Through the literary techniques of personification, paradox and imagery of simple experiences or objects, Jane Hirshfield manages to simplify the complex emotions and ideas within society by utilizing symbolisms of everyday items and experiences to convey her perceptions about nature and regrets in life as well as analyze the complexity of one’s identity. Perhaps Hirshfield’s Zen Buddhist affiliations contribute to the philosophical tone of her poems in their abstract conceptualization of life experiences and emotions.
The universal theme throughout the majority of her poems consist of actualization and an enlightened understanding of life and its significant moments. In her 3 works “Rebus”, “Moment” and “A Hand is Shaped for What it Holds or Makes”, Hirshfield’s strong Buddhist influence is revealed, which forms strong connections between readers and speakers. As a result of Hirshfield’s vast childhood experiences from growing up in New York City, she adds a unique perspective on the world and the human psyche.
Susan Carole Hauser describes Hirshfield’s childhood life as, “The Hirsh? eld family lived on East Twentieth Street and participated actively in New York City life” (Hauser 129). This contributed to Jane Hirshfield’s richness as a poet. She frequently addresses how her maturation as a person has influenced how she writes about the simple events she experiences. The diverse atmosphere of New York City exposed Hirshfield to a world of intricate connections and sensory imagery that is prevalent in her poetry now.
Hirshfield’s inspiration for writing was evident through grade school. She was on the editorial staff of her school’s newspaper and wrote an extensive poem for her senior project. Furthermore, Hirshfield’s dedication to writing is a means for her to discover qualities about herself. In an interview with Bill Moyers, he receives her response “that writing contributed to her maturation as a person, that it was a means to both inventing and discovering herself” (Hauser 129). The personal take Hirshfield adds to her writing creates an obvious channel of expressing herself.
Her writing reflects her interests from childhood as she first began to write, through adulthood when she perfected her style. Overall, her literary works are a culmination of her extraordinary outlook on society, nature, and relationships. They reveal the value of each unique experience with nature. Critic Louis Harod states that “she provides the reader with concrete descriptions from which they can infer value and meaning, especially those that come from nature” (Hauser 132).
Hirshfield’s solidified descriptions offer readers multiple perspectives on the world and its inhabitants, which contribute to her overwhelming sense of familiarity. With regards to imagery, Hirshfield vividly expresses each moment in a way that is relatable to all audience. Additionally, Hirshfield’s practice of Zen Buddhism has heavily influenced her poetry in the intense association to aspects of nature and the progression of time. Hauser states that “it broke her sense of being separate from the world, and increased her understanding of the connected nature of all things in life” (Hauser 130).
This signifies how prominent the Buddhist philosophy is in Hirshfield’s writing. The majority of her poems include allusions or metaphors about life, plants, or objects found in nature. Her Buddhism influence further impacts her view on the world. In the philosophy of Zen, there are less distinctions between the world and individual perceptions. Hirshfield weaves this philosophy and perception of life in each of the poems discussed. Hirshfield further explained her poetry to Moyers in that “Zen is an invisible current that runs through her work” (Hauser 130).
The abstract relationship with nature, life experiences and the human psyche are interweaved throughout Hirshfield’s work. This adds to the enlightening feeling of her poems and the familiarity of them in that most readers form a connection or relate to some aspects. This relates back to Hirshfield’s connections with Zen Buddhism, as she has a stronger affiliation and respect for nature and the world experience. Literary critic Andrew Elkins explains that Hirshfield’s “ mission is to erase boundaries while keeping everything absolutely clear and vivid in its living, individual integrity” (Hauser 131).
Hirshfield’s mission transcends the basic perceptions of the world and inquires about the finest minute details of the human mind and society. In many ways, Hirshfield’s poems display her central purpose which seems to be to provide readers with an individualized representation of human conceptions and perspectives. Because of Hirshfield’s unique perspective, her literary works convey complex emotional ties through simple imagery to communicate her thoughts on regrets in her life.
The literary critic Miriam Sagan states that Hirshfield’s poem Rebus is “decidedly written from the perspective of a woman in middle age who has lost friends and family and is on increasingly intimate terms with aging and death” (Sagan 41). Through this quote, Hirshfield is able to explain how she feels regarding things she wished she would have done differently in life as well as the choices she has made. She uses diction like grief, stubbornness, carelessness and weariness in comparison to clay, which demonstrates to the reader her despair pertaining to friends and family she has lost in life.
Additionally, Hirshfield reveals these feelings through the depiction of clay. In the poem, she describes “the red clay of grief, the black clay of stubbornness… clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers and dust” (“Rebus” L 2-3), which provide visual representation for her actual emotions and regrets. This portrayal is an example of what the title of her poem Rebus means. A rebus is a puzzle where words are represented by pictures. In all of Hirshfield’s writings, she is able to utilize rebus to describe different emotions, feelings or experiences, further creating an elaborate artistic writing style.
