As part of the 2021 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Ellen Bass in response to a video of her reading her poem “Kiss” aloud. Ellen Bass wrote letters back to seven of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Ellen Bass also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you for your thoughtful letters and your kind attention to my poem, "Kiss." Poetry can connect us even across time and distances and I felt that connection with every one of you through your letters—what you've shared from your own lives, your insights, and your questions.
In this poem in which a woman saves a lizard from drowning, I ask: What does it matter if she saved one lizard? One lizard more or less in the world? All of you who wrote to me took up that question seriously, leading to discussion of many deep concerns. You grappled with why humans don't regard the lives of other species as important. You talked about empathy and compassion. And you wrestled with the importance of doing good and why it matters if we do one good thing. I am enriched by the sincerity of your investigation into these issues.
Many of you also brought up observations and questions about the making of a poem, particularly the inclusion of detail. And this led to thinking about paying attention, which is at the very heart of poetry—and life. Many philosophers, spiritual teachers, and poets have said that paying attention is prayer. And that's the essence of writing poetry for me—a way to pay attention, to be more present, to be more deeply rooted in life.
And some of you asked about the origins of this poem, so I will tell you that this poem is also a true story. My friend, Lynne, did see a lizard floating in her mother-in-law's swimming pool and she did jump in fully clothed and give the lizard artificial respiration! I don't know anyone else who has ever done such a thing, but it worked. And that sums up what I love most about my friend.
I hope you will all continue to read poetry and to be enriched by it. And I am glad that many of you are writing poetry too. Thank you for being part of the great conversation of poetry. And a special thanks to your teachers who helped to bring us together.
Thank you again for reading my poem and for your letters.
Ellen Bass reads "Kiss" for Dear Poet 2021.
Dear Ms. Bass,
My name is Hanna, and I am a junior at Edina High School in Minnesota. In my AP U.S. Literature class, I came across your poem, “Kiss,” and felt an immediate connection. The poem didn’t necessarily feel like something I could write—at least not at my current poetic skill level—but more like something I would write, an articulation of ideas and feelings I’ve been pondering but didn’t quite know how to put on paper. It describes a desperate desire to be one with all kinds of creatures and critters, to feel equally essential and cared for in the eyes of nature.
The way I see it, “Kiss” is inseparable from the deliberately feminine energy coursing through it. The ideas in the poem are presented to us through the eyes of Lynne and a strong feminine voice is created with its soft, affectionate diction. The voice is only strengthened by the direct references to babies and motherhood: “body limp as a baby / drunk on milk” (4-5), “silky breast” (6), “tiny puff” (16), “first breath” (23). Comparing Lynne’s rescue of the lizard to interactions between a mother and a baby expresses the honest love and tenderness behind her intentions. It’s a special relationship that everyone has been on one side of, but not all will ever experience the other. I can’t quite wrap my head around what this poem would sound like if it were written from a man’s perspective. That desire to protect the smallest animals, simply for the sake of protecting what is good, seems contradictory to the way mankind has treated the natural world for the last few centuries. Do you think it would still work? Or is this poem’s voice restrictively feminine? Would you consider yourself a feminist poet?
Through that same comparison, nature and innocence are made synonymous with one another. A small lizard has as much potential for greatness as a human baby. The tone is doting and careful, pressing home the idea that all living things are precious, and should be treated as such. To truly separate oneself from the notion that humans are above the natural world is a beautiful, freeing thing. So often we think of ourselves as nature’s rulers, but we are just as much a part of it as the humble lizard. From that truth comes a value of kindness; we are all one in nature, so every living thing should be treated with respect and reverence. How did you intend to portray the relationship between humans and nature? How do you think the material world separates us from our origins in nature?
