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September 22, 2008 From the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City on February 24, 1953. After receiving her BA from Princeton University in its first graduating class to include women, she went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Her books of poetry include The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015); Come, Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); After (HarperCollins, 2006); Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997); The October Palace (HarperCollins, 1994); Of Gravity & Angels (Wesleyan University Press, 1988); and Alaya (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series, 1982).

Hirshfield is also the author of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997). She has also edited and cotranslated The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (Vintage Books, 1990) with Mariko Aratani; Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (Beacon Press, 2006) with Robert Bly; Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994); and an ebook on Basho, The Heart of Haiku (2011).

About her work, the poet Rosanna Warren has said:

Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature...Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield's poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.

Poet Kay Ryan has praised Jane Hirshfield, saying:

She is that rare thing in contemporary American life, a true person of letters—an eloquent and exacting poet, first, but in addition the author of enduring essays and influential translations and anthologies. Now add to this a life on the hustings, bringing the good news about poetry to nearly every state of the union. Then further add her elegant ambassadorship for poetry in the greater world (think Japan, Poland, China) and you have something that satisfies the old sense of a person of letters—a writer who demonstrates in every possible way that this life matters.

Her honors include the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, Columbia University's Translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, the Poetry Center Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Her work has been selected for seven editions of Best American Poetry. In 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the seventieth Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets.

In addition to her work as a freelance writer, editor, and translator, Hirshfield has taught in the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars, at UC Berkeley, and at the University of San Francisco. She has been a visiting Poet-in-Residence at Duke University, the University of Alaska, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere, and has been the Elliston Visiting Poet at the University of Cincinnati. She was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Selected Bibliography

The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)
Come, Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)
After (HarperCollins, 2006)
Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001)
The Lives of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1997),
The October Palace (HarperCollins, 1994)
Of Gravity & Angels (Wesleyan University Press, 1988)
Alaya (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series, 1982)

The Bell Zygmunt

Jane Hirshfield, 1953

For fertility, a new bride is lifted to touch it with her left hand,
or possibly kiss it.
The sound close in, my friend told me later, is almost silent.

At ten kilometers, even those who have never heard it know what it is.

If you stand near during thunder, she said,
you will hear a reply.

Six weeks and six days from the phone’s small ringing,
replying was over.

She who cooked lamb and loved wine and wild mushroom pastas.
She who when I saw her last was silent as the great Zygmunt mostly is,
a ventilator’s clapper between her dry lips.

Because I could, I spoke. She laid her palm on my cheek to answer.
And soon again, to say it was time to leave.

I put my lips near the place a tube went into
the back of one hand.
The kiss—as if it knew what I did not yet—both full and formal.

As one would kiss the ring of a cardinal, or the rim
of that cold iron bell, whose speech can mean “Great joy,”
or—equally—“The city is burning. Come.”

Originally published in After (HarperCollins, 2006); all rights reserved. Copyright © by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Originally published in After (HarperCollins, 2006); all rights reserved. Copyright © by Jane Hirshfield. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City on February 24, 1953.

by this poet


A person protests to fate:

“The things you have caused
me most to want
are those that furthest elude me.”

Fate nods.
Fate is sympathetic.

To tie the shoes, button a shirt,
are triumphs
for only the very young,
the very old.

During the long middle:


In nature, molecules are chiral—they turn in one direction or the other. Naturally then, someone wondered: might sugar, built to mirror itself, be sweet, but pass through the body unnoticed? A dieters’ gold mine. I don’t know why the experiment failed, or how. I think of the loneliness of that man-made substance,


They have discovered, they say,
the protein of itch—
natriuretic polypeptide b—
and that it travels its own distinct pathway
inside my spine.
As do pain, pleasure, and heat.

A body it seems is a highway,
a cloverleaf crossing
well built, well traversed.
Some of me going