As part of the 2019 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Brenda Hillman in response to a video of her reading her poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice” aloud. Hillman wrote letters back to thirteen of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
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Brenda Hillman reads “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice” for Dear Poet 2019.
Dear Mrs. Hillman,
I hope that you are doing very well. My name is Lauren, and I am a freshman in high school. I have a passion for baseball and listening to musicals. I am writing to you after reading your poem in honor of National Poetry Month. In my English class, we were assigned to read a packet of poems and to choose our favorites. Your poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice” stood out to me, due to its interesting structure and word choice. Until this year, I have not had any experience with poetry. Now having some experience, I have really come to enjoy the aspects of poems like the style of your writing and the layout. I have learned that one can express their thoughts both figuratively and literally, and that creativity is endless.
I have noticed that your poem has both figurative and literal parts to it, and that it makes the reader really think about what has been written. When analyzing your piece, it made me wonder what “the being said” at the end of your piece, being the last line. It made me want to know what happened next and I think that the suspense that you left made the reader want more, which is great. It was like ending your favorite TV show on a cliffhanger. Another line that stood out to me is, “children braid languages & some/are praised for confidence but who praised the garden for all that breath?” The figurative language that you chose “children braid languages” makes the reader stop and think about what they’re reading. The tildes on the side of your work stood out to me, too. I think they signify the “geese honk [ing]/overhead,” but because you never explained it, it is up to a reader like me to figure out the meaning. A final piece of your poem that was interesting to me was how you had the symbol “&” instead of the word. I am curious if you have a reason behind this.
I wonder what significance do geese have? It seems to me like they are just in the background, but I wonder if they symbolize something that I am missing? Another question I have is if you have an experience relating to any part of your poem? It seems like it is close to home, like a scene that you have lived through. Thank you so much Mrs. Hillman for writing the beautiful piece of “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice;” it inspires me to pay attention to my surroundings more carefully.
Paradise Valley, AZ
Thank you so much for your articulate response to “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice,” and for your questions to me. I was gratified to read that you developed a really good set of poetic vocabulary tools, as when you commented on the difference between “literal” and “figurative” uses of language in a poem. Your reading was quite sensitive and full of original insights. Your teacher must be very proud of you!
You asked about the ampersand (&) and why I chose to use it instead of the word “and.” At a certain point I started to like the way the ampersand looks on the page—kind of like a yoga position! But the main reason I use it is because certain writers I admire, including the great San Francisco writer, Robert Duncan have used it as a form of mental shorthand when you’re thinking fast. I like the compression of the ampersand and find it a really attractive sign.
You also asked about the geese in the poem. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and we have some geese flying south and north at all times of year. Sometimes they even seem confused, though I am sure this is only my projection of poet’s confusion! They do fly in the fall, and when I see them, I think about the school children learning to write in relation to their funny honking overhead. The poem is also about different kinds of breath. I was thinking about the breath in the letters the children are making.
You ask whether this poem comes from a particular moment. I often work on poems in groups or even in collections. The book that houses this poem is about fire: fire in the outer environment; inner fire of the spirit and language; the outer fires in our lives. In California we sometimes have wildfires in autumn, right when children are learning their letters, and that is why I refer to the time when “the danger of fire is passed.”
There are many different readings of any features of a poem, so there are almost no wrong answers; I hope your teachers will be great and will encourage you to experience the true freedom of language.
Thank you again for reading my poem. I hope you will continue to read poetry forever and that you will write your own poems too.
My warmest wishes,
Dear Ms. Hillman,
I cannot express the depth to which your poem spoke to me; nevertheless, I will attempt it. I am sure that as a writer, you are also an avid reader, so you must understand how it feels when a piece of writing simply speaks to you. And that's what your poem has done for me.
In my creative writing class, we listened to the eight poems, and while I enjoyed all thoroughly, none affected me as yours did. While I sat there in class listening to "The Letters Learned to Breathe Twice", I felt understood. See, my whole life I have been the shy girl, who barely speaks. I was always too scared to say what I thought, or what I believed, so I wrote it down. I traced gray skin around the unsayable... I probably have one hundred notebooks filled with things I could have said, but didn't.
In your poem, you write about kids who are drawn to write. Those who have so much to say, but don't. I am one of those kids, or rather I used to be." I was inspired by novelists, journalists, and poets like you. And I just kept writing. The more I wrote, the more I realized, "hey, this is kind of good... I have always loved writing, but I didn't ever have a clear reason as to why. Then, I listened to your poem, and realized it's because I can say what I want, without actually saying it. Like you wrote so beautifully, "...their breath allowed not to decide..."
