American poet, essayist and translator, born in 1953. Hirshfield is the author of eight celebrated poetry volumes, two now-classic collections of essays on poetry, Nine Gates (1997) and Ten Windows (2015), and four books collecting the work of world poets from the past, including an anthology, Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994) and The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1988). Her poetry books include: Alaya (1982), Of Gravity & Angels (1988), The October Palace (1994), The Lives of the Heart(1997), Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), After (2006), Come, Thief (2011) and The Beauty (2015).
In 1974, at the age of 21, she began eight years of formal training in Zen, after going to the oldest USA-based Zen monastery – Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Her first stay at the mountainous Californian retreat lasted seven days. That week encouraged Hirshfield to accept a unique challenge: after a year of preliminary practice at the Zen Center of San Francisco, she shut herself off from the world and entered the monastery for the traditional period of a thousand successive days. She was given lay ordination in 1979.
In 2002, Uvavnosc [Awareness], a selection of Hirshfield’s poems translated into Polish by Magda Heydel appeared from ZNAK, with an introduction by Czesław Miłosz. Launching at this year’s Miłosz Festival is an expanded and updated volume of selected poems, also from ZNAK, Słodycz Jabłek, Słodycz Fig [The Sweetness of Apples, of Figs] (2018), with an introduction by Adam Zagajewski and translations by Magda Heydel, Mieczysław Godyn, Agata Holobut, Czesław Miłosz, and Adam Szostiewicz. The first evidence of Hirshfield’s connection to Poland and its people appeared in her poem “For the Women of Poland: December 1981,” inspired by a newspaper report about food rationing under Poland’s martial law. In many lectures and interviews published over the decades, including some given in Poland, she has underlined the strong influence of Czesław Miłosz and other Polish poets on her own writing
Hirshfield’s poems are astute observations, grounded in every-day life. Michael Ondaatje has described her work as steeped in awareness of “the great democracy of being” and Czesław Miłosz named their hallmark note as compassion. Her work is sometimes lyrical and meditative in tone, sometimes aphoristic, filled with humour, paradox and a sense of absurdity. Her many honors include major U.S. fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various foundations, the Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award, the Hall-Kenyon Award in American Poetry, Columbia University’s Translation Center Award, and others. Her work has appeared in all leading U.S. literary journals, as well as in The New York Times, The Washington Post, England’s The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement, The Irish Times, and in Poland, in Tygodnik Powszechny, Naglos, Przekroj, and others. She has taught as a visiting poetry professor at Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere, and is a chancellor emerita of the Academy of American Poets.
Photo: Curt Richter