Overall, Hirshfield’s expressions on her life through nature imagery reveal to the reader how she is influenced by a pastoral view of the world through Zen Buddhism. The critic Sagan explains “Hirshfield’s usual themes are readily identifiable here, a pastoral view of nature, an examination of the relationship between the self and the world, the close observation of domestic objects” (Sagan 41). Hirshfield’s close connection with nature and perspective about the world contribute to the way she conveys her emotions, feelings and choices in her life.
The obvious regret, the battle with aging, and contemplation of past choices materialize in the form of a simple object. Furthermore, Hirshfield utilizes paradoxes in order to analyze the complexity of one’s identity. In Tony Hoagland’s literary criticism, he states that “for all its plainness, the poem ‘moment’ shows the kind of perfect machine Hirshfield can construct -The paradox that this experience of ‘not knowing-self’ can provoke opposite but equal reactions in different individuals” (Hoagland 32).
His explanation of the poem perfectly demonstrates how Hirshfield delves into the intricacy of the human psyche. One moment can cause drastic reactions in two people. In an event as simple as waking up in the morning, two people can experience the same thing and react in completely different ways. Hirshfield proclaims “Some, in that moment, panic, some sigh with pleasure/ How each kind later envies the other, who must also love their lives” (Berg 82).
This paradoxical statement shows the reader how Hirshfield is able to discern and nalyze the nonsensical way the human mind works. She has a keen talent for stating what is often not unspoken or unknown. The insight Hirshfield offers helps readers to discover aspects about themselves, adding to the familiarity of her writing. Hoagland explains how Hirshfield “makes discriminating use of the unspoken; the arts of reticence, inference and paradox” (Hoagland 33). The manner in which Hirshfield states contradictory clauses conveys them to the reader in a way that makes sense. Her Zen Buddhism influences are further displayed through these clauses and phrases.
She has great insight into the working of the human mind reveals this to readers in her poems. Finally, Hirshfield utilizes the literary techniques of personification to demonstrate how indescribable life experiences such as feelings, touch, and sight can be translated through the human anatomy. Literary critic Robin Becker describes Hirshfield’s writing in the poem “A Hand is Shaped for What it Holds or Makes” as “a structural narrative or story, familiar elements in such contemporary poetry” (Becker 14).
The simplicity of the structure of the poem tells a story through the feelings and illustrations of a human hand as the speaker progresses through life. The reader shares what the speaker is feeling or seeing on his or her hand through intense imagery and personification. Hirshfield explains what the hand is currently touching and holding, as well as what it has touched in the past and finally what it will eventually hold or touch.
She ultimately transports the reader to scenes of the speaker’s past, present and future life, as Becker states “abandon expectations and relax into the vulnerability that precedes a deepening of feeling or insight” (Becker 14). The reader is placed in the mindset of the speaker and looks through their eyes to experience the events that transpire. The transgression from one event to another is achieved through the fluidity of Hirshfield’s rhyme scheme. This is shown in how the last words in each line are coupled.
An example of this is seen in how she starts off the first line of the poem with “A hand is shaped for what it holds or makes” (Becker 15) and begins the final stanza with “Wasps leave their nests. Wind takes it papery case” (Becker 15). The transition of each stanza is connected through pairs of rhyming words. This continuation throughout the poem, create a pulling force that fluidly moves readers from each memory in each stanza to the next. Moreover, the first person narration adds of this personal tone of the poem, in that the poem begins to portray as a diary entry of past events.
As seen in what Becker states to describe Jane Hirshfield’s poetry, she seeks “to persuade often with the first person ‘I’ setting out the terms of a poem” (Becker 14). The first person narration instead of impersonal nouns provides readers with an additional element to connect with the speaker. They experience what the speaker is stating in the first person. It is as if they are the ones in the memory. This is just another instance of how Hirshfield connects with readers and forms a stronger relationship in the similarities of readers and speakers.
Another aspect of Hirshfield’s writing is the revitalization of the traditional poem. The critic Becker views Hirshfield’s poem as an “example of a traditional form generously modified rendered with exquisite attention to detail” (Becker 15). Hirshfield’s style and formatting of this poem has a similar form of a sonnet or a quasi-villanelle, in that the stanzas and rhyming pattern reference the Shakespearean form of a sonnet. Lastly, Hirshfield’s Buddhist influences is also seen in this poem in how the abstract human conceptualizations are simplified.
Her poetry is viewed by critic Becker as a style that “emerges from her contemplative Buddhist practice and a thoughtful development of a brief lyric” (Becker 14). An in depth analysis of her poetry and this poem in particular, highlight a philosophical tone and connection to nature. The simple, yet intricate imagery, style and personification Hirshfield utilizes in her poem “A Hand is Shaped for What it Holds or Makes” helps to immerse the reader in an out of body experience, inserting them into the mind and the skin of the speaker.