line of one of the ‘little soul’ poems in Ledger, “Amor Fati,” moves toward this as well: “You want to have fears.”
Your comments on breath and on openness speak right to this. That hadith is marvelous, and compassionate, also, in the way it speaks to the fear of hollowness that haunts us all. What if we give up our self-shaping posturing and effort and find… nothing? Or worse? It takes courage to embrace the wanting itself, courage to risk being empty, as it takes courage to risk writing poems. A writer has to become a person empty of preconception. You can’t know what will arrive to fill in the gap. Yet gap is where the new comes into us and into the world. In Sanskirt, sunyata, the word often translated in Buddhist texts as “emptiness,” could equally be translated “spaciousness.” And in Latin as well as Arabic, “spirit” and “breath” are the same—spirare means “to breathe.” In Greenlandic, the word anerssaaq carries both those meanings. In Hattic, pšun means both breath and soul. Chinese has chi. Hawaiian has ha.
Simply breathing, and noticing that we are beings who breathe, has so much to do with this experience of making the poems of inner and outer connection we’re trying to talk about here. Breath is the instrument language arrived on, and was the only page poems could be consigned to before writing’s invention. It’s the moment by moment exchange of outer and inner, our physical, intimate, undeniable interconnection and interdependence. Breath shows we are solitudes and relationships, single threads inextricable from the fabric of all existence.
More and more I’ve come to feel “my” life with the sense of shared fate. (Or shared fates. Chinese and Japanese are languages that don’t necessarily pronounce a noun as singular or plural, and there’s some wisdom in that, isn’t there? The possibility that individuality and co-existence as one amid many are contextual, not fixed.) For me, this isn’t a distant or theoretical understanding. It’s intimate, it’s about how we feel our lives.
Connection-awareness makes us generous, in the way a parent is generous to a child. Disconnection raises fear and self-protection. E.M. Forster’s famous “Only connect” isn’t usually seen as what, in part, I think it is: a desperate summoning of survival-awareness. The phrase appears in Howard’s End as an imperative spoken against estrangement from eros and from our bodies. One paradox of our broken time is that the refusal to face embodiment – that we live in these beautiful, terrifying, wayward, and perishing bodies – becomes a refusal of the physical world itself, and then of our connection to others within it and of any possibility of a state beyond separation and non-separation. We cannot live fully human lives without all three of these understandings of who we are. Selves, relationships, and the experience of the immeasurable we each glimpse, once or twice, while we are living, breathing, seeing, walking, speaking and listening beings. Leave any of them out, and the art we practice will be diminished. The world will be diminished.
Can we talk now a little of subject matter and of craft? In other conversations, you and I have discovered that we both like to walk away from our poems for a time as one of the stages of revision, to let time offer its editing clarities to words newly seen because somewhat forgotten. That liminal time in the drawer is a kind of facelessness for the poems, isn’t it? We remove our will, our hopes, our intentions from them, so they can ripen more fully and mysteriously into themselves. That doesn’t mean we don’t, when we return to them, continue to revise. I’ve taken small, seemingly simple poems through something like 85 drafts, though that isn’t something I do by force of will; I do it by listening, by asking, by having alternatives percolate upward from the ground. This does depend on a certain cultivation of skepticism and dissatisfaction with my own poems. That too is one of the stages, as important as openness and dropping judgment are. Circulating around is a continually evolving list of something like 25 questions I ask my poems as I revise them. “Is the verb-tense right? The choice of grammatical voice? Does it say something that makes any difference? Is it evading its own fullest knowledge? Should it be more opulent? More spare? Does it embarrass me, and if it does, in a way that is good or not good?” It was a shock for me when I once realized that a poem was saying something that sounded beautiful and moving but was not my own true response to its core fracture and dilemma. I realized I did not want to allow myself that ever again. So now I look at my poems and ask them if they are choosing some easy resolution over a difficult truth.
But then there’s also the truth of a quatrain by Yeats I’ve long loved:
My friends who say I do it wrong
Whenever I revise my song
Do not know what is at stake:
It is my self that I remake.
I wonder if you could talk about the role of patience and silence but also the role of active intervention in your own revision? And to the question of the relationship between revising a poem, revising the self, and revising the world that poem is part of?
KA: [after a pause in the correspondence] I have been sitting at the feet of these words, their diligent student, your diligent student. I love the unfoldings of the breath-spirit through Arabic, Latin, Greenlandic, Hawaiian. I love too what you say about dim light opening the pupils; enlargement being the means through which the world enters. I have been thinking about that a lot, going around this past week staring at the world, the snow, a tree, my spouse, our cat, opening and squinting my eyes. Only the cat so far has seemed interested at all in my experiment.
You ask about time, about the necessary clarity and perspective it affords. I am an obsessive writer, when I am in the throes of a piece I can think about nothing else. Even when I physically walk away from a piece, I’ve usually been laboring over the notebook long enough that the words are memorized, portable, so I’m continuing to revise and rewrite as I drive, as I eat, as I teach and walk and and and… This is useful in the short term, in getting out a draft that looks and sounds and tastes on the tongue very much like a poem. But it also calcifies the poem, makes it starchier, less permeable to holistic change.
