Poetry: The Antidote to Fundamentalism

To those who say poetry means very little to people nowadays -- a "tiny side niche," as the award-winning poet recalls people saying to her -- Jane Hirshfield has an altogether different idea: poetry can transform the world.

In our conversation for an article for The Washington Post, which ran online last week and in BookWorld today, we talked about whether poetry has a role in addressing the spate of killings by police of African Americans (yes! Hirshfield says); whether literature has replaced religion as the place some people go in time of struggle (maybe); and her two new books: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, (Knopf, $24.95) and her new book of poems, The Beauty (Knopf, $26)

She also read to me this poem from her new collection: an answer, I think, to our recent divisions over race.

Our conversation begins like this:

Q. Your book has a very heady subtitle: Can you explain how poems transform the world?

I think we know the world needs changing. Things are going awry left and right. I firmly believe that in our very practical, technological, and scientific age, the values of all the arts, but of poetry in particular, are necessary for moving the world forward. I’m talking about things like compassion, empathy, permeability, interconnection, and the recognition of how important it is to allow uncertainty in our lives.

One of the current great problems in the world is fundamentalism of every kind – political, spiritual — and poetry is an antidote to fundamentalism. Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. They’re about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.

The full Washington Post article appears on the Washington Post blog, "Inspired Life."

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