Upon further research, I was pleasantly surprised to find out you are a lesbian. Being a young gay woman myself, I was excited to hear poetry I could relate to. Even with all the progressivism in the education system, I still have rarely come across any sort of discussion about LGBTQ history or issues in my educational career. I have always had to seek out representation on my own in order to understand that part of my identity. So, it made sense I felt myself so drawn to your work. How much do you think your sexuality influences your work? I could be wrong, but certain moments, like the reference to Lynne’s Doc Martens in “Kiss,” felt like subtle nods to queer culture, a secret language between you and any readers that can crack the code. Furthermore, what LGBTQ topics, if any, do you think should schools should educate their student about? What queer artists, or works of art—in any medium—make you feel connected to your sexuality?
Thank you so much for your insightful letter. “Kiss” does, as you suggest, portray a scene in which the life of a lizard, and, by extension, every creature is valuable. You express this well when you say: “So often we think of ourselves as nature’s rulers, but we are just as much a part of it as the humble lizard...we are all one in nature, so every living thing should be treated with respect and reverence.” It’s clear that you believe as I do that humans need to reorient ourselves to recognize that “nature” is not out there, that we are nature. And what happens to the living world, happens to us as well. We certainly see this dramatically in the current climate crisis.
I think I was too close to the poem to be aware of its feminine energy, but now that you point it out, it makes a lot of sense. There is a mother and baby thread that runs through the metaphors and diction. Fortunately men are increasingly involved in the care of babies and small children. My son is a new parent and his immersion into baby-care, his gentleness, sweetness and patience show me that the intimacies that we used to equate with mother and child are equally accessible to fathers as well.
That said, because I am a feminist, I am a feminist poet. I think all the things we are as people become part of who we are as poets, as well. And I am a lesbian poet. Good for you that you did some research and discovered that. And I’m glad that, as a young gay woman, you found my poem easy to relate to. I think that shows that poems don’t have to be explicitly about being lesbian to carry a certain sensibility. I’m glad that Lynne’s Doc Martens signalled to you queer culture. Not only is that a nod to queer culture, but a way to convey more of who Lynne is. And to show that a woman wearing Doc Martens and a camo T-shirt with the neck ripped out, a woman who might look tough, has a tender heart.
As to what LBGTQ topics I think schools should include in their curriculum, I think that it’s extremely important that all students see themselves reflected in literature—as well as in history, in the sciences, etc. Most of us have been deprived of a great body of work that fell outside the parameters of the dominant culture and that’s a loss not only for young LBGTQ students, people of color, and other marginalized groups, but also a loss for those in the mainstream.
When I was a young woman, writing by lesbians was crucial to my understanding of myself. In fact, I have often said I came out with literature. It was literature written by lesbians that presented the most exciting and hopeful worldview for me. I read Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, poems by Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. I read Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I viewed Judy Chicago’s installation of The Dinner Party. And listened to Holly Near and Chris Williamson. These date me! By a lot! There is so much more available now—so many amazing LGBTQ writers, artists, musicians. You can find an abundance on poets.org. And be sure to sign up for the free Poem-A-Day.
You are clearly a smart and dedicated writer and I trust that you will contribute to the body of work by queer artists!
With every bright wish,
Dear Ellen Bass,
Hi, my name is Sami and I am from East middle school MI in the 6th grade and I am writing to you about your poem Kiss.
I used to not like poems but when I had to do a unit on them in class we were given an opportunity to choose our own poem to write about and when I saw yours I just had to read. The name just pulled me in and when I found out it was about a girl named Lynne just trying to help a lizard, I loved it even more. You have made me see the beauty of poems. I looked at many different poems trying to find the perfect one with a deep meaning and your poem Kiss was perfect. The lines
“When Lynne saw the lizard floating
in her mother-in-law’s swimming pool,”
she jumped in”
reminds me so much of this one time when I ripped one of my favorite stuffed animals and I was learning to sew at the time. I took it into my mom's room and got the thread and needles out and made 8 wiggly, zigzag, curved, crossed, layered stitches. It was so imperfect but it made me love it more. This poem reminded me of a memory that I will now cherish that was beginning to be lost in the back of my mind.