Do you have this? Where a poem almost becomes, after a time, like an ideogram? Something you read at a glance, all its psychic and emotional and experiential and spiritual data summoned at once without even having to meaningfully engage the language? This is how it gets for me, a poem less a machine made of words and more a word itself, a new unprecedented word corresponding to an unprecedented iteration of my self. In order to modify that word-self, I have to bring a new self to it. I have to grow (or regress) my self beyond the poem-self in order to see it once again as an interactive array of living components, not just an immutable reflection.
It’s the difference between a butterfly skittering off a bloom and one pinned to a corkboard. The one pinned to cork may be beautiful, may offer its mechanisms of flight for inspection, but it could never teach us to dance in the air the way the living butterfly does so effortlessly.
When Dickinson writes, “Delight is as the flight—” suddenly you’re running and about to leap, and by the time she gets to “And I, for glee, / Took Rainbows, as the common way, / And empty Skies / The Eccentricity—” you’re in the air, “And so with Lives— / And so with Butterflies— / Seen magic” and you wonder if we’ll ever come down again—that’s poetry! That’s a living poem, what a living poem can do! And I think it takes a lot of living—in the body, in the breath, in the mind, in the spirit—to be able to write living poems. Sometimes a poem tells me I have to go out and do some more living before it’ll finally turn to face me.
One of my friends is a retired psychologist. From him, I learned our brain is constantly remaking itself, forming new synapses, rearranging itself in unprecedented arrays. Every morning I wake a literal new man, neurologically speaking. And certainly, there are parallel metaphysical iterations of this phenomenon—I was a man alone lurching desperately from crisis to crisis, and then suddenly I wasn’t. There was a whole new me. Why not allow my poems to meet many me’s, to ensure they’ll bring delight and instruction to each one, the one I am today and the one I’ll be in six months? Nobody is sitting around tapping their foot waiting on my poems. The world wouldn’t miss a beat if I never published again—so why should I feel any rush?
Do you know what Hikmet said about the stars? “They are our endless desire to grasp things.” I think of you, in Ledger, counting “the names of incomprehension: Sanford, Ferguson, Charleston, Aleppo, Sarajevo, Nagasaki,” never reaching “Troy, Ur.” And it reminds me of the Hikmet, our doomed attempts to grasp the ungraspable, the inconceivable. Or maybe, to release our compulsion to grasp. I wonder if you might speak to this—what your poems might be grasping toward, or what they might be attempting to release?
JH: I think you’ve just described, in terms of poetic process, what’s now also desperately needed in our relationship to the world’s great dilemmas. Certain ways of thinking, of doing, of even aspiration, have become not just butterflies pinned to the corkboard, but petrified forests. Dead forms, dead thoughts. You can’t build or warm yourself with a petrified tree. Its lignin and carbon have been taken out, turned mineral. It sometimes feels as if the hearts of many in power, in countries world-wide, have gazed on the Gorgon. Felt recognition of shared fate and shared pain has been turned to stone. Fossil fuels exist because a past world of immense biological life is in them. This inheritance we now spend down – emptying even the rocks of that seemingly-limitless, held, living past – with thoughtless abandon.
You ask what my poems want, and what they want to release. They want an accurate, appropriate abundance: of possibility and of being, of connection and of solitude, for myself, for others, for language, imagination, microbes, mangroves, humans, continents, galaxies. An accurate abundance includes also the difficult emotions and recognitions. Trees require their hours of winter chill for apples or pears to come. Maybe the poems of ecological grief that run throughout Ledger are trying to release the living from the Gorgon’s stone-prison gaze, so we can see, and weep.
I, we, cannot be silent before this world’s vanishing and vanquishing. I have always written to try to see something – anything – newly, freshly. To envision and enlanguage what hasn’t quite been expressed before. This is what the process of writing and revising is for: to discover freed heart-mind, freed tongue. It is what science, ecology, and cultural shift are for: to release old patterns of understanding for new ones. What do I want for my poems? Maybe it’s neither the grasping nor the releasing. Maybe it’s not the book of poems—as you say, the world doesn’t need more poems. Maybe what I want, what the poems want, is the reaching itself, the act of discovering, phrase by phrase, a thing worth trying to reach.
I’d like a viable future in which all of us can keep trying to do that. It doesn’t have to be a paradise. This world is already paradise enough. That’s not a new recognition, but it’s one that can be hard to keep hold of, that requires a perennial re-finding. The last poem in Ledger is an apology for the darkness of many before it. It’s a poem in whose writing I remembered that mourning must not overwhelm gratitude for what is being lost; that grief must not obscure praise; that it is, quite simply, rude not to love this moment’s very existence. It may be that this book just reprises, without the theology, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur.” Hopkins’s rhyming of smeared toil with shook foil. His quiet, profound conjunction-phrase of acknowledgment, demurral, and rescue:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
And for all this.
Hopkins’s pivot-phrase may be what I myself now need most. It may be that I wrote this book, in the face of nature’s spending down and the fractured world all around us, to try to re-find, as we seem to need to do, a key already, perennially, given… a way to witness this world with eyes fully open to error, cruelty, and failure, and still, for all this, to go on.