In a previous post, I wrote an appreciation of Jane Hirshfield’s “Close Reading: Windows,” an excellent essay on the poetic turn (which Hirshfield describes and labels a poem’s “window-moment”). Here, I want to rave about her new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, a collection which includes a great deal of material that would be of interest not only to anyone interested in the poetic turn–though this will be the focus of my comments here–but also to anyone interested in how poems more broadly and generally work their magic upon us.
Ten Windows presents again “Close Reading: Windows”; however, as the book’s title indicates, Hirshfield’s interest in window-moments / turns is so great that it comes up in many of the book’s other essays. In “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” Hirshfield remarks, “From the work of Hopkins, and each of the writers presented here, springs a supple turning aliveness, the hawk’s-swoop voracity of the mind when it is both precise and free” (18). In “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” Hirshfield notes that “[e]ven in motionless, time-fixed paintings and sculpture, there is the feeling of hinge-turn we find in poems and often name with the terms of music–alterations of rhythm or key that raise the alterations of comprehension or mood” (31). In “What Is American in Modern American Poetry: A Brief Primer with Poems,” Hirshfield notes that “[g]ood poems require…some reach of being: they move from what’s already known and obvious to what is not. All poets travel, then, whether in body or only in mind” (211).
Hirshfield also is aware of the deep connection of the sonnet and the turn (about which, more information can be found here, here, here, and here). In one essay, Hirshfield points out how the fourth stanza of Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters” “makes a turn of the kind made formal in sonnets: an addition that both quickens thought and brings a question needing an answer” (202). In another, commenting on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait till after Hell,” Hirshfield notes, “Sonnet form, like that of the haiku and villanelle, carries the arc of transformation within the DNA of its structure. The pivoting volta, or ‘turn,’ after the eighth line, demands a deepened and changed comprehension” (263-4).
More broadly, Hirshfield notes that “[p]oetry’s leaps” is one of the elements of poetry (along with “images, stories, and metaphors”) that “are the oxygen possibility breathes” (271). Additionally, in a previous post, I pointed out how Hirshfield’s “Poetry and Uncertainty” (in Ten Windows, titled “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty”) gathers a number of poems that involve a decisive turn, and I would say that this is true almost throughout Ten Window‘s ten essays: even when not discussing the turn in any specific way, the turn is very present–is consistently re-presented–in Hirshfield’s work.
So, reading Ten Windows will allow anyone interested in poetic structure a close and thoughtful engagement with the poetic turn. However, Hirshfield is not only concerned with structure; she’s also very interested in surprise. Her seventh chapter, “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” focuses on the characteristics and effects of poetic surprise. It’s a fascinating meditation. Hirshfield’s insights into surprise are startling and profound. Here are a few:
Regarding the distinction between “poems [that] seem essential” and “others [that], however accomplished and interesting of surface, do not,” Hirshfield states,
Deep surprise is that way the mind signals itself that a thing perceived or though is consequential, that a discovery may be of genuine use. The experience itself, though, especially in responding to a work of art, may well be felt as some different emotion, the one that follows; surprise, neuroscientists report, lasts half a second at most; and so the reader may notice the powerful upsurge of grief or compassion or wonder a good poem brings, but not the surprise that released it. Surprise plays a major role in survival’s own sorting–what most surprises will be most strongly acted on, and most strongly learned. The poems we carry forward, as individuals and as cultures, are those that strike us powerfully enough that they call up the need for their own recall. (187)
About the power of surprise, Hirshfield notes,
How is it that something that lasts half a second can be so essential, not only to art but to our very survival? Not least is the particular way startlement transforms the one who is startled. Among other things, surprise magnetizes attention. An infant hearing an unexpected sound will stop and stare hard–the experience of surprise is itself surprising. It is also, literally, arresting; in a person strongly startled, the heart rate momentarily plummets. The whole being pauses, to better grasp what’s there. Surprise also opens the mind, frees it from preconception. Surprise does not weigh its object as “good” or “bad”; though that may follow, its question is simply “What is it?,” asked equally of any sudden change. Startlement, it seems, erases the known for the new. The facial expression of surprise, according to one researcher, is close to rapture, to the openness of a baby’s first awakeness. Charles Darwin, in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, grouped surprise with astonishment, amazement, and wonder.
In poetry, surprise deepens, gathers, and purifies attention in the same way: the mind of preconception is stopped, to allow a more acute taking-in. (187-88)
Whether by means large or small, noticed or almost imperceptible, poetry’s startlements displace the existing self with a changed one. (188)
According to Hirshfield, surprise also is always attended by a lesson about the negation of self:
Surprise carries an inverse relationship to that which harness self and will: it is the emotion of a transition not self-created. Though infants can visibly surprise themselves by sneezing, there is no self-tickling. We tend not to laugh at our own jokes, at least when alone. Yet one of the reasons a poem–or any creative effort–is undertaken is precisely to surprise yourself by what you may find. Poems appear to come from the self only to those who do not write them. The maker experiences them as a gift, implausibly won from the collaboration of individual with language, self with unconscious, personal association and concept with the world’s uncontrollable materials, weathers, events. (189)
In one section of her chapter on surprise, Hirshfield connects surprise to the comedic, stating,
Lyric epiphany is democratic, equally intimate with Aeschylus and the stand-up comic.
