As part of the 2021 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 “In the High Country” aloud. David St. John wrote letters back to three of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
David St. John also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
I want to thank everyone for your wonderful letters and for the amazing insights and deeply personal reflections you’ve shared with me. It’s been a truly moving experience for me to hear your voices and to watch as you discovered aspects of yourselves within your experiences of the poem, “In the High Country. I am so sorry that I’m not able to respond personally to each one of you, but please know how grateful I am to have read your words, ideas and questions, and to have been able to learn a little bit about each of you. For that and for your clear love of poetry, please let me say thank you.
--David St. John
David St. John reads "In the High Country" for Dear Poet 2021.
Dear David St. John,
My name is Michelle, and I’m a freshman in high school. I first read your poem “In the High Country” this month. I’ve read countless poems in my life (maybe not that much, but I’ve read quite a lot). This poem earns a place on my top three podium. Everything about this poem is so beautifully written and pieced together.
Recently, I learned about the Renaissance period in my humanities course. I remember seeing all of the delicate, divine art and thinking: how can the human mind create such things? I found myself thinking that exact thing about your poem. This poem reminds me of “I Hear a Symphony” by Cody Fry. The peaceful sound of the song is what I imagine your poem to sound like if it reincarnated into a song.
Even though this poem is short and sweet, the imagery extends all boundaries. I have fallen in love with the view that you created. Every time I read this poem, I find a safe space within it. I imagine myself running down the “meadow of lupine” in a flowy, white dress, free from the world. I am “no one” in this other dimension.
The idea of “no one” is interesting. I think it means that when a person thinks they aren’t important to the world, they become “no one.” It’s like an internal conflict. It may also be that a speck on this floating rock (Earth) in the middle of the universe can hardly be considered a person. So, he is “no one.” What does “no one” mean or symbolize?
When I read this poem, I fantasize about my dream life. I picture an endless green plain with a house on top of a tiny hill. Surrounding it is a field of lupine and I look up to see the “sky’s lapis expanse.” Your poem is the embodiment of happiness and peace. I long for peace. It is all I want. Your poem gives me that. It’s like the pill that a sick person has to take. My heart calms down from reading this poem. It has everything I need. Your use of the ampersand instead of “and” is beautiful. From the field; to the Renaissance; and Raphael’s angels; everything is perfect.
I used to dread poetry because I couldn’t quite get the meaning. My mind would get too crowded and I’d get frustrated. But, this poem is easy to understand and it clears my mind. Thank you. This poem is perfect. The sounds & the tone & the imagery are perfect. People say nothing is perfect, but this poem is.
What a terrific, generous letter about “In the High Country.” I loved what you brought to the poem in terms of what you’ve learned about the history of the Renaissance in your Humanities course, as often the poems we love best seem to resonate with what we love also in other of the arts that we might care about—art, music and dance—as well as those moments in history and culture that feel meaningful to us, even across time. Sometimes the poems we are drawn to bring us excitement and challenges; sometimes, they are able to bring us peace in a confusing world.
Your intuition about the relationship of this poem to song is exactly right as well. For me, I believe poems persuade by their music and not by their “argument.” Poems are not essays (though they can behave that way). For me, the music of a poem, its movement, its rhythm and shifts, and its imagistic language are what enter me and what give me the experience that allows me to engage with and to be moved by the poet’s reflections or observations. You might not be surprised to learn that I teach a poetry class for my undergraduate students called, “Poetry and Song” and one for my graduate students called, “Writer and Composer”— and that one includes young poets as well as musicians and composers.
There is no need to look for “meaning” in a poem by trying to decode its “symbols,” (unless you’ve been asked to do this in a paper for a class) as you can leave that job to those who are always happy to tell us what a poem “means.” Instead, as a reader or writer of poetry, try to allow the experience of the poem to create its presence within you, exactly as you describe so beautifully having done here with this poem. I still believe what the poet Archibald Macleish said at the end of his great poem, “Ars Poetica,” (first published almost one hundred years ago): A poem should not mean/But be.
—David St. John
Dear David St. John,
My name is Lilah, and I am a senior at Caddo Parish Magnet High School. I read a lot of poetry in an attempt to better understand the world around me and the world within me. But I hate writing about it. I think there are truths in poetry that can’t be expressed linearly, that can only be understood internally. I think it is very hard for me to write about your poem “In the High Country” because it is so full of these truths.
