Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

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by Jane Hirshfield

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A Gate Enables passage between what is inside and what is outside, and the connection poetry forges between inner and outer lives is the fundamental theme of these nine essays.

Nine Gates begins with a close examination of the roots of poetic craft in "the mind of concentration" and concludes by exploring the writer's role in creating a sense of community

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A Gate Enables passage between what is inside and what is outside, and the connection poetry forges between inner and outer lives is the fundamental theme of these nine essays.

Nine Gates begins with a close examination of the roots of poetic craft in "the mind of concentration" and concludes by exploring the writer's role in creating a sense of community that is open, inclusive and able to bind the individual and the whole in a way that allows each full self-expression. in between, Nine Gates illumines the nature of originality, translation, the various strategies by which meaning unfolds itself in language, poetry's roots in oral memory and the importance of the shadow to good art.

A person who enters completely into the experience of a poem is initiated into a deeper intimacy with life. Delving into the nature of poetry, Jane Hirshfield also writes on the nature of the human mind, perception and experience. Nine Gates is about the underpinnings of poetic craft, but it is also about a way of being alive in the world — alertly, musically, intelligently, passionately, permeably.

In part a primer for the general reader, Nine Gates is also a manual for the working writer, with each "gate" exploring particular strategies of language and thought that allow a poem to convey meaning and emotion with clarity and force. Above all, Nine Gates is an insightful guide to the way the mind of poetry awakens our fundamental consciousness of what can be known when a person is most fully alive.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A gifted writer in midcareer, Hirshfield has published her fourth collection of poetry in tandem with a book of essays geared toward the creative writing student. The poems are of the momenteach a single gesture encompassing the dichotomies of presence and absence, life and death, being and not-beingand are heavily influenced by classical Japanese verse Hirshfield helped translate with Mariko Aratani (Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems, by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu) and the Zen Buddhism she has studied for many years: "I turn my blessing like photographs into the light;/ over my shoulder the god of Not-Yet looks on." The best are tragic in their unencumbered vision of human limitation; in one, the speaker listens to a piano played movinglyindeed, even more so, because it is played haltinglyand is ashamed "not at my tears, or even at what has been wasted,/ but to have been dry-eyed so long." Several of the nine essays in Nine Gates originated as lectures presented at writers' conferences. Clear and methodicalsometimes to the point of tediousnessthey discuss the process of poetry with examples from standards like Frost, Yeats, Larkin, Whitman, and a few contemporaries. More individual are the discussions of non-Western verse and aesthetics and the process of translation from Japanese (Hirshfield cannot read Japanese and admits her translations were done cooperatively with a native speaker). In a rare personal confession, she describes herself to the late poet Richard Hugo, whom she did not know: "I don't write much/ about America, or even people. I'd often enough rather/ talk to horses." Indeed, it is the quiet restraint of these writingspoems and prosethat appeals. Recommended.Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib., New York

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)

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Poetry and the Mind of Concentration

Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections--language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who and what we are. It begins, that is, in the body and mind of concentration.

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical--a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought "too deep for tears." Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person's every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can be also placed into things--it radiates undimmed from Vermeer's paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from prehistoric Greece, from a Chinese threefooted bowl--and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.

A request for concentration isn't always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in. A ninthcentury Zen monk, Zuigan, could be heard talking to himselfrather sternly each morning: "Master Zuigan!" he would call out. "Yes?" "Are you here?" "Yes!" Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.

Writers, too, must find a path into concentration. Some keep a fixed time of day for writing, or engage in small rituals of preparation and invitation. One may lay out exactly six freshly sharpened pencils, another may darken the room, a third may develop as odd a routine as Flaubert, who began each workday by sniffing a drawer of aging apples. Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry, as Adam Zagajewski points out in "A River": "Poems from poems, songs/from songs, paintings from paintings." Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears--paradoxically--at the moment willed effort drops away. It is then that a person enters what scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as "flow" and Zen calls "effortless effort." At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present--a feeling of joy, or even grief-but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something "breathed in." We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery as revelation. And however much we may come to believe that "the real" is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if "truth" is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.

Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration--expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering's only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenthcentury Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: "For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river--/Unbearable pain becomes its own cure."

Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius "not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances." Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment to limestone, the pressure of an artist's concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance--a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue's draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.

Concentration's essence is kinetic, and the dictionary shows the verb as moving in three directions. The first definition of "to concentrate" is to direct toward a common center. This form of concentration pulls a poem together, making of its disparate parts a single event. A lyric poem can be seen as a number of words that, taken as a whole, become a new, compound word, whose only possible definition is the poem itself. That unity of purpose is a poem's integrity and oneness, drawing it inward and toward coherence.

The second definition is to focus one's attention; this aspect of concentration faces outward, and has to do with the feeling of clarity a good poem brings to both writer and reader. Clarity does not mean simplicity, or even ease of understanding--at times, only the most complex rendering can do justice to an experience, and other times, ambiguity itself is a poem's goal.

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What People are saying about this

Robert Pinsky
"Jane Hirshfield dares to write about the mysteries of art, and she approaches them in a way that feels exactly right to me: plainly, revently, intelligently. She respects subject matter and gives due weight to both past masters and her own intuition. The result is rare and fine: a collection of essays combinging the richness of a daybook with the pointed quality of a good lecture." Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States
Gary Snyder
"It takes nerve to talk about 'nine gates.' Jane Hirshfield, for all her mild tones, has a diamond-hard set of insights to share and no fooling. Her territory reaches from ancient Greece to traditional Japan, from the preliterate to the refinements of contemporary literacy, and she sews them together. these expansive, fearless essays are on the basics of--not poesy in any small sense--but mind, wit, stalking, silky focus, the eros of knowledge, the steely etiquette of art. For those who want it, here's guidance toward the power of being in the margin, the calm ease of the center."

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