Smacking Fiction with Poetry

One of the Christmas presents I bought for myself, asked the bookstore to wrap, and gave to my husband to put in my stocking was Jane Hirshfield’s book of essays called Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 3.08.32 PM I’d heard Hirshfield read years ago, perhaps in 2000, and knew a little of her work. It wasn’t until I saw her again at Litquake this past fall and then again at a UCSF event connecting poetry with end-of-life experiences that I picked up three books of her poems, After; Come, Thief; and Given Sugar, Given Salt. I’m not here to review Nine Gates or her books of poetry. Suffice to say, I love her work. It’s poetry as an altered state of awareness for fiction writers that really interests me.

Hirshfield exudes a Zen-like aura when she speaks as well as when she listens. She appears to be present in every moment, a silent, watchful hunter, with the kind of awareness that breaks open the worn chains of language and creates a space for recombining links and forging new connections.

In Nine Gates, Hirshfield talks about how poems are not written as “crossword puzzle constructions” but “at a level closer to a daydream” state. She says, “While writing, the mind moves between consciousness and the unconscious in the effortless effort of concentration.”


Why am I telling you this?

At a Litquake panel last fall, Karen Joy Fowler mentioned that she loved Stephen King’s book about writing except for his recommendation to follow your first instinct. Fowler finds that her first thoughts most often follow well-worn paths. Whether she’s looking for a word, an image, or situation, she’ll pull some cliché out of the tired writer’s handbook and then realize she’s taken the path of least resistance. So she must work hard to find a deeper way of expressing herself beyond that first poor choice.

Whether I am reading the work of an obscure poet such as Alfred Starr Hamilton (A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind):


but I don’t know
however it felt more like
scraping one’s spareribs
for whatever is left of
the moon at the bottom of the pan

Or a poem by poet laureate, Kay Ryan (The Best of It: New and Selected Poems):

If the Moon Happened Once

If the moon happened once,
it wouldn’t matter much,
would it?
One evening’s ticket
punched with a
round or crescent.
You could like it
or not like it,
as you chose.
It couldn’t alter
every time it rose;
it couldn’t do those 
things with scarves
it does.

Or the beginning of the poem, “My son makes a gesture my mother used to make,” by Laura Kasischke (Space, in Chains):

My son makes a gesture my mother used to make. The sun in their eyes. Fluttering their fingers. As if to disperse it. The sun, like so many feverish bees.

Or the middle of the poem “Crossing the Methow at the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge,” by Jennifer Bullis (Impossible Lessons):

An oxbow moon floats on the horizon
as gold cottonwoods shuffle their starlings
from one branch to another

Or the ending lines of the poem, “Wild Plum,” by Hirshfield (Come, Thief):

Pits drop to the ground,
a little moistness clings in the scorings.
The left-behind branches
winch themselves silently upward,
as if released from long thought.

I am thrilled and gobsmacked by fresh perspectives. Rich in image, music, and insight, poems can light fires of creativity in the fiction writer, helping to make connections and choices that hover in the ether, waiting to be discovered. See if you recognize yourself in the first half of the poem “Purity,” by Billy Collins (Sailing Alone Around the Room):

My favorite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants, and a pot of cold tea.
Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.
Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.
Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

I grin while reading Collins’s entirely fresh view of how he peels the “ancient rhythms” away so he can listen to his own original voice.

Poetry, the drug of heightened observation. What fiction writer doesn’t need a regular dose of what the poets are smokin’?

28 thoughts on “Smacking Fiction with Poetry

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I love her advice of going against your first instinct. Makes a lot of sense. I’m not one for understanding poetry–I think it’s because it requires so much of my right brain when I spend so much time in my left–but I do enjoy the cadence and rhythm of the words. I like how those words trickle through my brain.

  2. johnnycrabcakes says:

    I *are* tickled pink to find out about this book! Just put it on my wish-list. Right up my conceptual alley. I sometimes think I love reading *about* poetry more than I love reading poetry. I get serious mojo-juju from reading theory/craft/poetics stuff. I am simply stunned/fascinated/mystified/enthralled by the wonder of what it is and where it comes from.
    And I, by the way, ain’t smoked nuthin’ in years. 😉
    But it has a way of sticking’ with ya’.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Woohoo! So glad I can feed your habit. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And yes, artistic creation is one fab-u mystery. The woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) has a TED talk about how the Renaissance changed the way artists were viewed. The source of “genius” switched from being attributed to a kind of global creative conscious that we all can tap into via some momentary insight to one where the “genius” now resides within the person. The latter creates tremendous pressure on the artist, sending them off the deep end–literally—if they’re tremendously successful once and then fail to achieve similar greatness afterward. Anywho, I’m glad you are turning pink. It’s the blush of the rose, I think.

  3. Lady Fancifull says:

    Oh, oh, oh, OH Jilanne. Words almost fail me, WHAT a post. A post of posts. It had my pulse racing, my eyes weeping, and i would have got up and danced with released delight, shouting for joy around the room. Unfortunately I’ve had to restrain this as the flat is full of easily alarmed builders and there are too many boxes for dance space.

