Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Modernist Elements in Jane Hirshfield's Voice and Zen Meditation*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Modernist Elements in Jane Hirshfield's Voice and Zen Meditation*

Article excerpt

Like many American poets since the rise of Imagism in the 1910s, Jane Hirshfield (*1953) writes verse with concrete, vivid imagery. However, her imagery is tactfully linked to the control and the activity of the mind. Furthermore, her poems move beyond this early Modernist concern for imagery, for they are pregnant with spiritual awareness and insight into the human psyche. Take her short poem "The Clock" as an example:

Night pond,

its few leaves



drifting over the surface.

But even

fallen things

disrupt each other.

Beauty, griefs turn over.

The leaves move

all night, slowly,

until they again are red. (Hirshfield, Lives 71)

On the surface, the poem focuses on the image of a few fallen leaves drifting on a small pond. It must be autumn, for their hue was red. They might have been sullied by dirt before they were blown to the pond. The title "The Clock" highlights the passing of time while "all night" indicates the duration. During the night, the leaves drifted and turned on the water until they were cleansed and the red hue was recovered. However, this analysis delineates merely the imagistic part of the text.

Several words are so deftly used that the sensory objects in the image become analogous to human experiences, so the image can be associated with one's subjectivity, and the reader is able to apprehend the mind of the speaker. Because of the word " things" in line 7, the leaves become analogous to human feelings that are evoked in the following lines by "beauty" and "griefs," because "fallen things" could refer either to the fallen leaves or to feelings in one's past. What, then, does "fallen things /disrupt each other" mean? Does it mean that the fallen leaves, while drifting, scratch against each other? Or the two feelings - the love for "beauty" and the "griefs" for its transience - "disrupt" each other? This implication reveals a probing into the conflict in the human psyche. Also, the word "its" in "its few leaves" in line 2 indicates the pond's ownership of the leaves. Why should the pond be possessive of the leaves? If the leaves are analogous to human feelings, can the pond be analogous to the mind? Does it imply that our mind is often obsessed with our feelings? The leaves move all night and finally are purged of the stains. Can it be said that in one's dream, memory of the beautiful and that of the grievous disrupt each other until the conflict is resolved? What about the ending lines in which the leaves "again are red": do the lines imply that all burning feelings will remain intact and will not pass into oblivion? Apparently, the poem is not just about the image of a few fallen leaves, but reveals the speaker's penetrating insight into the human psyche, feelings and experiences, and above all, this insight is expressed in a voice sung between the lines. The meaning behind the image is conveyed in a reticent voice.

The aim of this paper is to unravel the impact of Soto Zen meditation practice on Hirshfield's poetic voice, to show how her impersonal yet sometimes passionate, controlled yet free floating voice distinguishes itself from Modernist poets, and how her religious verse distinguishes itself from that of her predecessors, including Gary Snyder (*1930) and Philip Whalen (1923-2001), among others. There is always a speaker in a poem who communicates with readers or imagined addressees. In this paper, the speaker will be called "the voice," following Samuel Maio, who says that "the voice is the speaker of the poem - not necessarily the poet, as is often wrongly assumed" (Maio 1). The voice is often "sincere," and is "a literary self," a substitute for the poet's "literal, historical self" (Maio 2). The poem "The Clock" contains not only strong Imagistic elements, but also insightful thoughts delivered by a unique voice, whereas, in an Imagist poem, the images form the main body, and they themselves can imply and cross-fertilize meanings. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.