As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to David St. John in response to a video of him reading his poem “Iris" aloud. David St. John wrote letters back to three of these students; their letters and his replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
David St. John reads "Iris" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear David St. John:
My name is Lauren and I am a senior at Bishop Kenny High School. I have always had an affinity for poetry, yet have only just started seeking out poetry for pleasure. I have read both modern poetry along with older poems and found that I truly love the depth of the latter. Due to my bias, however, I gave up on looking at more recent poetry because I believed that it did not convey a message using any poetic devices and instead just discussed how people are able to overcome challenges in life. This thought led me to be wary regarding this project since the poems would be more modern, yet your poem Iris moved me to tears. I cannot really say what parts of the poem I enjoy the most, but I was overwhelmed with emotions of nostalgia. Iris really prompted me to think about people in my life and how one day they will be gone, yet the powerful memory of them will remain. I appreciated this poem greatly and, to my surprise, it is one of my favourites. In particular, I love how you used the ampersand rather than writing “and” each time. I also loved the connection that the iris flower itself makes, showing that the gardener still remembers the boy he was and how the tie between his young self and present self has not been severed. Overall, this poem was one of the most beautiful modern poems that I have read and I greatly appreciated each word.
The poem opens with the name Vivian St. John who I will assume is your grandmother. With that assumption being made, how much of Iris is a true story? Is this poem almost completely true with you watching your grandmother on a train, this being the last time you saw her or was she merely inspiration for the poem's story? On a different note, what made you want to become a poet? Did you always know you wanted to pursue this career or did someone give you a push to do this? Lastly, in your opinion, what is your best poem and why do you think it is your best? Is it due to the popularity of the poem or is it due to the raw emotion it conveys? Thank you so much for reading this and thank you for helping me realise that some modern poetry is just as beautiful as its predecessors.
Thank you for your truly wonderful (and very wise) letter about my poem “Iris.” Thank you too for your kind words about the poem and how much it moved you; it’s one of my own favorite poems, and in answer to your question, I think my own very favorite poem of forty years of writing is a poem called “Hush,” which was written earlier the same year that “Iris” was written. You also asked why I might pick that poem. I think “Hush” is able to create the an experience of great loss across a great personal distance for a reader in a ways that might remain both charged and musical—or at least that’s what I hope.
I loved your observations about the poem, and you are exactly right about the connection between the speaker of the poem and “the boy” being the boy he was. The woman to whom the poem is dedicated is indeed my own grandmother, Vivian (I named my daughter Vivienne for her) who had a large two acre garden that she had created from bare earth and been fig stumps and which was extraordinary. Her large iris beds were, for her, the prize of her garden.
Once again, let me say how much I loved your letter, and how precise and accurate all of your observations were about the poem. I hope you keep reading more modern poems, as I know you’ll continue to be surprised at how much you will find to love.
David St. John
Dear David St. John,
I hope you are doing well! My name is Leora. I am in tenth grade, and I go to a private yeshiva high school. In my English class, we have read many books such as the Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, and Frankenstein. We also have creative writing journals where we are given different prompts to write about each day. I love reading and writing, so I hope to continue on this path for a career -- being an editor or book publisher is definitely something I want to take into consideration.
I really enjoyed your poem. You spoke so eloquently; passion and meaning exuded from you. Your imagery and similes were very relatable and easy to connect to. “A single window like a child’s nail” made me think about the imagination. Throughout your poem the boy thinks there’s a train inside the iris, yet others believe him to be ridiculous and crazy for having thought that. Many times in life our imaginations are told to cease or find a place in the back of our minds. We find a “single window” that allows us to continue to be young and childlike. Additionally, you depict an older woman beside the boy, and “[h]er hair is silver, & sweeps back off her forehead, onto her cold and bruised shoulders”. I found the juxtaposition between soft and harsh to be quite interesting. The beginning of this line starts off being very feminine and sweet in regards to the woman sweeping her hair off of her forehead; however, the bruised shoulders completely switched the emotion and feeling of that line into something dark which I found to be very impressive -- how two contrasting feelings can be intertwined so thoughtfully and well. Towards the end of Iris, the boy’s views on life seemed to completely shift as he “gaz[ed] a long time into the flower, as if he were looking some great distance & now believe me: The train is gone. The old woman is dead, & the boy.” This line seemed to convey that the grandmother helped give this boy his imagination and joy. Sadly, when she died, all the excitement and boyishness the boy had carried with him were gone -- thrown out, never to be seen again.
In the beginning of Iris, you mentioned the name Vivian St. John. After hearing your entire poem, I’m wondering whether that name is referring to your grandmother or someone very close to you who might have always encouraged you to use your imagination. I was also wondering what being a poet entails. Do you go to a lot of poetry readings in order to share your work? Do you have a publicist who gives you deadlines to complete your poems? Also, where do you get your inspiration from? Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you so much for your truly insightful letter about my poem “Iris.” I absolutely loved your comments about the imagination in poetry and all of the wonderfully precise (and in my view totally correct) thoughts you shared about the crucial importance of the imagination in poetry and specifically how that’s working in “Iris.” You are already a terrific reader of poetry, and let me say that if you do indeed want to look to a life as a writer, or an editor, or to work in book publishing, you’ve got the talents to do that. I don’t say this lightly—you clearly have read widely and have superb teachers.
The name there is indeed the name of my grandmother and those dates given are her birth and death dates; she was an avid gardener and also a very literary woman who reviewed books for our local library in order to help them decide which books they should buy. She would read six or seven books a week! You ask about the life of a poet, which is, of course, a complicated thing. I work as a professor to able to talk about the poets and writers I love. It’s a good life. As an editor or a literary critic, or as a writer, you’ll be very happy. Just stay close to the writers whose work you truly love.