Thank you for expressing in your own way, the way I felt. I am looking forward to reading more of your work, not just because of the way your writing speaks to me, but because of how skillfully and uniquely you write it.
Thank you so much for writing to me and for your thoughtful words about my poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” You are such an excellent reader, and I’m honored that you chose to write me a letter and that you would like to read more of my work.
I was moved by what you wrote about the being shy, and tracing skin around “the unsayable.” That is my metaphor for learning to write what you cannot quite get at, what always remains just out of reach. In my poems I like to connect spiritual and psychological states with facts in the physical world, including facts of language.
When I was a young girl in school, I almost never spoke in class, and of course we didn’t have mobile phones or Snapchat, and so writing poetry on the page, especially making lines slowly by hand, became a good way of expressing my feelings about life and being young. It sounds as if you are also using writing as an outlet, and I’m sure we would have been able to trade poems had we been friends in school! When I was working on this poem I kept remembering shy children learning to write, accompanied by other kinds of things that happen in the autumn. I loved reading the account of your writing as an access to internal freedom. It is wonderful that you connected with the image of writing as being access to a type of breathing also. Please know that when you are a writer, you can always connect with other writers, great ancestral writers and living writers, through their work. It is a way of being connected with the deeper things in yourself.
When you are developing your writing, I hope you will read a lot of things that are recommended and read things you like immediately as well as things that are strange. Write to me through the Academy if you run out of poetry to read. Keep writing forever!
Very best to you,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
My name is Zayd, I'm in sixth grade and I live in Houston, Texas. I really like your poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice” because it shows how letters and words are practically a part of our society. For example, when you said that children trace gray skin around the unsayable, it shows how kids use pencils to write words or letters. By the way, nice touch with the goose sounds, hehe. Another thing I liked was how we “braid” words to make different languages.
Out of the whole poem my favorite sentence was, “the children try to be normal though no one knows what normal is”. I like this line because i can relate. People always say they’re normal people but everyone has their own ways. I wonder if you were ever picked on as a child, how did you become more than “normal”, anyway I hope to hear back from you and i can meet you one day, bye.
Thank you for writing to me from Houston and from the sixth grade! That is a very important grade and Houston is a wonderful city for artists and poets. I especially love the Rothko poems in the chapel. I am so glad to read in your letter that you connected with my poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice” and found some meaning in it.
I am especially happy to hear that you had a thought about my lines “The children/ try to be normal though/ no one knows what normal is…”; it’s kind of an odd statement because a lot of people think they do know what normal is, and believe that “normal” is only one thing! But it is so many different things, and that’s why we are always trying to get the importance of honoring people’s differences.
When I was in sixth grade, people tried to conform artificially and I thought the creative artistic kids tried too hard to conform to some idea of “normal,” but in truth, no one knew how to be “normal.” Everyone looked around and thought there might be a generic idea; it was a time of much conformity in America. But of course everyone is unique, and even though we share characteristics with others of a group, like hair color or skin color or religion, we all have individual characteristics and natures that are not like anyone else’s. I very much like the metaphor of the individual soul. There is certainly no such thing as a normal soul, and poetry can be an individual expression of a moment in one’s inner life or collective life or language with others.
I hope you won’t let anyone bully you into conforming in ways that are not helpful, especially on social media or in video games or something like that. If they do try to make you conform, just find a better group of loving friends, and keep on reading and writing and doing creative things, because the world needs creative people to be a little abnormal all the time.
All my wishes,
Dear Ms. Hillman
Hello, my name is Ryan, I am sixteen years old, and I live in Los Angeles with my parents and siblings. Some of my interests are philosophy, psychology, drumming, and track and field.
But enough about me, I want to talk about your poem “The Letters Learn to Breath Twice,” and what I think it means. Firstly, I think the description of childhood as a “cheerful mild constant anxiety” is fitting. During this previous summer, I worked at a summer camp with kids ages four to occasionally fifteen. One of the things I noticed was that kids take danger and things they don’t understand more seriously than adults. For example, there was one kid who tripped on a rock and fell on the ground. He immediately began wailing and when the lead counselor looked at his knee, no scrapes or bruises could be seen. The kid was only scared of what he didn’t understand (that being him falling down) and ten seconds later he was running around just as before. This is what I think the phrase a “cheerful mild constant anxiety” means: to be constantly anxious of small dangers, while not understanding the ultimate danger and in not doing so, have a cheeriness in your personality. This ultimate danger or meta-danger is the existential inevitability of death. Children typically haven’t come to terms with their own mortality, and as such carry this cheeriness. Moreover, I think the line “then meaning came with its invincible glare” refers to the grasping of the ultimate anxiety that begins in adolescence and continues throughout life. The “invincible glare” is the absolute inevitability of death. It’s an invincible glare that makes it difficult to see at times. However, part of the hope in the poem, at least I think, is writing as seen in the line right after the invincible glare “the page had borders but no limit”. The poem conveys that writing can be a sort of way to voluntarily accept the fragility of life. After all, part of the reason it’s important to learn how write is that learning how to write teaches someone how to properly think. This proper orientation of thought towards the world can guide us to deal with the ultimate anxiety. In any case, I am still curious about certain aspects of the poem. What is the significance of the “unwanted dandelions”? Furthermore, what does the phrase “when the danger of fire has passed” mean.
