Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

By Smith, Valerie | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry


Smith, Valerie, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. By Jane Hirshfield. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1997. 224 pp. $13.00 (paper).

Jane Hirshfield, author of Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997), combines spiritual connectivity, extensive research, and nearly thirty years of writing experience to reveal and encourage the creative lineage within each poet.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield is a collection of essays exploring the thought processes that occur in the practice of writing poetry. In this text, Hirshfield views poetry as an artform, gift, and vocation while simultaneously regarding the poet as creator, contributor, and contemplative. Steeped in historical examples and calling on Hirshfield's experience as a writer and Zen Buddhist, Nine Gates is a prescription of equal parts meditation and application for writers who want to "understand the ways a poem may carry itself into comprehension" (vii).

Hirshfield leads readers through nine chapters, original essays "written over a ten-year period [and] presented at various occasions" (viii). The essays are impeccably written for the poet who studies diligently and writes purposefully. From the first chapter, "Poetry and the Mind of Concentration" to the last, "Writing and the Threshold Life," each gate exhibits Hirshfield's breadth of understanding of the legacy of poetry. The author evokes the works of countless authors to serve as examples-from thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen in chapter two, "The Question of Originality," to Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in chapter six, "Two Secrets: On Poetry's Inward and Outward Looking."

The strength in Nine Gates is not simply the sheer amount of poetry included in this text. Hirshfield highlights poets for specific reasons and compels her audience to read the samples within the context of each gate. Though mostly haiku and tanka, there are fifteen poems in chapter four, "The Myriad Leaves of Words" discussing "the earliest exploration of poetry's nature in Japanese literature" (82). Hirshfield uses twelve poems in chapter seven, "Facing the Lion: The Way of Shadow and Light in Some Twentieth-Century Poems." In this chapter, Hirshfield argues, "The journey into maturity. ..must pass through the underworld realms of uncertainty, fear, and death." (155). Hirshfield records Stevie Smith's "The Photograph," to evoke shadows and face fears with the first line: "They photographed me young upon a tiger skin" (156).

Every journey into realization and actualization presents deep waters, dense forests, and steep mountains that one must travel with one's own strength. Chapter three, "The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation," describes the portal where many poets, including Hirshfield herself, may have faced trepidation. The author contends, "Translation's very existence challenges our understanding of what a literary text is" (55). …

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