Jane Hirshfield (Part 1) – Exploring Life Through Poetry & Practice: The Art of Asking and Opening to Life’s Deepest Questions

Jane Hirshfield spiritual poet Zen practice

Many time award-winning poet Jane Hirshfield has spent her life steeped in poetry and spiritual practice. Here, we feel almost as if we’ve been invited into her kitchen to talk about life, love, and especially about poems and how they offer us various answers to the abiding questions: who are we, what are we, what is our relationship to each other, what must we be grateful toward? Jane describes poems as vessels of discovery and poetry as taking your understanding and putting it into a form that is holdable, retrievable, transmissible. Poems can also be keys to unlock our despair, she explains, creating a crack in the darkness, a re-entrance to the possibility of wholeness. Jane’s sublime poetry is many-layered; the same poem might be about human love or peace between nations, about the end of love or the fact that love never dies. Jane shares that her lifetime of questioning (her most recent book of new and selected poetry is titled The Asking) has boiled down to one question: How can I serve?

An awareness of our interconnectedness with all beings, all of life, permeates her work, and Jane is driven to provoke action on contemporary, pressing issues of biosphere, peace, and justice, and help us navigate the tightrope between hope and despair. The conversation also turns to early feminism and the poetry of women mystics that Jane put together in a beautiful anthology called Women in Praise of the Sacred, covering 43 centuries of spiritual poetry by women. When asked about her longtime Zen practice, Jane said, “I needed to become more of a human being, understand a different way of living inside this life I had been given” to become a good poet. She tells us that both poetry and Zen are paths of discovery, exploration, and awareness, and both paths insist that we attend to this world fully. This is a warm, personal, deeply illuminating, and thought provoking conversation, and Jane reads several of her poems, revealing their depth and beauty. Recorded November 30, 2023.

“Nonduality is inherent in an existence experienced as a verb and not as a noun.”

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Topics & Time Stamps – Part 1

  • Introducing award-winning poet and long-time Zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield (00:59)
  • Jane’s recent collection of poems, The Asking, tracks the story of her evolution as a poet (02:33)
  • How the title The Asking came about: a poem is an exploration of a question that can’t be answered (04:50)
  • What is poetry? Poems are vessels of discovery that are retrievable; they provide you with a record of having worked through the questions (08:54)
  • Sacred questions, Zen practice, and how Jane’s questions eventually became one: “How can I serve?” (11:55)
  • Remembering we are all interconnected—this is not a solitary venture (16:16)
  • Jane’s reading of “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” written the first day of the COVID stay-at-home mandate (18:52) 
  • Entering the zone of poetry you become more open: when you ask a question, you start hearing answers everywhere (24:41)
  • How does the invisible become visible? Poetry finds a way (26:11)
  • If we could understand existence as verbs rather than nouns, it would change everything (27:19)
  • Opening to poetry, synchronicities show up everywhere, things leap into a poem to help (29:08)
  • Science, the advent of the microbiome, and the realization that a large part of us isn’t human (30:54)
  • Jane’s series of poems investigating “what is the self?” and a reading of “My Proteins” (32:18)
  • Poems related to the Earth’s crisis began with Jane’s own perplexity and grief (36:27)
  • Reading of an “all-purpose crisis poem”: “Let Them Not Say” (40:00)
  • Jane’s task as a poet became to make it not so that future generations would say we didn’t do enough in regard to the biosphere, justice, and peace (42:11)
  • What state of consciousness do you need to be in to write a poem, also to read it and receive it? (43:08)
  • Deep depression and the crack a poem opened, a re-entrance into the possibility of wholeness (44:23)
  • Reading of “For What Binds Us,” a poem about love and about peace between nations (46:49) 
  • Poetry made Jane a promise that the scar of a wound is a strength not a weakness (50:14)
  • Keeping the connection to unconscious wisdom alive when poetry is unavailable  (52:10)
  • How poetry (and art) can save us in impossible circumstances and despair (53:26)
  • The curative of despair is any sense of agency (56:41)

Resources & References – Part 1

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Jane Hirshfield spiritual poet Zen practice

Jane Hirshfield, writing “some of the most important poetry in the world today” (The New York Times Magazine), is one of American poetry’s central spokespersons for concerns of the biosphere. Hirshfield’s honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award,  and finalist selection for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author of two now-classic collections of essays on poetry’s infrastructure and craft, and editor and co-translator of four books presenting world poets from the deep past, Hirshfield’s work, translated into seventeen languages, appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and ten editions of The Best American Poems. A former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she was elected in 2019 into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Her most recently published collection of poetry is The Asking: New & Selected Poems (Knopf, 2023).

Podcast produced by Vanessa Santos and Show Notes by Heidi Mitchell

Besides his passion for getting the invaluable conversations on the Deep Transformation Podcast out to the world, co-host John Dupuy is also dedicated to encouraging the use of brainwave entrainment technology for its transformative effects. John has been working personally and professionally with brainwave entrainment technology since 2004, and in 2010, he co-founded iAwake Technologies to help create high quality soundtracks using this technology, which supports the healing of emotional/shadow issues, deepens meditation, mental focus, creativity, and flow states, and enhances a daily integral transformative practice.

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