I want to ask a few questions about your career as a poet. Do you think the internet has a positive effect for poetry or not? Are you currently reading any books? Should readers of poetry have to work hard to uncover the meaning of a poem? Can this difficulty add to the meaning of the poem? Are there any authors or poets who you consider to be major influences of your work? Finally, is there anything in the publishing industry that you want to be fixed?
Los Angeles, CA
I’m really happy to read your letter about your studies, and thank you so much for reading my poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” First of all, your list of interests is so wide ranging! I appreciate that you are studying all the things you mention: philosophy, psychology, drumming, track and field; now you can add poetry to those interests and poetry can include all of them!
I really loved your anecdote about the children at the summer camp where you worked and the way you responded with empathy and compassion to the child who was confused by having fallen. I think “cheerful mild constant anxiety” is something our culture—even our families sometimes—imposes on children in part because it makes the adults anxious when children are unhappy (I have lots of grandchildren!) and also, as you say, there is a lot of uncertainty about the future, when we are young: what will I become? Will I be loved for what I am? How will I survive when the earth is so precarious? The speaker—or “speakingness”—of the poem tries to convey that there are layers of revelation about how one might be in the life with all this going on and maybe a sense of spiritual freedom and an imaginative approach to the everyday might give some relief from the anxiety.
As for the “unwanted dandelions”: I sometimes get annoyed at people not liking common flowers that are considered weeds and are extricated from gardens. Taraxacum officionale is a good plant that was considered a weed arbitrarily. The leaves are very good in salads, and the flowers are quite pretty!
You ask many questions about my career as a poet. I’m not sure being a poet is a career exactly but more like a calling—there are no opportunities for progress or promotion, even if one is successful in being published. Yes, I love the internet but it is a tool that can be widely abused (especially when overused in social media!) and I am really glad I grew up without the internet because as a kid I got to read a lot of books instead of having to text, like the poem says. My kind of poetry comes out of a lot of traditions because I love so many writers from across many traditions; I like Rilke as much as I like Barbara Guest. About publishing: it is a truly golden age for poetry—so many great presses and amazing books coming out—poetry publishing is in great shape at the moment. I hope you will read a great deal and will keep poetry in your life forever!
All the best,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
My name is Rose Mary and I’m a 5th grader in Norfolk, Nebraska. I enjoyed reading your poem because I can relate, like when I’m stressed I listen to my favorite music and it help me be more relaxed and more chill.
At school, when I’m doing my work sometimes it is a little hard and I'm stressed because I don't know the answers and being a 5th grader is hard, but I just have to keep going and try my best. When I get home from school, sometimes my brother and I argue, so to calm me down, I go to my room and listen to my favorite music.
My favorite part of your poem is “The children try to be normal, though no one knows what normal is.” I really love that line because when we get older we don't know who we are anymore and like we experience difficult things and you just want to be like five again. You will have a lot of stress when you get older because like maybe you have to babysit and your trying to finish your work but you have to take care of the children. But growing up is part of our thing and so we are more mature.
Some questions for you are if you are stressed, do you also listen to your favorite music to calm you down? Are you a well known poem writer? And have you ever been interviewed about your poems?
Thank you for writing the poem. Looking forward to hearing from you and keep up the amazing work.
Dear Rose Mary,
Thank you for your letter about your life as a fifth grader. I love the way you describe going to your room after your brother and you have an argument and you listen to music—a great stress-reliever when you are young. I am trying right now to guess what your music may be. When I was in fifth grade The Beatles were just forming though it was a few years before they would produce hits. Now I like all kinds of music not only because it is a great stress reliever, it is a source of astounding inspiration. I love listening to classical, jazz, pop and rock music, old punk rock, soul, country and opera, depending on my mood.
Thank you so much for reading my poem, and especially for writing about how you connected with the lines “The children/try to be normal, though/no one knows what normal is…” There are so many ways to try to conform, but we each have an original and beautiful life to live. When you are young you may not realize how many ways of being “normal” there really are because no one is alike. It would be so nice if we could all just be a little crazy and still find ways to feel acceptable. I like that you mention that it is hard to be a caring person when you are in fifth grade, even as a babysitter. Even babysitting can be stressful!