“Some days I am happy to be no one.” I want to be no one. What is a person, but the environment and experience that shape them? “No man is an island;” I can’t exist solely in myself. I don’t want to exist solely in myself. I think the inverse of solipsism is true; I can’t know my own mind to exist but I do know all of the things that might have shaped it. I must exist for and because of those externalities. From this poem, you seem to exist for your son. I can’t know that feeling but I do know that I need a feeling like that in my future. In about a month I graduate, a few months later I leave my hometown for college. I can’t wait to leave. I feel stagnant; all I live for right now is my future self. I long to live for something outside of myself. I see what drives other peoples’ lives and in many cases it seems to be family. I can’t see myself with a family, but I have dreams and in these dreams I have purpose. You end your poem with the image of your son but I notice that earlier in it, “The shifting grasses // In the May winds are miraculous enough.” I hope that one day for me, a place like your high country will be miraculous enough.
I am talking about myself a lot and that is because your poem resonates very deeply with me. It puts into words feelings that I have long struggled to express. I have given you my interpretation of it but I understand that the reader’s interpretation and the author’s intention are rarely the same. If that is true in this case, what did you put into this poem that I didn’t get out of it? I also found your poem “Hush” and it touched me very deeply as well; I wonder if that hush is the same as “This hush & this pause.” If so, how did you create two radically different poems out of that same hush, one full of pain and the other full of purpose? Was writing this poem for you as cathartic as reading it was for me?
Thank you for your poetry and for your time.
I loved your letter and knowing, as you say, that you “read a lot of poetry in an attempt to better understand the world around me and the world within me.” I also admired your initial reluctance to trying to express, through some analysis or paraphrase, those things that you treasure most in poems—those aspects of our lives that often feel unsayable to us, or sometimes even beyond language, but which poets often seem able to enfold (yet, also, to reveal) in their poems with the music of the imagination, while offering us images found both in experience and memory. Sometimes, poets can enact for us, in the lyrical language of their poems, an experience that we feel we’re able to share through some resonant and familiar recognition; and, at other times, we can feel we’ve been given some truly new way of seeing or understanding the world.
I was also excited for you, hearing that you were at a point where you are about to leave for college with your clearly marvelous sense of curiosity and your excitement about finding out about the motivations, hopes, and reasons that, perhaps, people make the choices that they make—but also with your curiosity about their own reckonings with those choices, both good and ill. What you are describing, in fact, is exactly the essential curiosity that drives a good writer and, clearly, if being a writer is something you are considering, whether in poetry or prose, I hope you’ll pursue that. I hope too you will find writers at your college (some fellow students as well as teachers) with whom you’ll feel you can begin to explore your own connection to literature--and maybe a future in writing.
Now, let me say that you, in fact, are one of the few readers who has recognized or discovered the connection between my poem, “Hush,” which was published forty-five years ago, and this poem, “In the High Country.” You ask with incredible insight and maturity, “I wonder if that hush is the same as ‘This hush & this pause.’ If so, how did you create two radically different poems out of that same hush, one full of pain and the other full of purpose? Was writing this poem for you as cathartic as reading it was for me?”
The short answer is, yes, it is indeed the same “hush” but understood differently after the passage of time, and with, I think, a far greater sense of perspective, even self-forgiveness. You might be amused to know that my son, the boy of both poems, tells me that he himself still hasn’t decided whether he likes better “Hush” or “In the High Country.” I’ve told him, of course, that he doesn’t need to choose—they both belong to him.
—David St. John
Dear Mr. David St. John,
My name is Maia and I am a 10th-grade student at Arlington High School, Massachusetts. My 10th Grade Examining Expression class has been tasked with writing a letter to this year’s selected poets, and here I am.
I was at first unsure of what to say and immediately felt apprehensive at the thought of my inexperienced words being examined by any poet. Looking at the titles, and then listening to each poem, got me swept into language that I felt I could not compete with. When tapping upon your video, I was hesitant, as I have never known a place as beautiful as your high country that could inspire a verse. Yet, as you ended the concluding line, I knew I had found my poem. Yours was a poem I could fully envision.
