During the years I was at Tassajara, I wasn’t writing. Everything was very strict and very simple. We were told, “Do nothing but practice Zen,” and I wrote one haiku during those three years’ time. When I returned to poetry, a rather different person in many ways, I brought with me two things I now can see would be useful to any young aspiring writer: the monastic model of non-distraction and silence, and the experience of calling oneself into complete attention. The ability to stay in the moment, to investigate immediate existence through my own body and mind, was what I most needed to learn at that point in my life, and to learn to stay within my own experience more fearlessly. I never considered going to graduate school. I did this instead. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious weighing of one course of study against the other, but something in me did know: you cannot write until you can first inhabit your own life and mind.
A work of art offers a paradoxical liberation: it is something that changes everything while being perfectly useless in any ordinary sense. I suppose some people collect paintings because they think their value will increase in ten years or a hundred years, or because owning a certain object conveys social status. Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is patently real. But I think poetry, as an art form, proves that cannot be the whole story—no one gains social status from knowing or “owning” a poem. Art’s role in the contemporary world may well be precisely to be un-useful, to reveal the importance of uselessness in our lives. You can’t eat a painting. You can’t do anything except stand before it, know the world differently, and walk away changed. That’s what a painting can do, what a poem can do. Art halts the mind’s unthinking plummet and lets you see the experience as a new whole.
- Jane Hirshfield, in interview for A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, as excerpted in the February 2012 issue of Poetry Magazine. You can read all of Poetry Magazine's excerpts from the book here.