You asked if I’m a well known poet; I am lucky to have a good group of readers but no poet feels as well known even as an obscure professional basketball player. Most poets feel neglected in our country because even though there is much great poetry being written now, people do not read poetry widely. It is not because poetry is difficult or built of secret code; clearly young people like you know what is going on in poetry. People should read a lot more poetry because it is a beautiful great art, and I know you will turn that tendency around and keep great poetry in your life. Thanks again for writing!
Dear Brenda Hillman,
My name is Nora and I am a sophomore. In class, we recently read your poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” As I was reading it, I found myself agreeing with your thoughts about the divide between adults and children, and the solace found in language.
Your careful word choice “The children (even when wanting to text) / form letters with pencils/ ...while geese honk/ overhead...in their/ wedge of funny adults.’ By comparing a goose call to an adult’s voice, you describe how foreign and strange an adult’s words may seem to a child. It is as if there is as much of a disconnect between generations as there is between different species.
The line “children braid languages & some are praised for confidence/ but who praises the garden for all that breath” seems to be comparing breath to life. By writing, by braiding language, we are breathing life into words. We praise our children for this, but we pay no mind to the “unwanted dandelion” and the rest of nature, which breathes life into the world every day.
Words provide an escape for you from “the cheerful mild constant anxiety of your childhood.”. I like how you juxtapose words with seemingly almost conflicting meanings in order to express your inexpressible. You built worlds out of words and that is something I admire. I like how in your poem, everyone has something left unsaid. We all have stories trapped inside us, living freely once they’ve completed their journey from heart to pen to paper.
Do you believe that writing could be an escape for everyone? Do you believe that once something is said, its weight is taken off of its bearer?
Thank you for your wonderful response to my poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” I appreciate reading how you interpret the image of the geese overhead as honking adults, as there often seems to be an actual species disconnect between children and parents. The image is meant to be a little funny so I’m glad you picked up on several aspects of it; the geese flying overhead may sound to the young person like honking humans not just like honking adult geese! It is so important to have readers like yourself to unpack all the possible readings of the poem.
I also loved your comments about the complexities of expression and about how the image of the garden and the children’s languages are braided; the ideas of writing giving humans a freedom to express the inexpressible, and to trace around the possibility of the unsayable, are so much a part of our language acts as human. I hope your teachers and your fellow students are able to discuss these complexities you have rendered.
You ask whether writing could be an escape for everyone, and you ask about the relief that may come in the acts of writing things down—relief from a psychological state, or from the necessities for secrecy, for example. Those are very complicated and wonderful questions. I often experience a deep satisfaction—even a relief—when I feel I have been able to name a particular state or fact about the world, the coming together of two conflicting facts or paradoxes.
I have been very grateful to live in relative freedom to write, and because I had a good education – both in public schools and at Pomona College—I was exposed to a lot of great poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including romantic, symbolist, modernist and postmodernist poetry written by many rule-breaking writers who helped free up form and content for other writers. I like to be a rule breaker and cross boundaries in my writing. But I also know my freedom of expression and form—as a white educated person living in the United States—might be a privilege elsewhere. Writing freely throughout history has not always been available to women, people of color or those living under economic oppression. When poets live under brutal regimes or in societies in which there is no freedom of written expression, where governments that oppress their writers for speaking out, the poets strain against these things, and the amazing thing is how often they find their way through these oppressions to bring their truths, and they even – as under Stalin—bring their poems in secret language.
Thank you for asking these great questions, and I hope you keep writing and reading poetry!
All the best,
Dear Ms. Hillman,
My name is Dalton. I’m a high school student. I chose your poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” I was drawn to that because I’m in the Boy Scouts, so I write a lot of letters. I was also born with a mass. They have monitored that mass and they found a bone cyst. They took it out on May 29th, 2018, at 7:47.
I wrote a lot of thank you letters to them too, so when a letter is passed down, then it changes two lives, it takes two breaths.
So what does it mean to you when a letter that you know or a poem that you wrote gets two lives, two breaths? What does normal mean to you?
Thank you for writing to me about your life in Ohio, and thank you so much for your thoughts about my poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” I am really interested in what you say about being in the Boy Scouts and writing lots of letters! I am wondering if this is because you are writing letters to individual people or to groups of people? I am also wondering about whether Boy Scouts do a lot of outdoor activities? When I was in the Girl Scouts in Arizona in the 1950s, I was always surprised we didn’t go outside very much but we did lots of indoor art projects. My troop did lots of imaginative things like making puppets out of papier mâché, which means “chewed paper” in French, but really just involved putting little bits of moistened paper onto a shape. This helped me when I started learning to write poetry because it was sort of a collage out of bits of newspaper.