I feel the meaning of the poem is to never let any little deed go to waste. I believe that when the lizard scurried off it went back home to its family whether it was a child or an adult, but to get back to its loved ones. To share it experience and to pass on what Lynne had taught him, given him how she had given him freedom, she had given him hope, she had given him an opportunity, she had given him life by one action, one thought, one kiss had given the lizard all those things.
Your poem had opened my eyes as no other poem had before. Your poem has made me appreciate what you love. What I know love. Just like in the poem how Lynne had given all those things to the Lizard you have given me so much too by just giving me words. By giving me a poem. I hope you read my letter.
Thank you for telling me the story of sewing up the tear in your stuffed animals. By taking your time and including getting the thread and needles and describing the “8 wiggly, zigzag, curved, crossed, layered stitches,” I can see it vividly. And you have put so much music in that line--the g’s in wiggly and zigzag ând the “C” sound in “curved, crossed”—all that helps me see the scar and reminds me of the phrase “strong at the broken places” and also of the Japanese art, Kintsugi, of putting broken pottery together with gold bonding. And indeed, it is then more lovable, more beautiful. I think you have the beginnings of a poem there already.
And yes, your reading of the poem is exactly what I wanted to explore—the way it’s always worth it to save what we can. The world, as wel know, is filled with large problems, and sometimes we can help with those, but it’s also filled with small opportunities for kindness. I like that you imagine the lizard carrying on that message. And I especially love that Lynne gave what she knew of love to the lizard, and I took that and wrote the poem, and then you thought about your own experience of repair. There’s a phrase in Hebrew tikkun olam, which means, roughly, “repair of the world.” Your letter affirms that we are doing that together.
I hope you write your poem about your stuffed animal. And I hope you write many more. And when you have a chance to save a lizard or a spider or an elephant or a glacier, I trust what you’ll try to do.
With every bright wish,
Dear Ellen Bass,
My name is Josie, and I am a junior at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology (it’s a mouthful, I know) in Maryland. When I first read “Kiss”, I immediately thought of the book Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. I had recently reread the book because an (unwatchable) movie adaptation came out and I wanted to re-experience the story. In the book’s beginning, the main character Flora, just like Lynne, saves the life of a small animal through CPR—“the kiss of life”. I love making connections between poetry and other pieces of art and life experience, and as I continued reading “Kiss”, I found a connection to another story. It’s a parable by Loren Eisley, the story of a boy who walks along the sealine, the banks of which are littered with starfish that washed upon the beach and can’t return to the sea. The boy picks up each starfish he passes and returns them to the ocean. An old man walks by and asks—just as you ask in your poem—why it matters to save the starfish. There are so many on the shores, he says, that the boy won’t be able to make a difference. The boy throws another starfish in the ocean, turns to the man, and says: “It made a difference to that one.” This story answers a question you ask in “Kiss”: What did it matter if she saved one lizard? / One lizard more or less in the world?” It mattered to the lizard, and it mattered to Lynne.
Seeing as this project is being done in poetry class, you might ascertain that I enjoy poetry, both the reading and writing of it. I also prefer working in freeform, though rhyme schemes can be fun as well. How do you choose where to break your lines? I feel like my line breaks are boring and predictable, but yours flowed so naturally, it was like I was descending a staircase of poetry as I read. All the details you include stay fresh in my mind after I read them, like the camo shirt having the neck ripped out, or the way she pressed on the lizard’s chest like she was testing the ripeness of a peach. I’ve noticed that you write about babies and eyelids a lot, sometimes at the same time. In “Indigo”, you wrote about a sleeping baby with translucent eyelids, in “The Sound of Their Names” you praised suffragists’ closing eyes, and in “Gate C22” you described the man looking at his love like a mother at her newborn child. In “Kiss” these are mentioned as the lizard lays “limp as a baby drunk on milk” until its “wrinkled lids peeled back”. Why do you always come back to these ideas?
