Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 8, 2011

Past Words, Through Windows

In the February issue of AWP The Writer’s ChronicleJane Hirshfield writes “Many good poems have a kind of window-moment in them – a point at which they change their direction of gaze or thought in a way that suddenly opens a broadened landscape of meaning and feeling.” She cites an example from Donald Justice’s sonnet “The Pupil,” which speaks of a boy practicing the piano, losing his place, forgetting the keys, and keeping on “stupid and wild with love.” Then the line “Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home” offers this earnest child a different context. Jane Hirshfield gives another example of windows reminding us of a bigger world in Act III of King Lear, when the king looks into the storm and in a heart-widening moment is reminded of suffering beyond his personal sorrow.

Jane Hirshfield notes that windows are also a technique great for fiction, too, sometimes used on the level of sentence, sometimes a chapter, and sometimes a larger structural device. Shifts can happen from concrete to abstract, small to large, momentary to lasting, or the other ways around. Many writers use these strategies unconsciously, but she suggests that it can be valuable to try creating a window on purpose now and then. When you don’t know how to move from one scene to another, can a change in perspective help? When you need to connect to a past moment, rather than writing a flashback, is there something almost slightly out of sight that can nudge your character through time?

Looking hard at something, then shifting your view, can change your day, too: in Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and The Poet in Our Time, a book I swooned about last Friday, Eavan Boland writes about days as a mother dealing with small gloves and bright cups, then in the evening, the sense of peace she felt as her children were tucked under covers. She confides that then sometimes her view of life shifted beyond the walls, and she felt a love for not only her children but what lay beyond, a sense she attributed to having read a lot of pastoral poems.

Many of us tend to look in the same direction when walking: on the sidewalk, toward the middle distance, at the tail of the dog. Shifting my view to the horizon or clouds just for a bit, my mood changes. And leaving my manuscript, I’ve found answers to puzzles on hikes, drives, or in the shower, though never, as some have, in dreams. Looking down, then looking up, looking narrow, looking wide. I’ve made changes like these, but today I’m going to try to do it consciously and would love it if you joined me. Here’s a window where our character gazes. Now mine looks at a cornfield, and, on another day, chickens in a kitchen garden. On still another day, horses clip-clop over cobblestones. Can she see beyond trees or triple deckers? Can she see all at once, or even time passing, where we meet for a moment?

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit Madigan Reads.



  1. This post, Jeannine, will not only help me with writing…but with life. Walking through graveyards or forests always helps me find a new window, welcomes perspective into my heart. Yes, just like a window. A.
    ps – I would love to be in your class and am so grateful you host this “class” here!

  2. Hi Jeannine ~ I often find lines or solutions when I’m walking, riding my bike, or soaking in the tub. When the mind stops working, answers appear. And you may already know that Jane Hirshfield is in the line-up at Smith next fall!

  3. Windows are a great metaphor…whether looking out or peering through, we’re greeted by/treated to an illuminating view. Great fodder for writers and readers alike!
    Maybe backlit windows are why people love Thomas Kincaid (not so much my thing, but still)? And perhaps that’s why people in the land of DIY find themselves drawn to projects that repurpose old windows.
    Coincidentally, I just saw this lovely repurposed window this morning. Even if you’re not into vintage what-nots, this one’s pretty cool. See also: whimsical and inspiring.

  4. Amy, you are too sweet. I’m happy to work along with you, and thank you for doing the reading!
    And I agree it amazing how doing something on the physical level can shift the spirit.

  5. I do love that about our minds. They do ask for some discipline, but the gifts seem to come when we look up or step away.
    And I’m on the list for the readings at Smith, but did not know about next fall. We need to make a date, Carol!

  6. Those are beautiful windows you linked to. Not that I want to be surrounded by lots of chipping paint (or peeling wallpaper) but there is something about the way it captures time, and the windows within windows make gorgeous frames for faces that changed through time.
    Looking out, looking in.

  7. Another gorgeous post, chock full of your beautiful observations and inspiration for writing and life in general. I hope you know how often you open the window for those of us lucky enough to read your blog.

  8. I love your essay, Jeannine, especially the last sentence. I often turn to such “windows” when I’m wondering where my character really is, in this scene. What is he/she experiencing or remembering? Nice opportunity for metaphor.
    Windows, the real kind, fascinated me as a kid, when my brother and I would ride home from the city in the back seat of the old Chevy, looking out at the lit apartment windows beside the road and imagining the lives of the people inside.

  9. Thank you, dear Jama. I missed your fun and kindness during those times when LJ was acting weird. We’re all pretty lucky around here.

  10. Thanks, Toby. I’m happy to join you in any and all leanings toward metaphor, which of course the girl in the back of the Chevy suggests…

  11. I read this same article but I clearly wasn’t paying attention. Must have been looking someplace else.
    Thanks so much for distilling and clarifying that piece. I am forever sitting at the keyboard like Colette, trying to get my characters out of the room. A small shift in perspective!
    I’m going to use the window technique today, right this very minute.

  12. Okay Jeannine. Let’s make a date to see Jane Hirshfield!! (~,~)

  13. Oh, yes, I often read like that. But I like Jane Hirshfield so tried to give it my best attention. I’m happy you’re trying this strategy and hope your characters get out of the room and even the house!

  14. ” Looking down, then looking up, looking narrow, looking wide.”
    Well, this is a life challenge as well as a writing challenge – one can get so focused on a point of view in a narrative or in general that it actually serves to restrict our imagination. That ability to shift perspective, to glance out of the window at a passerby , shift ones imagination into his realm, and then turn back, refreshed, to our own world, is a gift, I think…if one makes use of it. Now…how to teach this strategy to my young writers so that it becomes a natural part of their writing lives!

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