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Through the Looking Glass

Mark S Burrows

Ten Windows:How Great Poems Transform the World, by Jane Hirshfield, Alfred A Knopf, 309 pp, $24.95, ISBN: 978-0385351058

Some hunger for more is in us ‑ more range, more depth, more feeling; more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstinted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence, as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sums of the 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.

With this musing, Jane Hirshfield invites us into the deep questions of our lives that give rise to poetry and the arts. If art is about life, she wonders, then it must be about change; the question is, what sort of change do we desire? And, beneath this question lies another: what sort of life do we hope for? The ten essays gathered in this volume on poetry and poetics open “windows” into such wonderings, giving voice to the author’s conviction that art has to do with our hope to be changed: “Why ask art into life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means?” For art – poetry ‑ meets an essential need which we carry within us: it touches that part of our inner life which Aristotle knew as “phantasia”, or imagination, the dimension of mind capable of shaping our essential yearning for “more”. “All men and women by their very nature reach out to know,” the philosopher claimed, and it is precisely the “more” of this longing that constitutes the soul both of poetry and of our lives.

For this reason, as Hirshfield suggests, poetry depends on two things we do not easily hold together: namely, “saturation” and “permeability”, the sense of fullness we reach for, on the one hand, and the sense of openness that keeps yearning alive, on the other. Together, they constitute what we think of as our essential humanness, shaped as this is by our desire for the “more” of our lives. Each of the ten essays invites us to see how “looking with poetry’s eyes” can change us by meeting us at the place of our longing for this complex “more”. For it is here that experience and imagination, memory and dream, reason and intuition, begin to do their work, drawing on what the author describes as a “sense of uncontrollable and mysterious surplus” found not in the poem alone but in what poetry unleashes within us, its readers: “Poems are made of words that act beyond words’ own perimeter because what is infinite in them is not in the poem, but in what it unlocks in us.”

In essays that lure us into the intricacies of language carried by what she calls the “sensibilities” of poems, Hirshfield invites us to allow poems to work on us, to give ourselves over to what she suggestively describes as “an enlarged intimacy”. As we enter poems in this way ‑ a felicitous phrase often invoked in these essays ‑ and allow them to enter us, we discover ourselves differently than we otherwise might have. In our reading of them ‑ and on account of their ways of “reading” us ‑ we find ourselves discovering a greater spaciousness in our lives than we might otherwise have known: “Encountering such [window-moments in poems], the reader breathes in some new infusion, as steeply perceptible as any physical window’s increase of light, scent, sound, or air. The gesture is one of lifting, unlatching, releasing: mind and attention swing open to new-peeled vistas.”

Poems live in the openings, the “widenings” and “deepenings” that such windows offer us. We come to them amid our joys and agonies, returning to them not for some kind of information about our world but in the sparks of transformation which they ignite in our reading. “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.” “Un-islanding”: one need not invoke John Donne to feel the acute rightness of this neologism, since we sense its truth at the heart of our lives, but recognising this allusion increases our sense of the “more” that poems touch upon. If it is true, as the author repeatedly suggests in this volume, that this “un-islanding” has to do with how “[p]oems search for transformation”, this is because this desire lies not in the poem itself but rather within us, its readers: “The ground of any artwork’s existence is a human life, psyche, mind, and heart, and the transformations in them it awakens.”

These essays offer us the harvest of Hirshfield’s close and perceptive reading of a wide range of poems, giving us glimpses of how she discerns their workings in ways that lead on toward a deeper and subtler gaze than we might otherwise have had. They beckon us toward an interior vantage point where we might pause, lingering with a given line or over a single image, caught by a word that unexpectedly startles us ‑ and “startlement”, a theme she explores in a chapter entitled “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise”, is central to what poems are about. This is a theme she had explored masterfully in one of her Newcastle/Bloodaxe Lectures, published in 2008 as Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry, where she points to the “lyric epiphany” of poems, which is “like any learning sharply won: its surprise is in the signal of strongly shifted knowledge”. Here she goes further in describing it as “epiphany’s first flavor”: “It is the emotion by which we register shifted knowledge, in a poem, in a life. Good poems make self and world knowable in changed ways, bring us into an existence opened, augmented, and altered. To awaken into new circumference … is to be startled.”