Is Lynne a real person? If so, what is your relation to her? I think we would all be lucky to have somebody like Lynne in our lives. I’ve never saved any lizards, but I remember a few years ago at my summer camp, an absolute army of frogs wound up trapped in our pool skimmers. Submergence in chlorine is not the ideal situation for frogs, as you may have guessed. We scooped up each frog, ran some fresh water over them to remove any chemicals, and released them in the woods by the stream. Sometimes, just like with Lynne, we wouldn’t know if the frog was alive or dead until “its muscles roused” in the warm air. Unlike the lizard, they were usually too tired from accidentally drinking cyanuric acid to immediately dart away.
Because of the Corona virus, I already missed a year at my summer camp, and I’ll probably miss the next as well. But reading “Kiss” reminded me of the woods and the animals, the dirt and the counselors, everything I love about my time there. Thank you, not only for writing this poem, but for giving me a piece of camp to hold onto while I’m away.
Thank you for your observant and insightful letter. I was not at all surprised to hear that you enjoy reading and writing poetry because you make connections so naturally. Between Flora & Ulysses and the parable by Loren Eisley and this poem, “Kiss.” I love that you answer the question of the poem, What did it matter if she saved one lizard? One lizard more or less in the world? with the boy’s response about saving the starfish, “It made a difference to that one.” Indeed! And, as you say, it mattered to Lynne. Often the good we do for others does as much good for us—or, sometimes, even more.
You notice that I write a lot about babies and eyelids! How perceptive! Not many people notice such things. I think all of us have certain obsessions that pull us back over and over. Babies and eyelids are certainly among mine. I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why I return to these images, but I have learned to embrace my obsessions. The poet Natalie Diaz has spoken about these images that we are taken by and how she makes them new every time she writes about them. You can hear her here: https://tinhouse.com/building-the-emotional-image-with-natalie-diaz/
You also ask about making and breaking lines and how I choose where to break them. First, I’ll say that it took me a long time to get a feeling for lineation. It looks like it should be a lot easier than it is! But there are so many things to consider: sound, rhythm, pacing, syntax, meaning. There’s an excellent small book by James Longenbach, The Art of the Poetic Line. The thing he says that I find most helpful is that our true experience of the line can only be identified in relation to other elements in a poem. When I read that I understood why I’d had such a hard time—because making and breaking lines can’t be separated from the other aspects of the craft. I highly recommend this book.
You ask if Lynne is a real person and yes, she is. Lynne is an old friend and one of the reasons I appreciate her is right there in the poem. The poem is a true story.
I’m sorry you missed summer camp, but I am glad to know that “Kiss” reminded you of being there and all that you love about being in the living world. I hope you are able to return soon. Until then, I trust you will stay inspired through poetry.
Wish every bright wish,
Dear Ms. Ellen Bass,
My name is Cecilia and I am in 11th grade at Roland Park Country School in Baltimore, Maryland.
My selection of your poem was based off of the relationship between the title “Kiss” and the interior contents of the poem. Although the word “kiss” is generally associated with themes such as love and lust, I interpreted the meaning behind the poem to be more about the importance of a life and the lengths that one should go to in order to preserve it. I was fascinated by the contradiction in this where upon immediate glance the poem could be inferred to be about love, but instead I found it to be about life and therefore it can give a new meaning to the idea of love.
I often ponder the question, “Why do I matter” or “What makes me special” and your poem furthered my dive into these questions. These questions reminded me of the lines, “What did it matter if she saved one lizard?” and, “One lizard more or less in the world?”. Did you intend these lines to represent similar questions? In your poem the value of a small life has been put at such high importance, particularly when the small lizard is saved through CPR by the woman. This imagery of the woman pressing her lips to the lizard's face and blowing a puff of air into his lungs shows the intricate nature of her attempt to save the lizard. This made me realize that there is a high significance in the lives of all living creatures and that we are all needed in the world to make an impact. The line, “But she bestowed the kiss of life, again and again” I found to symbolize the perseverance of finding value in your life and then finding your purpose. Finally at the end of the poem when the lizard is revived and scurries off, I interpreted as someone who has found their purpose and moved into society to share their life. This then connects back to the title of “kiss” and the “kiss of life” in that the love of life has become a part of the person. Was the idea behind the “kiss of life” to bestow the figurative meaning of life back into a person? Have you ever felt a time when you lost all hope and were then restored with a purpose for living?
