The Immersive Genius of “Ten Windows”

A National Poetry Month special


In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, author Jane Hirshfield asks, “What do these words want of me?”

What does this book want of the reader?

The book tells us to see clearly with 10 essays that are “windows.” Many of the truths come from Hirshfield’s blood memory; others, from a life lived within an intensely emotional, intellectually ordered world.

Each chapter is a tiny universe of subliminal ideas turned to thought, with poems used as illustrations. The purpose is not to popularize poetry but to guide deeper appreciations, and when the book is done, it is obvious that Hirshfield can change our knowledge for the better.

Every chapter answers a big question, so Ten Windows becomes an existence that stays after the reading. Chapter one is about seeing through language, hearing through language, centering on Gerard Manley Hopkins‘s poetry.

Chapter two is about the cycle of destruction and repair becoming the “writer’s despair” and, also, the greatest gift. Chapter three is an introduction to haiku. (Hirshfield is knowledgeable in the field, having brought our great haiku writers to public attention.) Chapter four is about “the Hidden,” concentrating on the “underwater portion” of a poem’s life.

Chapter six is titled “Close Reading: Windows”: “Every poem — every work of art — is already working when considered as a whole, as a kind of window: art is a way to release our attention from immediacy’s grip into gestures that encompass, draw from, and remind of more expansive constellations and connection.” Hirshfield calls this “an enlarged intimacy.”

Ten chapters of diverse subjects — each is discrete in form and content. You can enjoy any part out of sequence. Pick the book up in the middle; it’s okay, because the book’s dynamic is Hirshfield’s intellectual and technical skill bringing harmony to the range of topics. She gives high energy to understanding the quantum field of poetry.

Poems are used to invoke new ways to listen to “the word,” with philosophical principles from science, history, and literature as reasonable accommodations. The book is a perfect course in poetry. I’d love to teach a chapter a week for 10 weeks.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio. She recently received the Washington Independent Review of Books’ first-ever lifetime achievement award.

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