Introducing her poem “A Cedary Fragrance” at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival, Jane Hirshfield said, “I sometimes think it holds the intention of my entire adult life, as well as many of my poems.” Listen to her read it and four other poems on the Dodge Festival’s YouTube channel:
“To practice/choosing/to make the unwanted wanted” isn’t as simple a notion as the old cliché about accepting the good with the bad. Choosing to want is an active choice distinct from passive acceptance. This isn’t stoicism; it’s engagement with the world.
Given the choice, we often turn away from what we might label tedium, confrontation, fear, sorrow, rage, resentment, boredom, hard work, bad memories, or—All of us can think of something that came into our lives despite our wishing to avoid or deny it. In the aftermath, we almost always discover such efforts only prolong our suffering and that of others.
But to be fully present in every moment of our brief time on earth, no matter what happens? Probably impossible for most of us. Even so, we’ve all had moments of being fully present, fully alive, fully ourselves, sometimes during our most challenging experiences. We understand from our own experience what Hirshfield means, and her poems remind us what it feels like. Now take some time to go back and listen to Hirshfield read her poems again, and again.
This effort to stay present in the present is evident in all five of these poems, in their attention to the exact details of the objects she is observing or to the nuances of a feeling or gesture; to the selection of just the right word, or just the right placement of a line break to shape the movement of the language. Even her reading shows this quality of attention: We can hear the line breaks in Hirshfield’s pacing and pauses.
Isn’t one of the things poetry does for us is reawaken us to this feeling of being fully present in the present? Isn’t this a major part of what Mark Strand intended when he wrote that we must “slow down for poetry”? What William Stafford meant by “a certain kind of attention” that poetry demands of us?
Thousands of years ago, when poetry was the name given to song, poetry and theater, Aristotle wrote that one of its gifts to us was the experience of catharsis. I would suspect that for a poet like Hirshfield, as with Whitman, the great power of poetry is not to cleanse us of emotions, but to remind us of our capacity to feel them, to be fully alive.
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