Open Windows

Caution: World-Changing Poetry at Work

In essays as forceful as they are graceful, the poet Jane Hirshfield argues that poetry possesses the ability to transform the way its readers perceive the world.


In the fifth essay of her new collection, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, poet Jane Hirshfield writes of a Japanese poem, “windows are the opening through which the luminous arrives.”

That idea of windows as luminous openings, whether stated explicitly or implicitly, buttresses these ten thoughtful pieces on poetry, prose literature, and art. The book’s Eliotesque objective correlative of a title recalls Hirshfield’s earlier essay collection, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, where Hirshfield writes “through that open gate, the unspoken gains entrance into the poem.”

In this volume, whose essays appeared in World Literature Today, The American Poetry Review, and various journals, or evolved from lectures and poetry talks, Hirshfield describes the poem as a thing palpable, mostly human, and resumes the argument from her earlier work that good poetry can transform people’s lives and change the world. She looks through a historical window as she exhibits Western poetry as far back as Horace and Eastern poetry written in the 11th century, devoting an entire chapter, a window if you will, to the Zen poet Matsuo Bashō and haiku.

In the chapter entitled “What Is American in Modern American Poetry,” she delivers a terse answer to the question, “What makes American poetry American?”: Walt Whitman. But she goes on to further characterize American poetry with modern examples from Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, W. S. Merwin, and Jean Valentine, among others.

Elsewhere, she quotes poems and poem excerpts from Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, and Hopkins. Poets like Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, and Philip Larkin speak throughout the book: Hirshfield includes a sampling of poetry translated by others and herself, but none of her own poems (although Knopf is releasing her new collection The Beauty simultaneously with this book.)

All of the poems and poetic excerpts in Ten Windows contribute to her sustained thesis: “Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share.” Thus, good poems transform lives.

Hirshfield defines a good poem as “a through-passage, words that leave poet, reader, and themselves ineradicably changed.” They transform in innumerable ways, as Hirshfield ably demonstrates through the book’s many examples. Some transformations are wrought in sound, others in connotation. A bit more complicated, though, is her idea that the poem’s transformation on the page is retained, at least in part by the reader, so that the reader is transformed.

A poem becomes more expansive due to “windows.” A window, as Hirshfield partially defines it, changes the nature of a poem by enlarging the poem’s scope. “The windows that break open the boundaries of a poem, piece of music, or painting do the same work: they awaken and give entrance to what might otherwise not be recognized, felt, or known as inseparably part of the story.”

In her discussion of those illuminating windows, she cites Philip Larkin’s poem “High Windows.” There, the poem’s speaker switches from a bitter meditation about changing customs to looking out physical windows; going from “obsessive internal invective into an uninhabited, exterior image as if it has suddenly heard enough of its own voice and broken off mid-thought.”

In the poems “How to Kill” by Keith Douglas and “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed, from the World War II era, the poet forces “the eyes toward its subject more strongly by turning them also away.” Hirshfield suggest that this oscillating view “may be the only way these poems could have been written, or be read, at all.”

But Hirshfield doesn’t confine the concept and the work of windows to poetry. She gives examples from the prose of DeLillo and Melville.

From Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “…this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each. Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”

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She admires the “window effect” of the last sentence, calling it immediate and profound. Like the shift of the Larkin poem, “DeLillo’s shift from the particular to the abstract opens the book’s voice to speak from a larger perspective.” She contends that chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick also function as windows: “some looking into the sea, the ship, or the bodies of whales, others facing outward.” Through windows, the large is revealed by its effect on the small, which, she argues, is “how we know life itself.”

Most of the figures of speech Hirshfield uses are astute constructions by an imaginative and brilliant mind. Other devices, especially the comic personification of language waking up in the morning with its unwashed face, unbrushed teeth, and uncombed hair, are so overblown they strike me as silly.

A book subtitled “How Great Poems Transform the World” naturally includes foreign poems in translation but also includes illuminating passages on how poetic form influences poets across cultural and language barriers: William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow and Ezra Pound’s wet, black bough depended so much on old Asian poetic forms. Hirshfield writes, “The imagist aesthetic introduced to Western poetry near the start of the twentieth century by Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and Eliot is so deeply part of current poetics that few recognize its historical origins in Asia.”

Whether it’s imagist or confessional, lyrical or narrative, formal or free verse, poetry’s ability to change the world is no great news, as we’ve known of poetry’s transformative power since the time of Homer. Nevertheless, Hirshfield brings to this book the sagacious analysis of a creative critic and the heart of a writer “in love with close observation” whose prose, like Hopkins’s, resonates with poetry.

Joseph Peschel, a writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at [email protected] or through his blog.