I wanted to thank you for writing this poem and making it available for me to analyze. It allowed me to explore what value I put on life and to wonder in the marvel that being alive truly is. I hope to soon find my purpose and passion, “before darting off”.
Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I appreciate how you began thinking about this poem with the first word, the title. And your thoughts are perceptive. “Kiss” is, indeed, usually thought of with love between people, whether it’s lovers kissing or a parent kissing a baby or a child kissing a grandparent. But here, Lynne is giving “the kiss of life,” which is a resuscitation, helping the lizard to breathe again. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, how many aspects one word can have? And also, how great that there’s a phrase like “kiss of life” so I didn’t have to name the poem “Resuscitation,” which would be so much clunkier and so much more narrow.
You are a deep thinker. Those questions--“Why do I matter?” and “What makes me special?”—are some of the most profound questions of our existence. We are all just specks in the galaxy and yet we are each, I believe, an important part. And not interchangeable or replaceable. I think your interpretation of of the lizard scurrying off being like a person who has found their purpose and moves into society to live their life is exactly beautiful.
You ask if the idea behind the “kiss of life” was to bestow the figurative meaning of life back into a person? And have I ever felt a time when I lost all hope and were then restored with a purpose for living? These are questions that make me think. I didn’t consciously mean the “kiss of life” to the lizard to be a metaphor for helping a person restore a sense of purpose, although that is a beautiful interpretation and that reading works well through the poem. I was thinking more along the lines of the lizard’s worth as an individual lizard and that there was a person—Lynne—who was the kind of person willing to go to the mat for that lizard. And by implication for other animals and people as well. And I admired that.
As for your second questions, yes there have been times when I have lost all hope. There have been kind people who have loved me through those times. And also I turned to poetry during those times. There are a few poems that especially sustained me. The idea that others had lived through hard, even devastating times, and could write about it—and could write what was on the other side of it—gave me strength to go on. One poem I especially held onto is Langston Hughes’ “Island.” I’ll include it here.
It makes me very happy to know that you are more aware of the “marvel that being alive truly is.” I think that is at the basis of our life and the basis of finding your purpose and passion. Which I have every trust you will do.
May you always save a lizard, or a needy child, or a river or an old growth tree.
Sending every bright wish,
Dear Ellen Bass,
I sat confined to my little desk, enclosed by big glass walls, silenced by the cloth over my mouth, re-reading your poem over and over again, trying to understand what you wanted to tell me. The sound of my highlighter running over the text was deafening, the vibrant colors blinding, and I just didn’t get the point. I stuffed the paper back into my bag and pushed past the wooden door of my English classroom, and forgot about your story. Later that day, I sat precariously on the edge of my bed after school, and I found myself thinking again, “Why is this so good?” After a week’s worth of in-class assignments, and a couple of snow days, I realized that my favorite thing about your poem was the big question that it posed: What will one good deed, one life saved, one action do to impact the rest of the world? I also noticed that you focus on the little details, and make them remarkable. This, Ms. Bass, is why I love this poem so much. Intentional or not, the way that your writing asks so many complex and thought-provoking questions with some simple imagery is so intricate and beautiful, and it overall is just a great poem to read and analyze.