The more surprise in good poetry is looked at, the more poetry’s work seems close to the work of the comic and trickster. (192-93)
While all of Hirshfield’s ideas about surprise are insightful, one stands out for me: Hirshfield’s effort to explain how surprising poems, even after being read and/or recited multiple times, retain their ability to startle and awaken. Hirshfield opens “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise” by noting:
Art’s brightness is a strangely untarnishing silver. One of the distinguishing powers of great art is its capacity to unseal its own experience not once, but many times. A Beethoven quartet many times heard, a painting by Bonnard looked at for decades, does not lose the ability to lift us out of one way of being and knowing and emplace us, altered, into another. A poem, long memorized can raise in its holder, mid-saying, stunned tears. Pound described the paradox simply: “Poetry is news that stays news.” Why this is so, and how it is done, has something to do with the way good art preserves its own capacity to surprise. (181)
According to Hirshfield, this magical seductive quality exists in large part because art is a ceremony that must be re-engaged for it to have power. It is a ritual, and “[a] ritual must be passed through with the whole body, not glimpsed through a door” (198). According to Hirshfield, “Poetic epiphany gives off a kind of protective mist; it exudes an amnesiac against general recall. The poem must be read or said through fully to be fully known” (184).
Provocative and profound, Hirshfield’s insights amaze, and work to re-instill in readers a wonder at poems and poetry. Certainly, Ten Windows will be a revelation to those intrigued by poetic structure and poetic surprise–one fifth of the book concentrates specifically on these concerns, while the other chapters are deeply informed by and infused with them.
However, even though I try to keep the work on this blog focused on the poetic turn and its effects (chief among them being surprise), I do feel called upon to say that, more generally, Hirshfield’s book is a treasure trove for all those interested in poetry, in thinking more deeply about what it is, how it works, how it moves us. While structure and surprise are, for Hirshfield, vital components of poetry, they are not necessarily at the core of what poems are and do.
At core, according to Hirshfield, poems are vital parts of the liveliness of the world, intimately related to and very much like biological life. Hirshfield begins her book, noting, “A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem–protean, elusive, alive in its own right. The word ‘creative’ shares its etymology with the word ‘creature,’ and carries a similar sense of breathing aliveness, of an active fine-grained, and multi-cellular making” (3). In “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” Hirshfield notes, “Cognitive and creative discoveries are made in the same way as much of biological life is: by acts of generative recombination. Disparate elements are brought together to see if they might make a viable new whole” (185).
And this, in fact, is what Hirshfield has done with Ten Windows: she has used gleanings from the life sciences–often combined with her natural inclination to make stunning metaphors–to think anew about poetry, to raise organicism to a thrilling new pitch. I conclude with a few quotes from Hirshfield, which I set out as bread crumbs, meager offerings of the full feast that await those who read Ten Windows…
In the last instants of a shark’s approach to its prey, it closes its inner eyelids for self-protection, and most of its other senses shut down as well. Only one remains active: a bioelectrical sensory mechanism in its jaw, a guidance system uniquely made for striking. The poet in the heat of writing is a bit like that shark, perceiving in ways unique to the moment of imminent connection. (8)
The sentences of poetry, fiction, drama, attend to their music the way a tree attends to its leaves: motile and many, seemingly discardable, they remain the substance-source by which it lives. (31)
In the realm of art, knowledge carries with it at all times an inevitable flavor–the individuality of the artist is in the work as the physical hands of the potter are in the clay, no matter how smoothed. (42)
The elusive–in life, in literature–raises knowledge-lust in us the way a small, quick movement raises the hunting response in a cat. (107)
Encounter with the unknown seems almost a nutrient in human life, as essential as certain amino acids–without it, the untested self falls into sleep, depression, boredom, and stupor. (136)
Poetry’s ends are, in truth, peculiar, viewed from the byways of ordinary speech. But it is this oddness that makes poems so needed–true poems, like true love, undo us, and un-island. Contrary, sensual, subversive, they elude our customary allegiance to surface reality, purpose, and will. A good poem is comprehensive and thirsty. It pulls toward what is invisible to an overly directed looking, toward what is protean, volatile, unprotected, and several-handed. Poems rummage the drawers of what does not yet exist but might, in the world, in us. Their inexhaustibility is the inexhaustibility of existence itself, in which each moment plunges from new to new. Like a chemical reagent, water passing through limestone, or a curious toddler, a good poem reveals, entering and leaving altered whatever it meets. (244)
The possibility-hunger in us is both illimitable and illimitably fed. (274)
In art, we seek something else: possibility opened to a vastly increased range of swing. (280)