NINE GATES: ENTERING THE MIND OF POETRY
by Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953, American) author and poet
Review by: Jamie Dedes (Musing by Moonlight)
An award-winning author and poet, Jane Hirshfield has published seven collections of poetry in addition to Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a collection of essays. Her most recent book of poetry is Come, Thief (August 2011). In collaboration with Mariko Aratoni, Hirshfield edited and translated four volumes of poetry by women of ancient Japan.
Ms. Hirshfield is a Zen Buddhist and her practice informs her work with spiritual insight and delicate nuance. She has said, “It is my hope that the experience of that practice underlies and informs [my poetry] as a whole. My feeling is that the paths of poetry and of meditation are closely linked – one is an attentiveness and awareness that exists in language, the other an attentiveness and awareness that exists in silence, but each is a way to attempt to penetrate experience thoroughly, to its core.” [The Poetry Foundation]
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (September 1998) is a series of nine essays that were written by Jane Hirshfield over a ten-year period and published or presented poetry events.
Gates are a means of exit and entrance, providing connection between the inner and the outer. The premise of Hirshfield’s book is that the art of poetry is the gate by which we are offered “mysterious informing.” Nine Gates is at once a primer for the reader and a manual for the writer. This is a book that is reverent of art, artist, and life. All is sacred ground.
The book begins at the beginning – the root of poetry – concentration. “By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” As she says, this is Huxley’s “doors to perception” and James Joyce’s “epiphany.” It is what I would call sacred space, and this focus, this concentration, “however laborious, becomes a labor of love.” In this chapter, I particularly appreciated the short discussion of voice: writers whose ear is turned to both the inner and outer have found their voice and thus are able to put their “unique and recognizable stamp” upon their work.
The book closes with “Writing and the Threshold Life” and a discussion of the space into which a writer withdraws, liminal space. The writer, she tells us, becomes like the monk giving-up identity and assumptions. . “The person [in liminal state] leaves behind his or her identity and dwells in the threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.” This is all rather like the person going through a ritual transitions. Only after transition to this liminal space, neither here nor there, is community wholeheartedly embraced. To see clearly and to embrace the whole without judgment, one has to be free of the standard cannon and the received wisdom. The idea being that the creative life is one that gives up the ordinary conventions, which is the price of freedom.
Encased between the two portals of concentration and the threshold life are discussions of originality, translation (what we learn from the poetry and linguistic traditions of others), “word leaves” (images), indirection (the mind of the poet circles the poem), inward and outward looking, the shadow side of poetry (between the realms of heaven and hell), and poetry as a “vessel of remembrance.”
The book’s range is broad, using poets and their wisdom from ancient times to modern and from East to West. The essays are at once a delicate lace and a sturdy practical homespun. All is approached with respect, clarity, and intelligence. Each chapter is a gentle nudge toward more authenticity, greater truth, deeper spirituality. In her introduction, Jane Hirshfield says that because the essays were written at different times some themes and quotes are repeated and removing the repetitions proved impossible. I felt the repetitions served to reinforce. I was grateful for them. If I have any difficulty with this book, it was the conflict between not wanting to put it down and wanting to put it down to start writing in the spirit of entering the mind of poetry. A definite thumbs-up on this one.