While researching a little bit about your life and your other works, I came across an interview of you by Wallace Ludel for BOMB Magazine, and I found myself caught by some of your answers. Some questions I found myself asking during my first analysis of “Kiss” were, “Why is she focusing on these details? Why the unnecessary comparisons?” In one part of your interview where you were talking about your poem “Fungus on Fallen Alder at Lookout Creek,” you said, “When there’s an insect that looks like a speck, she always runs to get the hand lens...Suddenly we see that there’s this absolutely amazing construction—thorax, abdomen, legs, antennae, eyes...It’s extraordinary.” Reading this was sort of like my “Aha!” moment. I realized that you intentionally created this magnification of such a mundane action, an action that doesn’t at first seem to have much of a meaning. The poem focuses on the small specific details instead of the bigger, more vague descriptions. I didn’t fail to notice that this idea intricately connects to the big question, “Does saving one life, doing one good thing, even matter?” Referring to the insect comparison you used in your interview, each tiny and fragile part of an insect is so important to the way that it functions, to how it is able to live. I guess this idea of zooming in on the small things of life is your way of showing that in your eyes, yes, every little action matters, every detail, every effect is important.
Another thing that I noticed about “Kiss” is the play between life and death. The use of juxtaposition and contrast is something else that I found particularly intriguing. In the poem, you used phrases such as “the ripeness of peach,” “big plush lips,” and “a broke little push with a bit of spring in it.” At least to me, these words convey a sense of liveliness and animation, and words like ripe, plush, and spring remind me of describing life However, these phrases stood out to me because they contrasted with the overarching image shown through the poem, about a dying lizard, which obviously suggests death. In some of your other works, I noticed a similar pattern of mortality emerging through the lines, and I realized once again that this concept ties in with the main ideas of the poem. With your opposing ideas of life and death, the poem indirectly illustrates the clashing answers of different opinions that people may have to this question of the effect of everyday actions on everyday life. However, I believe that you are hinting that these seemingly mundane actions have an important ripple effect on our lives. When you asked the question, “What did it matter if she saved one lizard?” on line 17 of the poem, I think you answered it by showing the action of Lynne saved the lizard, telling the reader that yes, saving the lizard did matter.
Despite reading over this poem many, many times, I was still left with a couple of questions. First, I noticed that there is a repetitive “s” sound occurring throughout the poem. Was this intentional? If so, what does it mean? Second, why were the comparisons of your poem so abstract? Why were they included at all? Overall, I really enjoyed reading this poem, and I think it is partly because of my interest in philosophy. As a person going to an all-girls private school, I was required to take an ethics course this year, and if I’m being honest, it was not something that I was really interested in. Throughout the course, I found myself slowly enjoying learning about ethical topics more and more, and so I began to do my own research. I started off with reading only about ethics, but I began to look more into the philosophical field and exploring the ideas between life and death. Your poem brings up one of my favorite questions, which is about the importance of doing good, and the impact of one good action. After all, we are just tiny clumps of carbon, living on a giant floating rock. So, I’ll end by asking you, Ms. Bass; why should we do good things, and why does it matter?
Thank you so much for your letter. I appreciate the time and thought you put into engaging with this poem and am impressed with your intelligence and curiosity. I also love that you began so honestly, telling me that at first you “didn’t get the point.” What a beautiful thing to see how you investigated more and more deeply, researching about my life and the interview I did for BOMB Magazine and connecting what you learned with the poem and your own thoughts about ethics and philosophy.
I love how you connected the idea of looking at something in detail,--for example, an insect, magnifying it, seeing how each tiny part is essential to its functioning and its life--with that question in the poem of what does it matter if we save one life, one life more or less in the world. You have a proclivity for seeing these connections—such a important part of creative work, whether it’s poetry, the arts, sciences, or other fields.
I’ll try now to answer your questions. The repetition of “s” sounds—as well as some of the other repetitions--is intentional. Those repetitions are one of the ways to make music in a poem. Often the sounds that get repeated are ones that have shown up in the opening lines. In this poem, the title, “Kiss,” starts off with an “s” sound and then the word lizard has an “s” sound too, along with mother-in-law’s and swimming pool and she in the first sentence. Of course “s” is a common letter so it would show up in almost any poem, but once it was established then I chose words intentionally to keep that music going. You ask what the “s” sound means, but I didn’t think of it as having an actual correlation to the content. For example, I didn’t think of it as the sound a lizard might make moving through grass (in my experience, they don’t make much sound). But sometimes there’s something in a poem that the poet is not aware of!