David St. John
Dear David St. John,
My name is Ruby, and I am a sophomore at Classical High School. Recently I read your poem “Iris.” At first I really struggled to interpret the meaning, but after reading the poem a few times and listening to you read it, I discovered it was something I could relate to in a few ways.
The symbolism of the iris flower that built up throughout the poem added another dimension. After reading it a few times, I feel like the iris represents vitality and innocence. When the boy’s grandmother is dying, he imagines a man coming to cut the iris. As the grandmother leaves, the iris curls, representing the end of her life and a scar on the boy. The iris doesn’t seem all that significant in the storyline of the poem, but it definitely helps readers understand the emotional depth.
I wonder about the perspective of this poem. I understood it to be the little boy’s understanding of death when I first read it, but after reading it more closely I think it might be about you. The name at the top of the poem - Vivian St. John - has the same last name as yours, so I thought she might be your grandmother. Maybe you wrote this poem about her, and that is how it is so emotionally raw and personal. Even if “Iris” isn’t based on the death of your grandmother, it clearly is written with the feeling of loss, which is unmistakable and unique.
This poem to me was the experience of and human reaction to loss of a loved one. The grandmother gets on the train while the little boy is left on the platform, waving goodbye and longing for her. I found this to be an accurate representation of the emotions that loss provokes. It makes one feel like a child; helpless, alone, and longing for someone. In that sense I think your use of a young boy as the main character enhanced the metaphor. But there is another side to this poem, and that is that the little boy will leave the train platform and go on with his life. This is important too; I’ve learned that when you lose someone, you cannot lose yourself in the process of grieving them.
Finally, I noticed that in your video recording of the poem, you skipped over the line, “the old woman is dead.” Was this on purpose? After my grandfather passed away, I found it really hard to describe it as death. The word seems so coarse and harsh and flat; definitive in a way that is hard to handle. It would make sense to me if you chose to skip it, but I’d be interested to know if there was a specific reason. When I read that line in your poem, it definitely stood out to me as the most blunt, since most of the poem is an intricate metaphor.
I truly enjoyed reading your poem and I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity to write to you about it. Thank you.
Thank you for your truly wonderful letter about my poem “Iris.” I absolutely loved your observations about the details of the poem, which you got exactly right. The perspective is indeed meant to be the boy’s first understanding of death. I imagine the boy as being, in fact, very me as a boy. And yes, the name there is indeed the name of my grandmother and those dates given are her birth and death dates.
Also, I want to say that I thought this part of your letter was truly exceptional: But there is another side to this poem, and that is that the little boy will leave the train platform and go on with his life. This is important too; I’ve learned that when you lose someone, you cannot lose yourself in the process of grieving them. This is so wise and so moving, and I want you to know how much it meant that you would share this. By the way, I hadn’t meant not to read that line you mention, as it is indeed an important line, but it’s so interesting to think that, well, reading the poem on that particular day it was recorded, maybe—as you wonder—I just couldn’t say those words. You are already a superb reader of poems. Please don’t ever stop.
David St. John
Dear Mr. David St. John,
My name is Princeton and I am in 4th grade. I come From Open Window School. Your poem was amazing. You’re poem is a one of a kind, where you are very serious about what you write, though the words are very fragile. I also like how you use extended vocabulary words such as porthole and angular. The poem lines were so fluent and beautiful. I also appreciate how you repeat your important lines like “There is a train inside this iris.”
I have some questions for you:
How did you get the idea of making this poem? Did it walk into your head? Did you stare at an iris flower?
I also liked how you made hand motions so I could visualize easier. You really took me into your world of writing, which I appreciate dearly.
Dear Mr. David St. John,
My name is Claire, and I am a sophomore in high school from Plymouth, MI. As a poetry enthusiast, I enjoy exploring different forms of poetry through both written and spoken formats. Consequently, while listening to your recording of “Iris”, I couldn’t help but compare it to other works I have read and listened to, forming questions along the way. I would very much appreciate your answers to them.
What first struck me was your use of language; I like how you opted to be concise and use straightforward words, as opposed to the overly flowery “purple pose” that runs rampant in poetry today. Your reading also reflected a simple, yet purposeful presentation. However, I did take note of your unique use of punctuation: “Dull shears in one hand; & now believe me: The train / Is gone. The old woman is dead, & the boy.” What compelled you to use an ampersand instead of the word “and”? Was it to make your writer appear more trite?
Additionally, I admire your decision in creating numerous short stanzas, rather than opting for a single one, because it accentuates the passage of time. I think the whitespace that results from this decision makes the poem seem as lengthy as the time your piece spans. If you had everything condensed together, the effect might not have been as profound. How did you end up doing this? Was it a conscious decision, or did you go with your gut?
As for the meaning of your poem, it’s clear that the iris has symbolic value. Lines like “A train inside this iris.” and “A fresh iris is waving goodbye to a grandmother, gazing / A long time” suggests that this is more than a flower. The statement about depth and the personification lead me to wonder if the iris is representative of a person who has complex emotions. Was this your intention?
Finally, your poem reminded me of something close to my heart: when I was five, my father passed away from colorectal cancer. Likewise, whenever a personal story of loss comes up, I am immediately drawn back to my own life. Thus, the emotions of your poem are magnified through my own experiences. Therefore, I must ask: what inspired you to write this? The last line: “& you remain.” suggests that you survived something devastating. Does this have a real world connection?
Thank you so much for your time! “I ris” you would write back!