I love what you wrote about a letter changing two lives, two breaths. That’s a really cool way of interpreting the title, and I like it a lot. I had in mind something related to that; I was thinking about how letters or signs when they are used have both a sort of intention – what the writer intends, breathing their own life, their own reality, outside of what we intend for them to have when we start putting them on paper or into our devices (I was thinking of the alphabet in the English language here, A-Z, because that is the alphabet I use, but it could be any sign-system or letters and syllables). This poem is part of a book in which I was thinking that individual letters have fire and breath and life—it’s kind of an odd idea but some other poets think this too. Anyway, I really like the fact that there are several readings of the two breaths idea.
You were asking me elaborate on the word “normal.” My family of origin had a traditional structure for 1950s—father, mother and children— but now we know because the idea of normal is evolving that there is no “normal” that fits everyone, and that the idea of trying to fit in can be kind of oppressive. I never felt very normal when I was in high school in the 1960s, and fortunately there was a counter-culture “flower-child” movement I could be a part of in art and poetry; we pushed back against recognized authority. As a species we probably seek categories and models to feel safe, but in the arts we sometimes balk against that. I like to break rules for what is normal in my writing because I think we all have unusual ideas. Probably you can see some of this in the poem you chose.
Finally I wanted to add that I hope your health continues to improve and that you are doing really well. I hope you will keep poetry in your life.
Warm good wishes,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
I am Julia, a junior high school student. What I have been reading and learning this year in my English class are the tools necessary to be an excellent writer, how to journal and express myself in non and creative writing, the pronouns/vocabulary essential for life and speaking in general. I chose your poem for the reasons of relatability and understanding. I myself struggle with anxiety, and to my understanding, you expressed that “the children try to be normal, but no one knows what normal is.” No matter how hard you try to blend in and perfect this established word, it is literally not possible. Also when you said “the cheerful mild constant anxiety of your childhood” I personally felt drawn to that clear thought and expression of anxiety starting at a young age. I wish I had the ability like you to put that negative energy and thoughts about anxiety into writing and establishing a career from your weakest vein. Some questions I have on your poem is what gave you the strength and motivation to show your mind to the world? After writing this, did you find calmness?
Los Angeles, CA
Thank you for writing such a clear and wonderful response to my poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” It sounds as if you have a good language arts program at your school and I love that your list for becoming an excellent writer includes journaling, expressing yourself in various kinds of writing and learning about vocabulary and parts of speech; it’s a great set of tools. I hope you can read a lot of poetry; there are millions of poems on the internet to inspire you!
You were asking about “the cheerful mild constant anxiety” I refer to. It sounds as if you have a lot of wisdom about your anxiety. I’m sorry to hear you experience some of it but I trust you have a good sense of balance. Many sensitive people suffer from anxiety because there is so much in our heads swirling and colliding; our family lives, the demands of work and social media, the conditions of the world we live in—economic disparity, climate fears— all contribute to making a creative person anxious. When I was young, I never could stand being told to get over how I was feeling because that did not seem to help. Whenever I’m anxious now, I try to figure out the reason, I go deeper into it and put a slightly more interesting piece of the thought into words. Some of the wisest poets I know do not have all the right answers, but are spiritually questioning, like Gerard Manley Hopkins.
You were asking about my writing process and what gives motivation or courage to write. I fell in love with poetry from an early age because of particular poets like John Keats and Emily Dickinson, and it seemed like writing poetry helped many things that were difficult in life. My motivation to write poetry comes from several kinds of things that are like different doors to the same house. Sometimes I start with odd ideas, odd feelings, or some an unusual perception when I look at something. It just pops into my head and I cannot exactly account for it. Sometimes it is just a piece of language that I think can be made into a poem, a phrase or a peculiar scrap of language. I believe that everyone has these truly odd things inside their heads but we are mostly taught not to pay attention to them. In answer to your second question, yes, writing makes me feel very calm, especially recopying poetic drafts by hand (handwriting); if I don’t recopy I tend to stick with a less interesting piece of writing. It’s fun to try this. I hope some of these ideas are of help and that you will be able write poems forever.
Very best wishes,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
I love your poem “The Letters Learn To Breathe Twice.” I think it’s very meaningful because lots of kids really hate writing because it’s so boring, but really writing is amazing and everyone should love it.
I would like to share a few responses to parts of your poem that I really liked. “The children try to be normal, though no one knows what normal is…” I like this because no one is really normal and everyone is special. Also “the page had borders but no limit.” I think this means that the page might end, but your imagination will never end.
I would like to ask you where your inspiration came from and when you started writing poems.