You also ask why the comparisons of my poems are so abstract. I’m not sure what you mean by “abstract” here, but perhaps you’re asking why the comparisons are so far from what is actual taking place in the poem. For example, comparing its body to a baby drunk on milk or comparing the force of the fingertip with the force of testing the ripeness of a peach. If so, the reason is that in making comparisons or metaphors, if the things compared are too alike there won’t be any spark or revelation. If I say an apple is like an orange, you already know that. They’re both fruit, both round, both about the same size. So it’s obvious they’re alike. But if I compare a limp lizard to a baby drunk on milk, the mind has to do a very quick computation. It happens very fast, sometimes even unconsciously, where we ask ourselves how is the limp lizard like the drunk baby? We don’t answer that consciously, but if we sense that it’s accurate, then we’re drawn into a deeper engagement with the poem.
Your last question is a profound one, indeed. “Why should we do good things and why does it matter?” As you say, “After all, we are just tiny clumps of carbon, living on a giant floating rock.” (Well expressed, Aadya!). I am not a philosopher and I don’t know that I have an answer to that question that is valuable for others, but I can tell you some of my personal thoughts. Even though I am just a tiny clump of carbon, my life is important to me and I want to take full advantage of this experience of being alive. And part of that, for me, is about paying attention. Many philosophers and poets have talked about attention as being prayer and that feels true to me. And when I pay attention I can’t help but feel the interconnectedness of all life. So if I do a good thing for someone else--or for a lizard—that makes the world a tiny bit better. Maybe a very tiny bit. But still better. And since that’s the only world, even if I think in very selfish terms, it makes my world better. Even if I manage to shut out much of the suffering in the world (and we do have to do that to some extent or we’d just collapse), I know that suffering affects me. So any good I can do, alleviates that just a tiny bit.
That’s one answer. I think my other answer is that I believe that it’s right to do what good we can. What does “right” mean? Why is it “right?” How do I know it’s “right?” Those are questions for philosophy—and I am glad you’re studying philosophy. But as a poet, I think it’s about empathy and I think empathy is about imagination. Lynne had empathy for that lizard. How did she have empathy? I think because she could imagine the lizard’s experience. When you can imagine into the experience of the “other,” whether it’s a person, a lizard, a tree, a river, an ocean, and if your imagination is vivid enough, then I think it becomes clear that you want to do good and it matters.
Thank you, Aadya, for this rich exchange. I trust that you will keep thinking and studying with curiosity and asking deep questions of others and of yourself.
With every bright wish,
Dear Ellen Bass,
Hello, my name is Yuze and I am currently in grade 7 at Branton Junior High. After reading your poem “Kiss”, I decided to write to you because of the strong message I managed to decipher from your array of wisely chosen words. To be honest, I was half daydreaming about how I can win this contest while listening to your recording of the poem when I heard the lines;
“What did it matter if she saved one lizard? One lizard more or less in the world?” (Lines 17 and 18)
At once, my daydreams scattered, replaced by the terrifying accuracy and reality of those phrases. My thoughts shifted to the memory of one day a few years ago. I was biking with my friend when I caught seeing something move in the tall grass. I pointed it out to him and we went over to investigate. It turned out to be an injured bunny which was obviously wounded on its left leg because of the dried-up blood marks. There was spilt blood all around its curled up legs. My friend asked if calling the local Animal Rescue Society was necessary, but I stated that leaving it here wouldn’t cause any troubles and besides, we were both worried about our parents grounding us for being foolish enough to approach an injured animal who could be carrying any amount of diseases or sickness. But, those were mostly excuses hiding my main thought which was similar to Lynne’s; would one less animal in the world even matter?
