The Sweet Unheard


Of all the poets who delve into writing, creativity and the nature of art making, Jane Hirshfield is the closest to my way of seeing things. I go back to her books over and over again. Now another to add to my library: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. These three essays were delivered as part of the Newcastle/Bookaxe Poetry Lecture series in 2007.

Those three words—hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise—are fundamental elements in my studio practice. As is usually the case, Hirshfield’s explorations are salient to poetry as well other creative efforts. Her strong interest in Eastern thought and meditation also spills over into the inner life as well.

The first chapter on hiddenness is full of relevance. That which contains the hidden—a poem, a painting, a musical score—is “inexhuastible to the imagination,” Hirshfield writes. “It is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems.” Poet Donald Hall has used the analogy of a house that has a secret room at its center. That’s the place where that which cannot be paraphrased or verbalized is stored. That room can never be used for ordinary habitation but its very presence changes the house. That unopenable room does not exist in the world or in the work of art itself: It resides in each of us. And yet the very existence of that secret room changes everything.

In the course of her contemplation of hiddenness, Hirshfield asks a biologist friend about her views of how it plays out in nature. I loved the answer she received: “For most of life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition…visibility is a luxury. Rarely are earth-colored tones the symbols of opulence and royal blood. We are most comfortable being hidden but we yearn to be seen.” (This is the biological version of the often quoted description of an artist from the writer and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”)

A few more memorable passages from the first essay, “Poetry and Hiddenness:”

“Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.” A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of both biological existence and what we experience as beauty; the steepest pitches of the heart and mind make their own shade. Within that cool and dimness, emotions and thoughts small as new mosses and lichens begin the slow, green colonisations of incipient life.

Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure—though one we stand some times outside of, at others within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that something unknonwable is always present in a life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended…it is our subjectivity of stance, not the world, that creates the unknown.

Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest. The thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen described its weight of presence thus: “…there are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This complete understanding.”

More about Jane Hirshfield on Slow Muse:

It’s the Honey

Silky Attention

A Truing of Vision

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

Necessary Wildness

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Spirit and Body

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

5 Replies to “The Sweet Unheard”

  1. Sally Reed says:

    “Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest.” This is lovely. And Deborah, have we ever talked about the righting moment? (A nautical term/concept) if not, we must.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Educate me Sal. I’m not a sailor but love the language Hirschfield is using which so often speaks right to my experience. xoxo

  2. George Wingate says:

    Sally, any moment is a writing moment. You said it.

    Right beneath the surface things boil and bubble, pulsate. In the center is a molten core which speaks the same language as the sun. The sun isn’t puny. It may not be the biggest pebble on the terrestrial beach but it is ours. Me? I am righting myself according to it…and to that other intangible…gravity.

    We ‘re not even broaching the matter of the closet….the secret heart of hearts which makes you and I alive and expressve, unique.

    Deborah, you are a force influencing the trajectories of those who don’t even know you, much less those who do. The influence lurks in our little frames, unseen, invisible, true. (True places are not on any maps…and thanks for saying so, Mr. Herman Melville).

    If Hirschfield talks a talk to you, a talk which engenders homing thoughts in your readers, Hirschfield is a speaker of value.

  3. You might like these poems as

    I’m especially fond of the last sentence of the second one;
    “See how the water erases it
    how the man with the hat inscribes it again
    preserves water and footprint, capturing the movement that has passed,
    so that what vanished is still there as something that vanished.”

  4. I’m looking forward to reading Hirschfield’s latest book; you’ve whetted my appetite. She’s long been one of my favorite writers.

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