The startlements of art, of poetry, serve the important function of unsettling us, of luring us into what Rilke spoke of as “the open”. They might even succeed in confounding our certainties, and thus widening our capacities of perception and experience ‑ often enough along the edges of our minds, if not in the deeper recesses of the unconscious. In so doing, they invite us to hone our sense of kinship with what might have seemed foreign, strange, or even intimidating to us. In praising uncertainty in one of these “window-essays”, Hirshfield suggests how poems open us to a wider life: “Art’s request and command,” she suggests, “is that we know our lives in their specificity but also in their wholeness and vastness. Wherever the gaze rests, art will draw it also elsewhere, will remind that there is always more. Alice does not stop and face her own reflections in the looking-glass: she travels through it.” This peculiar image of seeing in ways that invite us to travel through the mirror ‑ and not simply remain fixed on our own image ‑ is what marks these essays from start to finish. And this insight helps justify the otherwise ambitious-sounding subtitle: “How great poems transform the world.”

Poems do not effect such change directly, of course. But in the ways they alter us ‑ our ways of seeing, thinking, feeling ‑ they begin to alter our world in ways that are important, even essential. Hirshfield speaks of this in the opening essay as deriving from “active metaphor”, drawing on Aristotle, because of “the quickening it brings to the reader’s mind”. The fragile thread of our humanity depends on this, stretched as it is across abysses of indifference and violence in a world that often appears ‑ and is ‑ heartless. Call it our longing for the “more” we carry within us: our desire for community, our hope to be guided into greater generosity, our refusal of despair.

Poems, at least the strong ones, do not simply know something about this. They attempt to lure us into such longings. They seek to hold onto this vulnerable thread, and encourage us to do so as well. They desire in their own ways to ignite a spark of longing in the darkness we carry within us or find ourselves forced to face. They invite us into a posture of attention stretched between the extremes of an attentive precision, at one end, and the gentler wanderings of the dreaming mind, at the other. They do not try to convince us of anything ‑ and when have we ever been changed for the better by such wilful intent as this? In this sense, poems call us at the places of insight and delight, and not along the more austere paths of duty. On this point, Hirshfield seems intent on wooing us in these essays ‑ as she does elsewhere in her own poems, gathered as these are in eight published volumes ‑ to open ourselves to “some hunger for more” that is within us: “more range, more depth, more feeling, more associative freedom, more beauty”. Her ponderings lead us into the bold and sometimes startling moments when poems “carry us across” from the “here” of something known to the “there” of an unexpected revelation – that is Aristotle’s sense of “active metaphor”. And yes, these essays succeed in startling us, both by taking us into unexpected insights in poems familiar to us ‑ by Keats and Bishop, Miłosz and Merwin, Larkin and Frost ‑ and by leading us to unfamiliar poets and poems, as is the case with her marvellous translations (with Mariko Aratuni) of Bashō and other Asian writers appearing here in print for the first time.

Ten Windows is Hirshfield’s third volume of essays on poetry and poetics. In 1997, she published Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, followed, a decade later, by a slender volume (mentioned above) comprised of her Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures (2007/2008). Those familiar with these collections will bring high expectations to this third collection, and, happily if not unexpectedly, this one does not disappoint. In the opening essay of Ten Windows, she sets the bar high, suggesting that “the desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look”. She goes on to describe how, in strong poems, “the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees”. Poems carry the magic of transformation, bending the imagination in both directions ‑ from inner to outer and back again. They change the way we learn to look, and thereby also come to shape what we are able to see. In turn, the “outer” world, by means of the leadings voiced in a good poem, reaches into our inner being and offers to change us, in large or subtle ways. Whether we submit to this change depends as much on our receptivity as on the poem’s strength. For poems are after the “more” we hold within us and the “more” that immerses us in a wider and deeper and more complex world than we might otherwise have known.

