I came across the term “assay” as a poetic concept in the works of Jane Hirshfield. I haven’t been able to see any other poet explicitly applying the term to their poems. To assay is usually used to mean to determine the content or quality of a metal or ore. For Hirshfield, the assay poems undertake intriguing, oblique, and often figurative analyses of wildly varied subjects, both abstract and material: shadows, termites, gravel, possibility, the words “to,” “ah,” “and,” and “once,” envy, hesitation, the rock garden of Ryoanji, tears, translucence, articulation, hope, and judgment.
Regarding the nature of her assay poems, Hirshfield stated:
The imagination of the assays is centrifugal, pulling against the literal or objectively physical in these poems, but also centripetal: the center of gravity is always the thing itself. The poem tests the strength of orbit and object and sees what it finds. The assay on gravel found the question of part and whole, then found death. The assay on “to” found precipitous time, then death. The assay on “tears” found misunderstanding. The assay on hesitation found the earliest moments of love. The assay on judgment found, well, judgment, and my own extraordinarily mixed relationship to its place in our lives.