The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention
“In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”
By Maria Popova
“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in lamenting the artist’s struggle at a time “when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make.” We no longer have Baldwin to awaken us to the gravest perils of our own era — one in which the poetic spirit isn’t merely neglected but is being forced to surrender at gunpoint. To produce poets, in this largest Baldwinian sense of creative seers of human truth, seems to be among the most urgent tasks of our time.
Defining poetry as “the clarification and magnification of being,” she writes: “Here, as elsewhere in life, attentiveness only deepens what it regards.” In the superb opening essay, titled “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” Hirshfield examines the nature of this clarified, magnified deepening of being — concentration as consecration — by probing its six main components: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Although focused on the reading and writing of poetry, her insight ripples outward in widening circles (as Rilke might say) to encompass every kind of writing, all art, and even the art of living itself.
Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration.
By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be placed into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.
Considering the unparalleled pleasures of practicing familiar to all who endeavor in the “absorbing errand” of creative work, particularly to those who attain mastery, Hirshfield points to deliberate practice as an essential aspect of concentration — one that transcends mechanical skill and reaches into the psychological, even the spiritual:
Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.
With an eye to the obsessive daily routines and strange creative rituals of many writers, and to the state of intense focus in the creative act known as “flow,” Hirshfield explores the path to concentration:
Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry… Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears — paradoxically — at the moment willed effort drops away… At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present — a feeling of joy, or even grief — but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.
This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in.” We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery and revelation. And however much we may come to believe that “the real” is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if “truth” is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.
A century after Rilke extolled the soul-expanding power of difficulty and urged us to “arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult,” Hirshfield writes:
Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration — expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: “For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river — / Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.”
Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a full life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty and Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for the reality-enlarging quality of contradiction, Hirshfield adds:
Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius “not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.” Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance — a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.
Hirshfield turns to the role of language in concentration and the role of concentration in language, in writing, in poetry itself:
Great sweeps of thought, emotion, and perception are compressed to forms the mind is able to hold — into images, sentences, and stories that serve as entrance tokens to large and often slippery realms of being… Words hold fast in the mind, seeded with the surplus of beauty and meaning that is concentration’s mark.
More than a century after William James asserted that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” in his seminal theory of how our bodies affect our feelings, Hirshfield examines the dimensions of time and space in language through the focusing lens of the body:
Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.
But it also lives in the moment, in us. Emotion, intellect, and physiology are inseparably connected in the links of a poem’s sound. It is difficult to feel intimacy while shouting, to rage in a low whisper, to skip and weep at the same time.
Well before scientists came to study how repetition beguiles the brain, Hirshfield considers the enchantment of rhythmic regularity. In a passage that calls to mind pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s notion of “effective surprise” as the pillar of creativity, she describes the affective surprise at the heart of every great work of art:
A regular returning in one dimension can bring unexpected turns in another: hunting a rhyme, the mind falls on a wholly surprising idea. This balancing between expected and unforeseen, both in aesthetic and cognitive structures, is near the center of every work of art. Through the gate of concentration, defining yet open, both aspects enter.
Hirshfield examines the role of rhetoric as a gatekeeper of concentration:
Before we can concentrate easily, we need to know where we stand. This is the work of rhetoric… Traditionally defined as the art of choosing the words that will best convey the speaker’s intent, rhetoric’s concern is the precise and beautiful movement of mind in language.
Americans distrust artful speech, believing that sincerity and deliberation cannot coexist… Romantic temperament … equates spontaneity and truth. But the word art is neighbor to artifice, and in human culture, as in the animal and vegetable worlds, desirability entails not only the impulse of the moment but also enchantment, exaggeration, rearrangement, and deception. We don’t find the fragrance of night-scented flowering tobacco or the display of a peacock’s tail insincere — by such ruses this world conducts its erotic business. To acknowledge rhetoric’s presence in the beauty of poems, or any other form of speech, is only to agree to what already is.
