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. 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):
Psychebut 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 OnceIf 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’?