In a poem written just before the outbreak of war, in June of 1914, Rainer Maria Rilke points to what happens within us as we learn to work with what we “see”, suggesting that our inner growth depends on what he calls our “heart-work”:

For the matter of seeing, look, is a boundary.
And this world, the more we observe it,
wants to flourish in love.
The work of looking is finished;
do now the heart-work
with the images you hold within,
for you overpower them, but don’t yet know them.

(from “Turning” [Wendung]; my translation)

Although Rilke here speaks of “the work of seeing” as a boundary rather than a window, the point he is getting at resonates with the approach Hirshfield takes throughout this volume: poems remind us to look longer, more patiently, perhaps even more generously, at the world than we might otherwise have known to do. They invite us to see with changed eyes, with a vision that senses what flourishing might mean ‑ not simply for the poet, or even for the poem, but for us and those whose lives we touch. Rilke reminds us here, as does Hirshfield in these chapters, that art is a means by which we find ourselves invited to be transformed. It offers to change us ‑ our perceptions, our judgments, our desires ‑ and, along this path, art changes the world we inhabit.

Against the tides of ideological certainty and the violence it too often unleashes amid the fraught pluralism that constitutes our societies, we do well to heed her reminder that “poetry comes into being by the fracture of knowing and sureness ‑ it begins not in understanding but in a willing, undefended meeting with whatever arrives”. In the midst of this “fracturing”, we would do well to follow her lead in learning “to step back from hubris and stand in the receptive, both vulnerable and exposed”. She illustrates this conviction in the final lines of a poem by Izumi Shikibu, written around the year 1000, reminding us that after the storms which have torn the tiles from the roof,

also leaks between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

In commenting on these lines, she admits that “it is impossible to know what will enter if the house of the solidified and defended self is breached, and ruin is not a condition any person willingly seeks”. But she goes on to point out that “still, those gaps in the roof planks ‑ not the assigned doors, the expected windows ‑ are the opening through which the luminous arrives”. It is precisely this theme to which Adam Zagajewski has borne patient witness in his writings, giving voice to it in his recent “Vita Contemplativa”, where he concludes: “We live in the abyss. In dark waters. In brightness.”

Poems that matter invite us toward such insights as these. They beckon us to face the world as it is, to discover the “more” it carries ‑ and the “more” that carries us ‑ as “the opening through which the luminous arrives”. They remind us ‑ and “re-minding” is precisely the right word ‑ that our coming to know this luminosity depends on becoming attentive to its possibility precisely in the “dark waters”, on practising a corresponding receptivity in the ways we look for it. They steer us toward what Rilke called our “heart-work”. How do poems accomplish this for us, and in their best moments in us? Hirshfield suggests one way of imagining this in the chapter entitled “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise”:

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. To explore how this happens, we must begin with cognition’s own beginnings, in the construction and discernment of patterns. From the infant’s ‘buzzing and blooming confusion’ in William James’s phrase, we assemble a comprehensible world by perceiving what stays, what recurs. Only after such patterns are in place can we begin to recognize departures from the template, and to see which combinations are new and might newly inform. Creative epiphany is much the same: a knowledge won against the patterns of predictable thought, feeling, or phrase.

The surprise latent in this kind of knowledge is precisely what Rilke was getting at with his notion that, “this world, the more we observe it, / wants to flourish in love.” The key to this conviction cannot be grasped simply by reference to the force of our looking, but depends rather on the ways we allow the images to work in us and on us. Meister Eckhart spoke of this as Gelassenheit, the “letting-be-ness” by which we learn to let things be as they are. And yet he also knew that this called us to open ourselves to what he named as Wirklichkeit, coining a new word in the German tongue which meant the coming-into-being of what is truly “real” and abiding in the face of all else. This is the “heart-work” our lives depend on, not only for surviving but also for thriving.