I want to thank you for taking the time to write me such a wonderful letter, and thank you for the really beautiful remarks about my poem! It means a lot to me that you like it. I can’t find the name of your school on the letter you wrote, but I imagine you have an amazing English teacher who is willing to teach you poetry that may be a bit out of the mainstream. I was also really glad to read your clear printing because your handwriting is very legible and it gives a good, grounded relationship to the paper, just as I was mentioning in the poem about children tracing around “the unsayable.”
I couldn’t agree more with what you say in your first paragraph; it’s very hard for me to understand why some people don’t like writing; for some it may seem like a chore but for me it has always seemed like a true lifesaver. There are an infinite number of good poems out there and I agree with you, there is really no such thing as a standard person. When I wrote those lines, I was thinking of being in about sixth grade and always looking at the shoes of the other girls, especially the popular girls, and thinking that there was a particular style of dress that would make one “fit in,” then a few months later I started writing poetry and realizing I didn’t particularly want to fit in, because there was nothing really to “fit into”! It was long ago, the Beatles were just coming to town and the Beatles were breaking the rules about how boys should wear their hair. Many things about that period gave me the courage to write poetry, even though as soon as a style becomes mainstream. People start conforming to that.
You asked where my inspiration comes from. It comes from the inner or the outside world, from things I see and read, or from strange ideas or feelings that have been residing within me. I started writing poetry when I was nine years old, mostly because I loved the sounds of the highly poetic King James Bible and a book by John Keats that my grandmother in Mississippi sent to me. Then my dad gave me a book by Edna St. Vincent Millay. A writer named Lucille Clifton and I used to always talk about how we started loving Edna St. Vincent Millay when we were young. I talked to plants when I was young and had other strange friends. Writing poetry helps to make shapes of the odd or unmanageable realities I experience, and I’m always glad when a few people can connect with them, because my poetry can be peculiar. It definitely makes you feel more at home in reality to have a relationship to art.
Finally, thank you for commenting about the endlessness of imagination. Of course, imagination is not always for the good; some people use their imaginations for destruction, but mostly in art, the imagination is a nonviolent force for the good and the free. I am really happy to hear when young people fall in love with the imagination in poetry because it is a gratifying and magical art form, is easily available and not very expensive to share; poetry can take you on a vast journey far off the page.
Thank you again for reading my poem!
Very best wishes to you,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
My name is Allison. I go to school in Kansas City, Missouri, and I’m in 11th grade. Your poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice,” is so powerful. Every time I read through it, I find a deeper meaning in every line. I have many questions for you about the intended meaning behind your words.
I perceive this poem to be broken up into three different stages of observation. From your words, I have created trains of thought that have led me to find the deeper meaning in each one of these phases, the first being a stage of recognizing the struggles and desires of today’s youth. The motion of “the children (even when wanting to text) form letters with pencils, trace gray skin around/ the unsayable,” provides me with imagery about the pull between technology and beauty. There is beauty and symbolism in one’s handwriting. The second stage asks the question “but who/ praises the garden for that breath?” Humans praise humans. Rarely do we take the time to acknowledge the beauty of the nature around us and all that we are provided with from these plants. The paper that we get from nature that carries our words, thoughts, and feelings, also once had its own life and breath. There are stories to be told from nature that should not be looked over. The third and final stage highlights the beauty and pain experienced by today’s youth. “The cheerful mild constant anxiety/of your childhood turned/to writing, then meaning came/with its invincible glare,” shows that there is beauty in pain and fear. There is beauty in the human experience and even when this anxiety may be for something small, or something large, you can convert that experience into something filled with life and meaning.
I would love to ask you some questions and hear about this poem through your perspective. Within the poem are you the intended speaker? Did you mean to highlight the pain of today’s youth and the struggle for identity? Your beautiful line “the children/try to be normal, though/ no one knows what normal is..” makes me think back to elementary and middle school days, trying to figure out how to fit in and what was “normal.” Do you think that the emphasis in today’s society to be “normal” has created a struggle to define one’s self? How have you seen or experienced literature alleviate someone’s anxiety and what impact do you think this poem has had on readers? This poem has made me reflect on my own childhood, my own thoughts, and my appreciation of the world around me. Thank you for a beautiful piece of work.
Kansas City, MO
Thank you for your excellent reading of my poem. I am impressed that you came up with so many different angles in your reading of “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” I’m especially moved that you took the time to come up with a kind of orderly system for reading my strange poem. You probably have a great English teacher who taught you that careful reading is a key to finding meaning, even when life is a struggle.
