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.