The Focus Gate Opens: Reflections on Jane Hirschfield’s “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”

My peers and professors kept recommending Jane Hirschfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry to me, and with this class I found the ideal exploration space for this collection of essays. I read Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses previously, which she wrote in a density close to that of black holes, as well as Stephen Dunn’s Best Words, Best Order, written in a more clear diction. Maybe one reason for putting off Hirschfield’s book was the concern that it would approach Stewart’s complexity as opposed to Dunn’s clarity. I do not shy away from complex theory, I enjoy it, but find that along with that complexity comes a requirement for time spent contemplating. Either way, I find Hirschfield’s Nine Gates extremely readable and informative. The first essay explores much of what I find exhilarating in poetry, but manages  a conveyance of complex ideas within a digestible framework. In the essay, Hirschfield approaches the feeling of being “in the zone” as a writer or reader, and although she focuses on poetry, I imagine that all writers and readers get this feeling from time to time, whether creating or consuming literature. This essay, “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”, takes a thoughtful and critical stance on this experience, which provides much to consider through its deeply thought insight. Although each of the essays in Hirschfield’s collection addresses important questions, this one spoke most directly to concerns I feel enveloped by in my current development as a writer.

While poetry requires the writer possess many finely honed techniques which may increase with practice, one requirement (as Hirschfield notes in “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”) is the pursuit of concentration. More particularly, she claims that “every good poem begins…in the body and mind of concentration” (3). Though every poet – and even every writer – may instantly connect to this idea and exclaim “but of course!”, this is not an idea that easily accepts definition, as Hirschfield accepts early on (3). And so she writes for thirty pages exploring the ideas implied by studied and open concentration. Where Susan Stewart explored the concentration and fate according to each of the senses for over three hundred pages, Hirschfield provides an exploration at a more generalized level. Importantly, and a lesson I am still learning, she comes almost immediately to the point of vexation for many a writer: “true concentration appears – paradoxically – at the moment willed effort drops away” (4). This willing giving over of the self – a distinctly Buddhist idea – allows the writer to “vanish into attentiveness itself” (4). Within a brief etymological exploration of the word itself, Hirschfield comes to two more important realizations about concentration: first, that a “poem’s presentation of meaning opposes not chaos…but the laziness and entropy of ordinary mind” (6); and second, that “when [a poet goes] to concentration’s center, [he] is pricked, which should mean [he] wake[s] up” (7). These two ideas provide a great relief to me about my own writing; I often worry over the question of whether my more fanciful poems approach what I want them to do, which is to provide an eye-opening perspective shift for the reader, or if they are merely tedious.

Hirschfield continues the essay by breaking poetic concentration down into six “central energies…: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice” (7). She then explores each of these energies in detail, beginning with music. Although I have confidence in the music I impart to poems, I found myself picking up new understanding about the importance of sound in the poem’s sense. For example, a reminder that alertness to the sound-sense of a poem cannot be generalized, but “is learned only by saying one poem at a time aloud, completely…repeatedly” (9). Every poetry teacher says this, but only after experiencing the effect of reading and rereading her example of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, and absorbing her in-depth discussion of its sounds and the reflection of those sounds in the meaning of the poem do I think it has sunk in. This particular section of the essay now finds itself on the “to be read yearly” list I keep. That Hirschfield begins her in-depth exploration of concentration with music calls back to poetry’s origins in recited epics which rely heavily on music and rhythm in assistance to the orator. Music’s importance in contemporary poetry lies, as she points out, in relation to the text of the poem – its contents of denotative and connotative meanings. I find this concentration of music assists greatly in the tone achieved by the poem: either in concert with or opposition to those textual meanings, or at some point between, music assists the reader in recognizing the poet’s stance to the subject. This is one of the great accomplishments of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, but also of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, which sets a playful couplet rhyme against a psychopath’s speech. Though I sometimes play with formal poems such as the sonnet or sestina, I often find the tone too formal once I finish them; I hope concentrating on the sound-sense of these poems will result in more complete drafts. In the informal poems I primarily write, this idea of sound-sense becomes more subtle, but clearly just as important.

Hirschfield next addresses the concept of rhetoric within the poem, which I think may be one of my shortcomings, as I often receive comments framed around a lack of conveyance of the speaker’s perspective. She quickly notes that “Americans distrust artful speech” (11), and that this is often a function of rhetoric. And just to confirm, she does mean rhetoric in the logos, ethos, and pathos variety, and not that of popular political journalism. She also recognizes that the performance of rhetoric “is scarcely conscious” in the mind of the reader, that its workings immediately affect the perspective the writer conveys and the reader accepts when beginning a poem (or any text for that matter), and further that the poet chooses the rhetoric of a particular poem (11). I find that I often choose the rhetoric of a poem subconsciously rather than focusing clearly on it, and this opens a whole field of consideration (and concentration) when beginning a new poem. Despite Hirschfield’s recognition of the “scarcely conscious” nature of rhetoric, she also recognizes that this plays a more direct role in the reader’s understanding of a poem. Specifically, she notes that the reader almost immediately forms a “hypothesis about the speaker,” and that “these initial hypotheses are tested and either confirmed or revised” (12-13). Of course, for the most part, these actions within the reader’s mind take place subconsciously unless the reader is asked to focus on them, to study the rhetoric of the poem. Even seemingly minor things, such as the “placement of free verse on the page” or “apparently minor grammatical choices” have great rhetorical impacts, even if they function almost completely in the subconscious realm (14). Again, I find myself questioning my poetic composition practices, but Hirschfield does not fail to reassure the writer when she writes that “while writing, the mind moves between consciousness and the unconscious in the effortless effort of concentration” (16). This is how humans work, in other words, and as in my own experience, concentrating on all aspects of poetic composition, while either writing or revising, is enough to drive a writer insane.

Hirschfield elucidates more forms of concentration in the rest of the essay, but I find myself most concerned with the two aspects above. I believe they are the primary shortcomings in my poems, whereas I feel confident in the creation of image, the seating in emotion, and the control of narrative. These are also aspects of concentration which Hirschfield spends less page space on, and which culminate – along with music and rhetoric – in her discussion of voice. The idea of voice in this sense is a combination of each of the concentrations come before, a “body language of a poem… everything that has gone into” making the poem what it is (29). I have an intuition – just rising out of the subconscious – that my voice strengthens with each poem I write, and that by actively giving over willed concentration to accepted vacancy – and by paying attention to music and rhetoric especially – that my voice will continue to develop. As I mentioned above, Hirschfield’s collection of essays has both reaffirmed and challenged what I think I know of my poems, and by further application of her Zen of Poetry, I hope to meet those challenges.




Works Cited

Hirschfield, Jane.  “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration.”  Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.  Print.  3-32.

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