Rabbits and humans have many similarities, but the one that stands out the most is that the two are both animals, although humans hate to be described that way because of our high ranking in the animal hierarchy. If you ever see an injured person anywhere, without hesitation, you would immediately fish out your phone and dial 911 or seek someone else to make the call for you. Then, more and more people will rush over to assist if needed. Now imagine you see a hurt animal. The most common human reaction would be to have a panic attack, or to try and get away from the injured animal as quickly as possible and continue on with their business, putting the animal out of sight and out of mind. Only rarely, you see someone willing to assist and call animal supports. It is an instinct to help out others from your own species, therefore, leaving the injured bunny to be dealt with by other rabbits. We humans have a wide selection of highly advanced medical treatments at our disposal, but what about the rabbit? The best thing it can ask for is to have some comfort while it slowly heals or fades away. So why the imbalance of importance for different species? Is it because humans dominate the food chain and those beneath us are merely organisms that also happen to be alive? That’s what's so dark about humans, most of them don’t care about animals of lower significance.
Until I read your poem, I always thought of poetry as requiring a rhyme scheme or following a certain syllabic pattern. After reading “Kiss”, I found the true meaning of poetry is more than trying to act smart with rhyming or strangle syllable patterns, but instead to tell the readers the wonderful things that exist in our world whose beauty we might otherwise overlook. Your poem’s structure is one I've never seen before; there wasn’t any rhyming, nor syllable pattern that I found, so may I ask what type of poetry style was “Kiss” based off of? May I also ask how did you come up with this brilliant poem? Did something similar happen to you? Thanks for writing this great and inspiring poem. It would be great if everyone would learn the lesson that all lives are important, including those of different organisms! Thanks for taking the time to read this!
Thank you for your honest and compassionate letter. I appreciate that you begin by admitting that at first you were just trying to win this contest. Isn’t that true of so many of us going about our lives! But then you dropped into a deeper place of examining your own reactions to that injured bunny. And you ask the important question of why humans have separated ourselves from the knowledge that we are animals. I believe you will always keep your clear vision of the importance of all lives. This planet and its inhabitants need you—and all of us—to care enough to protect other species. You give me hope.
I also appreciate your reflection that “poetry is more than trying to act smart!” You are absolutely right that poetry is about noticing, paying attention. And when we really pay attention, we can’t help but care. The form of this poem is usually called “free verse,” which means that its form is created to fit this content and meaning, rather than the poem fitting into a form.
As for how I came up with this poem, it’s a true story. My friend, Lynne, has a tender heart and loves animals and she really did see this lizard in her mother-in-law’s swimming pool and did everything the poem says. Not all poems, as you know, are based on actual events. We are free to use our imaginations and create anything at all. But this poem is totally true.
Thank you for taking the time to write to me and thank you for your appreciation of poetry—and all living creatures.
With every bright wish,
Thank you so much for your beautiful thoughts about empathy. What you say is so true: “everything matters, no matter how small any act of kindness is.” I believe this too. And I’m trying to practice it in my life, though I fall short often. But I think the intention is key. Remembering that that’s what I want to do.
The inspiration for this poem was the act itself. Although poems don’t always have to be “true,” this one is. My friend, Lynne, really did rescue this lizard in this way. I wrote it down in my journal years ago and one day, reading through old journals, I came across my notes and they still felt fresh and interesting to me, so I worked on them to write the poem. Although this event was remarkable, I find that there are many seemingly ordinary moments that also hold a lot of potential if I pay attention. Really, any moment, if I were insightful enough, could be the raw material for a poem.
It means a lot to me that you feel like you’re having the experience of being right there. That’s what I’m always trying to do. And I’m not surprised that you can see it, because you are a wonderful artist. I love the picture that you drew of me. Your whole letter is like a picture!
Keep writing! Keep drawing!
Wish every bright wish,