Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'My Life Was the Size of My Life,' by Jane Hirshfield

I’m halfway through the essays, so beautifully written that I began copying out individual lines I found inspiring but stopped after realizing I was reproducing nearly the entire book into my journal. A central precept is the notion that good art evokes a response in the reader, viewer, or listener. “A good poem goes beyond its own well-madeness,” Hirshfield says, to move us, and bad art is the opposite of art, or “inert.” I loved what the essays had to say about the power of poetry to transform the world one soul at a time and to transform us individually in their writing, what Hirshfield calls “the secret happiness of poems.” In the Book Passage reading linked above, she offers three “tastes” of Ten Windows, from which the following are excerpts:

From the Preface:

“Good art is the truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. It is also a changing of vision. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means?  .   .   .   Art adds to sum of lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share” (vii).

From Chapter Five: Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty

“One of the penalties and graces of consciousness is waking each day to the awareness that the future cannot be predicted, that the universe’s foundation rests on an incomprehensible receding, that bewilderment, caprice, and the unknowable are among the most faithful companions of any life.   .   .   . [G]ood poetry . . . doesn’t in fact allay anxiety with answers—it startles the reader out of the general trance, enlarging bearable reality” (122).

From Chapter Nine: Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears (259-60):

“One of the roles of poetry in and after the dark times of crisis, is to remind that a life can keep faith with full feeling, full knowledge, no matter what it has come to see and know. For this, we need to be lured into the condition of being undefended.   .   .   . Beauty unbuckles pain’s armoring. Unexpected startlement unfastens the psyche’s fortifications.   .   .   . In the held breath of a page, theater, or concerto, we allow what will happen to happen, and this agreement itself is there altering heart of catharsis.” (259-60)

This week’s poem, “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” did enter and move me, deeply, the first time I read it in The New Yorker while I was standing in a supermarket checkout line. And it moves me again each time I read it. How does this apparently “simple” poem achieve its remarkable affect?
Diction and Syntax
The simplicity is deceiving; as Hirshfield puts it in one of her essays, a good poem “makes clear without being simple.” What makes this poem seem simple is its utter clarity, achieved at least in part through plain diction and straightforward syntax. Twenty-three free verse lines contain 150 words, of which all but 27 are just one syllable long. There are 23 two-syllable words (room-sized, background, above, transit, planet, bullet, airplanes, donkey, opened, windows, other, larger, shorter, different, moody, distant, seeing, others, empty, suitcase, returned, hungry). You will also find two three-syllable words (various, together), one four-syllable word (elevators) and one five-syllable word (mitochondria), a real standout. It’s the only “technical” term used; those familiar with Hirshfield’s work will recognize her signature affinity for and knowledge of the Sciences (here, cellular biology).
Syntax is likewise uncomplicated, consisting of 15 declarative sentences and one declarative fragment in conventional subject-predicate order. The endings of all of these coincide with the end of a line, and nine of them end on their own line. Twenty lines—all but three—are end-stopped with periods or commas, with just two instances of enjambment (lines 10-11 and 22-23). What is said in these sentences and fragments is witty, profound, and sometimes mysterious. But how it is said is not—the mystery lies in the content rather than in its conveyance. This ability to express complexity and profundity in simple terms is one of the hallmarks and sources of power of Hirshfield’s poetry.

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  • Nkechi April 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    I am so glad you open it up with one of my favorite people too. Jane is a beauty to behold especially how she sees poetry. Secondly, I love the comfort that this blog brings. Often good blog is good for change and poetry. I have to ask, Can you make a space where I can share my poetry and get it up to where everyone will be inclusive. I will love to hear from you. Or how can I contribute if it is possible. Thanks

    Reply
  • Nkechi April 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    I am so glad you open it up with one of my favorite people too. Jane is a beauty to behold especially how she sees poetry. Secondly, I love the comfort that this blog brings. Often good blog is good for change and poetry. I have to ask, Can you make a space where I can share my poetry and get it up to where everyone will be inclusive. I will love to hear from you. Or how can I contribute if it is possible. Thanks

    Reply
  • Susan Aizenberg April 4, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Hi, Rebecca Foust — I enjoy your weekly poetry posts very much — in fact, they’re the primary reason I subscribe to this newsletter. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Susan Aizenberg April 4, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Hi, Rebecca Foust — I enjoy your weekly poetry posts very much — in fact, they’re the primary reason I subscribe to this newsletter. Thanks!

    Reply