Rilke appears briefly in this volume, in the chapter entitled “Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears”, but I could not help but hear his voice whispering in the margins of many of its pages. If we refuse to open ourselves to poetic language in ways that encourage us to risk what Ms Hirshfield calls the “wholesale, unconscious surrender of our customary, useful skepticism”, we will find lines like those of Rilke’s cited above quaint or even absurd. Such a suspicion is readily comprehensible, even defensible, in a world like ours which is increasingly threatened by the heartlessness of hatred and fear and the violence these can unleash. But if poetry can make us more alert to the creative epiphanies we also carry within us, it will have done something to change us and our world for the better. And this is gift enough as a counterweight against the tides of terror and the banality of evil that seem capable of destroying every measure of our common humanity.

Hirshfield’s essays suggest ways of opening ourselves to this gift ‑ or, returning to the shaping metaphor of this book, ways of leading us toward windows which open to the “more” we carry within us. “In dark times,” she writes, “separation, isolation, and immobility cannot help; strength and will alone cannot help. What restores the capacity for humanness is the realignment that comes from finding ourselves simply, decently, moved. For this, we need the connection forged by poetry’s singing: words that live on a human voice heard by others, music that underslips the fixities of rational thought.” Poetry is thus essential for our lives, reminding us of how we belong to each other across the differences and distances separating us. It reminds us of what art is meant to be in our lives, calling us to the “heart-work” that constitutes our vocation as human beings in and for the sake of this precious yet fragile world.


Mark S Burrows is professor of religion and literature at the University of Applied Sciences, Bochum (Germany), and the author, most recently, of two volumes of German poetry in English translation: Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet (2015) and SAID, 99 psalms (2013).

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Calista McRae’s essay from 2015 on the poetry, and the public image, of John Berryman. Here is an extract:

Berryman’s fame arrived a few years after ML Rosenthal coined the term “confessional” in a review of Robert Lowell’s 1959 volume Life Studies. Rosenthal himself later expressed misgivings about the term’s use, admitting that “very possibly the conception of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage”. The term has furthered readings that reduce poems to unfiltered, exhibitionistic utterances: Life Studies as autobiography produced while Lowell was involuntarily confined to one mental hospital, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel as something similar to the patient histories she transcribed when working as a secretary in the psychiatric division of another.

While such conflations have become less common for other midcentury American poets, they have persisted for Berryman … Harold Bloom, for example, has dismissed [him] as a poet championed by critics who “like their American poets to be suicidal, mentally ill, and a touch unruly”. The cover on a recent edition of Berryman’s Selected Poems (that of Faber’s 2007 volume) is of six emptied shot glasses, stacked, tilting, on a table that shades off into dark blue; the glasses continue the representation seen in LIFE’s photos of the poet gesticulating in a pub.

In contrast to the images that preponderate in Berryman’s myth and photographs, the cover of John Berryman’s Public Vision presents us with a shaved, thin-faced, extremely ordinary-looking man in his mid-forties … [Philip] Coleman questions the tradition of viewing Berryman as “a poet of solipsistic disengagement and self-absorption”, unable to handle his tempestuous personal life, let alone look up long enough to consider American politics. He demonstrates that Berryman thought both passionately and carefully about the modern world, and about poetry’s public value.

In contrast to potentially suffocating readings of Berryman as concerned only with his own mind and suffering, Coleman argues that his poetry is far more than id, psychosis, and despair: the “development of Berryman’s poetry throughout his career can be charted … as a ‘calling into question’ of the nature of human subjectivity” and a “sense of what it meant to be a human being in the twentieth (or ‘American’) century”. John Berryman’s Public Vision brings out Berryman’s intelligence ‑ which has often been ignored in favour of accounts that emphasise a wild, whisky-inspired genius ‑ through a range of works, both the often-quoted and the completely forgotten.



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