    But, oh, a wonderful post. It’s EXACTLY why I value poets, all the things you said – and some of my favourite novel or other writers are ALSO poets and bring that new mint, that dash of awakening fire and ice to the drifting through life reader – that clarion shining call to say Wake, WAKE and see, wake, WAKE and BE..Thankyou particularly for the last, entire poem – worthy of being shouted out of my window for the edification of passers by, that one.

    Skeleton at a typewriter is actually a lovely image to take into all sorts of areas where actually we need to strip away our preconceptions, our judgements, and find a way of encountering ‘other’ It’s like the essence of a meditative practice.

    I was so thrilled by those comments about writing from the daydream state – and about NOT necessarily chasing the first instinct, but the idea of waiting for the chatter to settle, so something else stranger and less expected, but unforced, may arise. Oh, all of it Jilanne

    An absolute treasure of a post and it really sounds like i should explore the book.

    I’ll go now, I think the sooner I can leave behind the boxes and the builders and get to express the excitement your post has generated, by moving with rapidity the better – skipping, twirling, jumping is called for!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I am pleased that these excerpts touched such a delightful nerve in you. The skeleton in “Purity” makes me giddy every time I read it. Yes, take a spin around Central Park. See what the birds have to tell you. Whatever you do, don’t alarm the builders. They may leave you with piles of debris. The question is, can you make poetry out of drywall and galvanized nails?

      • Lady Fancifull says:

        Central Park?????????????? Tis a bit far away from the UK Jilanne.

        Builders helpfully left today having forgotten they turned off water supply to toilet for some reason known niether to man nor beast. And the various buckets are in a box, somewhere, but WHICH?

  4. FictionFan says:

    Well, I have much more sympathy with you writers now – I had no idea you had to remove your organs first! I’d have to make a little plan so I could be sure they all went back to the right places afterward!

    On a more serious note, I regularly talk about language in fiction being poetic, and often wonder precisely what makes me feel that. Sometimes, though I know it is, I’d be hard put to explain why. I think this post goes some way towards explaining it… 😀

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      That’s why it takes writers so long to answer the door when they’re working. 😀 Perhaps the skeleton has some sort of organized schematic to make sure everything goes back into place.

      And yes! to fiction writers who pay attention to the music and imagery of words as if they were poets. To me, if makes the reading experience that much more enjoyable.

      • FictionFan says:

        Me too (reading experience more enjoyable, that is) particularly if it’s not overt. Sometimes it can seem as if the writer has tried so hard to be poetic that it adversely affects the flow. But when one gets it right, it’s seamless and kind of background, but adds so much. You can always tell when someone has worked as hard on the language as on plot or characterisation. I suspect the drive towards a book a year must make that almost impossible, though. Most of the best writers aren’t nearly as prolific as their fellows (except Dickens, of course, but then he was clearly an alien).

  5. heylookawriterfellow says:

    As a person who doesn’t instinctively look to poetry that doesn’t have the work “Nantucket” in the first line, I have to say that the snippets you posted are really beautiful.

    Now I am asking myself a very unfamiliar question: “Should I buy a book of poetry?”

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes. Yes! YES! Or just take some books for a test drive in the poetry section of the library. Find the poets that resonate and then make a purchase you know you’ll enjoy reading whenever the urge strikes–like having the freezer stocked with your favorite ice cream. For me it’s Haagen Daz dark chocolate chocolate bars. But for poets, well, it depends on my mood. So I have a wide variety. Jane Hirshfield, Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Carson….I have about four lengths of bookshelves filled with poets. They battle for my attention on a daily basis.

  6. Jennifer Bullis says:

    Jilanne, I love what you write here. I, too, have learned much from Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates and Given Sugar, Given Salt–I got to hear her at the Skagit River Poetry Festival in 2002 and 2004, and her Zen-infused approach was a great encouragement to me as I continued my bumpy transition from academic analysis to spirit- and image-driven poetry writing. And thank you for including my lines here, among such excellent company.

  7. Letizia says:

    I’m charmed by the first lines of “My son makes a gesture my mother used to make,” by Laura Kasischke. Poetry does offer a fresh perspective, a heightened observation. It allows us to use words but also go beyond words.

  8. 4amWriter says:

    I am one of those writers who wishes secretly that she could write poetry…but fails at it miserably. Admittedly, it makes me feel less of a writer, which isn’t true I know.

    The lines you posted are lovely, and I found myself swaying as I read “If the Moon Happened Once.”

    I also agree with the notion that following one’s first instinct can lead to cliched writing. I find that happens a lot when I pants my stories. Digging deeper is when we find the gold.

  9. Sheila says:

    I love stumbling on poetic writing in fiction. My favorite lines in books are the ones that probably should be in poems. Poetry as an altered state of awareness sounds good to me! I love these excerpts. Thank you for reminding me to read more poetry.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, sometimes I just have to stop and read the sentence or paragraph over and over, so I can roll around in the words until my eyes glaze over. And remember, a poem a day keeps the dullness at bay. Cheers!

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