I am savoring Jane Hirshfield’s most recent poetry book Ledger.
She is my idol. No one has better guided me through how poems work and what they can do. Her own poetry, for me, combines creative precision of language and air-in-winter-clarity-fed-by-Buddhist-sensibility. What do I mean by “creative precision”? Hirshfield knows where the expected and the unexpected need to go, and what is just enough.
I’ve also met her. I have. One of the two hands typing this has been held inside her two hands that she writes with. It really has.
She has translated women’s poetry from the ancient court of Japan. These poets often used the form of waka or tanka, a five-line poem that has 5-7-5-7-7 for syllables, as if a haiku got two extra lines. Centuries ago, the language of educated men in Japan was Chinese, as Greek and Latin were for educated English-speaking men in the past. Often it was women, writing poems that were part of the practice of their courtly love lives, that kept Japanese poetry evolving.
I love these forms as a reader and writer. I used to dig my heels into the challenge of sticking to the syllable count and still getting something expressed. More recently, I practice these forms as many other writers of English do, pursuing the spirit of the form instead of the exactness of the numbers. For me, that is a practice of writing from somewhere that is not my intellect, definitely a change from the past.
That being said, I have published examples of these forms with correct numbers, work I’m proud of. I can do it. I just don’t want to. The simplicity and moments of presence in these tiny poems are more fulfilling than making a puzzle of their syllables.
I wrote a series of tanka dedicated to Jane Hirshfield, and now I am revising them without the syllable counts, but with more…well, both honesty and ambiguity. The ways those two forces work together in language, and support each other, currently has my attention. Reality is full of ambiguity to be reported honestly. Honesty is sometimes accomplished through being ambiguous.
Here is the current draft of what used to be the by-the-number poems, opened up. I kept the form for the third stanza, but elsewhere I let it go.
Teacher for Jane Hirshfield Precise hand print from ancient Japan: The deep drifts of garment in the open space, her room. Woman writing to a lover past sunrise, poems that tell, that keep. This, their way of moments, of tristesse and breath. First five syllables, seven, five, seven, seven. In addition, may I reveal what I desire? The first time. Are not all times the snowfall yesterday, your papers freshly dust? Almost the picture, Lady Teacher, write with me. Let’s call them from the blankness.