One of my favorite parts of your letter is the connection you draw between the praise for a garden and for the breath that finds its way to the paper; you write: “The paper that we get from nature that carries our words, thoughts and feelings, also once had its own life and breath.” I like how you put this; the poet-speaker in the poem is addressed with some detachment, because the address is to a “you” that is sort of the poet herself and sort of general. That is one of the questions you asked.
Another of your questions has to do with whether I meant “to highlight the pain of today’s youth and the struggle for identity?” Surely the struggle to feel “normal” and to fit in to one’s social world is a timeless concern, not just for young people but for everyone: the struggle to exist in relation to one’s family’s expectations; the struggle to define oneself and feel worthy with the chosen work, creative and economic; the struggle to define one’s unique characteristics in relation to one’s race, gender, ethnicity, abilities and age; the struggle to be seen in a culture that often doesn’t value the very things that make us stand out. These are kind of timeless issues for young people and young readers; maybe they are intense for each generation in a different way. I know you are wise and will sort these things out, in the great flow of relationships.
You ask about the ability of literature to alleviate anxiety. Literature and art can address the soul’s distress (though some artists don’t think the soul is a relevant metaphor) but art can’t feed people (unless by that we mean selling it as a product); it can’t cure disease or fix climate disaster or get rid of bad leaders. That happens through other means, and in activism sometimes with other people. But humans have the infinite capacity to communicate through our limitations, so language—especially beautiful or powerful language — always gives me hope. I wish you joy in all of your studies! Keep us posted.
Dear Ms. Brenda Hillman,
Too much fantasy and not enough reality — you won’t make it in this world. When I was younger, I was always told that my head was buried too far in the clouds to the point where I neglected everyday responsibilities like getting my homework turned in on time, cleaning my room, paying attention in class. My teachers scolded me for daydreaming throughout my years in school. Ten years later I vividly remember this idea etched on my brain; I’m seventeen now and those words still sting.
I found solace in your poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice” — it struck me as a visceral story of childhood innocence relived in writing. I resonated most with the line, “the children try to be normal, though no one knows what normal is.” I began writing to express my imagination and pour my heart onto paper. Not only did I find it cathartic, but also helpful. I learned to bite my tongue before spilling my fairytales into the ears of adults who felt I had no priorities. The way you tied this line by stating that “the cheerful, mild childhood anxiety turned to writing,” was absolutely lovely and candid. When I write, I find myself referencing small occurrences in the world that many tend to overlook—the blades of grass growing through the cracks in the sidewalk, or the nights when I see more stars in the sky than usual. I channel it into inspiration to create. To stain paper with the ink of my dreams. What was it that compelled you to write? Was I the adults in your childhood, or a pure serendipity?
Although I could relate to the naïve childhood longing to be normal, I found myself a bit confused as to what your purpose was in mentioning “the unwanted dandelion” referring to it by its official name, Taraxacum officionale? Did you intend to evoke a sense of formality? Nevertheless I wonder what you’d hoped to achieve when describing the garden.
Overall, I’m incredibly thankful I was able to relate my child-self with this poem and appreciate the fact that she’s not alone. That even though she may have been the kid who always gets herself in trouble for focusing on “trivial” hobbies and “wasting time,” she’s not the only one. She belongs to the group of misfits who live to bleed imagination onto pages with borders but no limits. Thank you.
Thank you so much for your letter. I really enjoyed the way you started right in by quoting a comment you must have heard a million times. Too much fantasy and not enough reality, is probably something all creative children hear so often, and as you say, it might be very annoying. It is almost as if the person who made the comment wished he, she, or they could have a little of what you has, a dream life or an escape. There is always a dutiful teacher thinking the day-dreamer might need to have been brought into line.
I liked your remarks about the innocence you found in the poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice,” especially as children try to sort out the normal from everything else, and to determine whether being normal is even in the range of the desirable. What after all is too strange? In addition, the child doesn’t really know whether the models are within the bounds of the acceptable or not. One thing I love about poetry is that it really takes us beyond really clear demarcations of those things and blurs them—at least, that is one thing I get out of it.
You ask what compels a poet to write, and what an “unwanted dandelion” refers to. I write to get at what can only be expressed through the poetry, not through any other mode of expression. If I sang I would do it that way, but poetry is my chosen art. I very much enjoyed the way you refer to the small occurrences that make their way into your writing. The eye for detail and the ability to get that detail into a memorable sound are such good tools—though not all poets want to represent things realistically; some want surreal images. You ask also about the encouragement of adults. The adults in my childhood were generally strict and perfectionistic about performance, which caused some challenges, but my parents and grandparents valued reading and independent interpretation, which helped my literary life a great deal. They were generally proud of my poetry.
As for the dear, unwanted dandelion: the dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is considered a weed by some, but it is edible and quite an attractive plant, in my opinion! Its serrated edges are lively and useful. It has been found to have medicinal properties. I called it unwanted because it is pulled up by overly zealous gardeners.