In another thought cast at poetry but ablaze with truth about all art and about life itself, Hirshfield observes:
To be aware of a poem’s effects … requires only our alert responsiveness, our presence to each shift in the currents of language with an answering shift in our being… at a level closer to daydream. But daydream with an added intensity: while writing, the mind moves between consciousness and the unconscious in the effortless effort of concentration. The result, if the poet’s intensity of attention is sufficient, will be a poem that brims with its own knowledge, water trembling as if miraculously above the edge of a cup. Such a poem will be perfect in the root sense of the word: “thoroughly done.”
Daydreaming is indeed an apt analogy, for the making of poetry — as, again, the making of all art — radiates from a communion of the conscious and the unconscious, a more wakeful counterpart to that “something nameless” which Mark Strand elegized in his sublime ode to dreams. Hirshfield captures this beautifully:
Making a poem is neither a wholly conscious activity nor an act of unconscious transcription — it is a way for new thinking and feeling to come into existence, a way in which disparate modes of meaning and being may join. This is why the process of revising a poem is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.
This dreamlike aspect comes most fully alive in one of poetry’s great powers — phanopoeia, the making of images. Hirshfield writes of the poetic image:
The deepest of image’s meanings is its recognition of our continuity with the rest of existence: within a good image, outer and subjective worlds illuminate one another, break bread together, converse. In this way, image increases both vision and what is seen. Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both.
But in bridging inner reality with the outer world, Hirshfield argues, this halfway house of transcendence brings home something even larger, even more monumental:
Poetry moves consciousness toward empathy.
Intelligence and receptivity are connected — human meaning is made by seeing what is… The outer world can be transformed by a subjectively infused vision; inner event placed into the language of the physical takes on an equally mysterious addition.
A powerful poetic image, Hirshfield suggests, both wrests truth out of reality and confers truth upon it:
In a good image, something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed. Without precisely this image, we feel, the world’s store of truth would be diminished; and conversely, when a writer brings into language a new image that is fully right, what is knowable of existence expands.
Thinking within the fields of image, the mind crosses also into the knowledge the unconscious holds — into the shape-shifting wisdom of dream. Poetic concentration allows us to bring the dream-mind’s compression, displacement, wit, depth, and surprise into our waking minds. It is within dreamlife we first learn to read rain as grief, or the may that a turtle’s walking may speak of containment and an awkward, impeccable fortitude.
But the aspect of concentration perhaps most widely relevant beyond poetry is that of narrative — our supreme hedge against the entropy of existence. Hirshfield writes:
Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.
Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.
Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s abiding wisdom on how imaginative storytelling expands our repertoire of possibilities, Hirshfield adds:
Story, at its best, becomes a canvas to which the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions.
Narrative carries the knowledge of our alteration through the shifting currents of circumstance and time.
Narrative’s essential counterpart is voice — the waveform of the soul in writing. Hirshfield writes:
A person’s heard voice is replete with information. So it is with the voice of a poem.
Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is. Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use? The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves. Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.
In the essay’s closing passages, Hirshfield once again captures a central truth about poetry that sets free a larger truth about life itself — about the limits of attention, about the relationship between what is known and what is knowable, about the nature of transformation, about the perennial incompleteness of being. She writes:
No matter how carefully we read or how much attention we bring to bear, a good poem can never be completely entered, completely known. If it is the harvest of true concentration, it will know more than can be said in any other way. And because it thinks by music and image, by story and passion and voice, poetry can do what other forms of thinking cannot: approximate the actual flavor of life, in which subjective and objective become one, in which conceptual mind and the inexpressible presence of things become one.
Letting this wideness of being into ourselves, as readers or as writers, while staying close to the words themselves, we begin to find in poems a way of entering both language and being on their own terms. Poetry leads us into the self, but also away from it. Transparency is both capacious and focused. Free to turn inward and outward, free to remain still and wondering amid the mysteries of mind and world, we arrive, for a moment, at a kind of fullness that overspills into everything. One breath taken completely; one poem, fully written, fully read — in such a moment, anything can happen. The pressed oil of words can blaze up into music, into image, into the heart and mind’s knowledge. The lit and shadowed placed within us can be warmed.
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry is a small but immensely largehearted book, replete with radiant wisdom on the creative act of composing a life, in poetry or in pulse. Complement it with Hirshfield’s beautiful ode to the leap day, then revisit Mary Oliver on what attention really means, Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit, and great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.