With your poem, I saw every word. As each word’s final syllable was pronounced, the photographs of your poem matured. In the first line, I see myself and then faded as your lines painted fields of overgrown weeds that danced with your son. I notice his laughing smile as he climbs through the meadows with you in tow, as the sun tans your skin. I see your reaching of the steepest peak's tip and his lifted arm, just as you described. I see him turn around and flash a relieved smile accompanied by eyes brimming with satisfaction and delight. By the end of your adventure, I imagine your shirts peppered with the loose buds of lupine flowers, eyes burning with dust and pollen, and your own euphoric dispositions. This is why I chose your poem, as with every word I saw a thousand pictures of you and him. That is what poetry is.
The last stanza is where I find resonates with me greatly, since I to an extent, choose to be no one. I let life pass me by, and I let others answer questions and express themselves. I remain quiet and never show emotion for too much devotion or disappointment feels embarrassing. I want to be somebody who is accepted and beloved so deeply, that I am not myself. So perhaps being somebody is overrated, if I am nobody will I enjoy life more as you may? If I was content being no one, I could grin freely at movies when two lovers secure their happiness, spend my time lavishly, and not worry about how my every word determines grade which limits my soul. To be no one is wonderful. But to be someone, especially to somebody is equally lovely. I know I am somebody to so many people. I am a pupil to my teacher, a steady performer to my coaches, and a kind friend. Even to you, I am your reader and an admirer. But more importantly, I am a daughter and a sister. To my parents, I might not be their somebody but as a twin, I know that I will always be somebody to my sister. Especially with quarantine, she has become my partner and my own somebody.
I am torn since it feels impossible to be both, maybe you know how? How can someone be somebody, but no one. What told you are somebody to son, the fact that you are his father? Or was it your love? Perhaps I need to age to understand. I suppose in summary, I wonder about your thoughts and hope for some advice.
Thank you for your poem.
I want to thank you for your wonderful letter, which (in your beautiful writing) so richly weaves the lines of the poem through your truly gorgeous and cinematic imagined “pictures” as they develop in ways that resonate perfectly with the sense of place, peace and beauty that I’d hoped a reader might find in the landscape of the poem and also in the hope (at the poem’s end) that, even when we feel ourselves to be “no one,” we are each (as you say in your letter so powerfully) always a somebody to someone; and, often, we are not simply somebody but often somebody who is truly important and essential to, and beloved and admired by, that someone—just as you clearly are by your teachers, team-mates, friends, parents . . . and most importantly, I imagine, by your sister, your twin.
I want you to remember that what you say here, and say so beautifully—“I want to be somebody who is accepted and beloved so deeply, that I am not myself”— is often true of all of us, every one of us. We all at times are not “ourselves” or choose a kind of invisibility in order to feel safe in this complicated world, especially when we fear that, if we are truly known by someone else, we might run the risk of not being liked, or of not being “enough,” or of not fulfilling their ideas of who we should be or could be. Because we all feel this, we each need to struggle against this fear. We each need to make ourselves known to each other because, otherwise, we simply don’t have the right to say about anyone, either family or friends, “They don’t understand me.” If we haven’t been able to tell others who we are, how can we expect them ever to know? Unless we can say to others who we are, and why we care about the things we care about, then we’re simply forcing them to guess—and, as you probably know from experience, if we do that, then they will always guess wrong.
Sometimes, writing poems helps us to learn not only how to recognize who we are and who we wish to be, but it can also help us to find the right language too. Reading poems and writing poems helps us to gather into ourselves the language that we can use to share what we feel and believe with another person. Think how many times one of your friends has said about someone they care about, “We just can’t talk to each other.” Even if we feel we can show another person how much they are a somebody to us, we still need to be able to tell them; it’s easy to forget that we all have the same fear that you name in your letter so powerfully—the fear of not being the somebody we wish to be, to the someone who matters most to us.
I also love that you asked, How can someone be somebody, but no one? The flip side of that question is, of course, If we feel like no one, how can we be somebody to someone? The speaker of the poem “In the High Country” at times understands that, in the larger scheme of the world, he may seem to others (and even to himself) like “no one.” Sometimes, the speaker might even choose to be “no one,” in order to be relieved, however briefly, of the enormous responsibility that comes with being somebody, that is, being a person in the world. But he’s a lucky man, of course, in that he has someone, the son of the poem, for whom he will always be the somebody who is also that father. We are all “no one” at first, and that’s perfectly fine. We just need to discover in our lives the many someone’s for whom we already are (you name some of these already, in your letter) or for whom we might one day become: Somebody. But don’t worry. In time, you will find them all.
—David St. John