I hope you will enjoy poetry all of your life. Thanks again for writing to me!
Dear Brenda Hillman,
Hello, I’m Katy. I’m a freshman in high school and I read “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice.” It was very interesting and calming. My favorite part of the poem is “In nearby gardens, the unwanted dandelion: Taraxacum officionale.” This poem really spoke out to me I don’t know what spoke out to me but whatever it was really caught my attention. I’ve never felt this inspired in my whole life. Now I want to be a poem writer. Your poem inspires me to read more poems like this. Hopefully you can write more poems like this and hopefully write me back. I would be super grateful if you could write me back, again your poems are super great. By the way you’re like one of my idols now.
I am glad to receive your nice letter about my poem, “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice,” and happy to know that you were writing your letter not too far away from the house where I wrote the poem! I live very near Richmond. The Bay Area has been beautiful this year from so much spring rain, and we can enjoy gardens with their unwanted dandelions all year. Since you mention the dandelion line, I will say I’m glad you were struck by that line. As far as I’m concerned, the dandelion should not be unwanted because its foliage makes delicious salads, full of vitamins that make poetic eyesight very strong. To my mind, the word “weed” is often a misnomer because “weed” just means the plant is inconvenient to a human, but dandelions have edible leaves, yellow flowers, and puffy seeds enjoyed by small children when they blow them all over the yard.
I am really happy that you say my poem inspired you. A poet can work for years hoping to receive a letter in which someone has been inspired. We poets want to make our way into the reader’s heart, inspiring that person to have an experience she might not have had before. My poems can be peculiar, so I always think I am very fortunate when I have a reader who understands a kind of unusual view of things. I am particularly happy to read you might find your way to writing your own poems because of reading mine. It makes me happy to think my poem inspired you.
Please go on reading and writing poetry through high school. I am teaching at Saint Mary’s College which is not far away from Richmond. So when you think about college, please consider our nice school. It is just over the hill from Richmond and you could be in my English 102 class. We have a lot of fun and we go outside all year to look at the non-human species; sometimes we even write poems to weeds!
Warmest good wishes,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
I am Connor, a freshman in Honors English. I live in Brookings, Oregon, a small town along the coast, and the last town before you reach California. Our class read a few poems, and I chose yours, "The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice", as my favorite. I found your poem the most interesting for a many reasons. The first of these would be the multitude of adjectives, and how you anthropomorphize a lot. It adds a nice feeling to the poem, one that I can't quite explain. The mentions of children trying to fit in, along with the hints of nature, remind me of a raised bed in a garden, with the dirt being the children, trying to fit in. Another thing that is interesting about your poem is the arrangement of the tildes, and how they somewhat resemble geese, in their 'V' arrangement.I found your poem very facinating, and am glad I got the chance to read it.
Thank you for your wise and thoughtful letter about my poem “The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice”; I’m very interested in your experience of ninth grade these days, and I’m glad you connected with the poem. I’m happy you mentioned the adjectives because they seem to me a sometimes problematic part of speech; sometimes they can be overused in poetry, or sometimes when you’re trying to find just the right adjective for the noun (like “blue sky”) you might really want to be saying the less right thing because the slightly wrong thing is more accurate (maybe it’s really an “porcelain sky”) so I often find myself waiting for just the perfect degree of wrongness in an adjective that will then be more right than the right one.
I haven’t been a child for a long time of course but I have quite a few grandchildren and when I write about childhood I try to get to the feeling of delicate balance that one has to have; here I was trying to capture what it was like when learning to write in the fall, with all kinds of changes going on. I really like remembering learning to write my letters on the paper, because I still write my poems on paper with a pencil before I type them, and I like how there is uncertainty and a little extra energy that sort of squeezes out on to the page right before the actual letters form the words.
You use really wonderful vocabulary in your note to me. The tildes are meant to be a little mimetic—to represent, as you say, more or less the wing motion—but of course there are other more abstract possibilities too. I really love your image of the raised bed in a garden. The need for a kind of conformity is always possibly confused with the comfort of the predictable and we must maintain our inner wildness.
As for anthropomorphizing, it’s more like a weird sense of extra life I grew up with; I don’t imagine plants populated with humans but I grew up with a sense of worshipping the life force in plants and animals and other growing things. If there is possibly a spirit world, these beliefs are metaphors for us to unpack because so much of reality we know nothing about and have no access to, just as some deep sea creatures can see many more colors than humans. So I keep my metaphors for extra life in my poetry.
I hope that you will write some of your own poems in high school. Writing poetry is very good company and there are many cool poets for you to know.
I send you all the best,