2015 National Book Award Longlist, Poetry

Jane Hirshfield

The Beauty Jane Hirshfield, credit Michael Lionstar The Beauty
(Alfred A. Knopf)
ISBN: 978-0385351072

National Book Foundation: In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you?
Hirshfield: Any poem is a flushed covey of surprises. I don’t write a poem to set down something already known, I write to let a deepened attention and language itself unpeel something I don’t.  And I write to find my way to that unpeeling. The last poem in The Beauty has some lines that come close to describing the sensation: “taking off the third skin, / taking off the fourth.”  
Every poem surprises me. If it doesn’t, it’s not yet a poem. If it doesn’t have to, it doesn’t need to be a poem.
What did I discover in writing the poems of The Beauty, and then also in assembling them into the book? The answer is multiple. The degree to which war-grief is present—that grief now darkens three successive books of poems. That a new sense of stock-taking has entered my work—I’ve passed sixty, and a word that has come more frequently into my poems’ vocabulary is the word “fate.” In past books I’ve at times pondered fate in terms of others—how accidents of circumstance, place, and time govern all lives, how my own relatively good luck is not a matter of justice or merit. Now added to that is the more personal sense of the arc and pattern of my life. There are things I will not be able to go back and change, and some of the additions and subtractions of my life have had a line drawn under their figuring. One aesthetic discovery: the surreal and the strange have entered my pen much more. I’m more drawn to things can only be said by lifting from the realms of the paradoxical, implausible, impossible. This book also has more sense of the comic and what can only be said by its tongue. But I want to go back to fate, a word that is perhaps the book’s North star, beginning with its opening poem, “Fado”— a fado is a Portuguese song-form of love, longing, and outcastness. The word also means, simply, “fate.” That poem holds my sense of the interconnection of one person’s life, its course and perceptions and implausibilities, and the life of all... how, in unknowable ways, they are tied together,  That the singer is in a wheelchair surprised me—but why not? Some of us are.  This is not meant to be taken as any metaphor for woundedness—that reading of the image would rather appall me. It feels to me something more peripheral and matter of fact: things happen, blows come, and yet they are not always the central matter. As The Beauty’s title -- especially when coupled with its cover image -- implies, I find in the marriage of what is marred, flawed, and grievous to what is astonishing and numinous the only recourse we have against despair, numbness, and apathy.  Poetry offers a way to say a more capacious yes to whatever in life is unanswerable by other means. It offers a navigation that does not make simple or blunt or superficial what is complex— which is any moment of a life, if you look closely. The relationship you have with the bones inside your hand. The humbling that accompanies any trip to the dentist. The alteration that enters when hunger is named as “fasting.” The poems in this book are a seismograph of such small and intimate recognitions as much as they are of larger personal events and shared cultural questions. My muse wants to investigate the full kaleidoscope of a human life. But I never have any idea of how that will happen. The poem itself tells me. That’s where the surprise lives.


The Beauty, an incandescent new collection from one of American poetry’s most distinctive and essential voices, opens with a series of dappled, ranging “My” poems—“My Skeleton,” “My Corkboard,” “My Species,” “My Weather”—using materials sometimes familiar, sometimes unexpected, to explore the magnitude, singularity, and permeability of our shared existence. With a pen faithful to the actual yet dipped at times in the ink of the surreal, Hirshfield considers the inner and outer worlds we live in yet are not confined by; reflecting on advice given her long ago—to avoid the word “or”—she concludes, “Now I too am sixty. / There was no other life.” Hirshfield’s lines cut, as always, directly to the heart of human experience. Her robust affirmation of choice even amid inevitability, her tender consciousness of the unjudging beauty of what exists, her abiding contemplation of our moral, societal, and biological intertwinings, sustain poems that tune and retune the keys of a life. For this poet, “Zero Plus Anything Is a World.” Hirshfield’s riddling recipes for that world (“add salt to hunger”; “add time to trees”) offer a profoundly altered understanding of our lives’ losses and additions, and of the small and larger beauties we so often miss.

About The Author

Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven previous collections of poetry, two books of essays, and four books collecting and co-translating the work of poets from the past. A current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Hirshfield has received many prizes and awards including fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Book Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, and finalist selection for the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s, Orion, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Slate, McSweeney’s, and seven editions of The Best American Poetry. She has been featured in two Bill Moyers PBS television specials and her work appears frequently on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and other public radio programs.


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Photo credit: Michael Lionstar