As part of the 2022 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 “If You Knew” aloud. Ellen Bass wrote letters back to twelve 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 reading and responding to “If You Knew.” In your letters, many of you shared your own feelings about loss and death. You wrote thoughtfully about how this poem helped you slow down and think about how we interact with each other.
I’ve found this to be one of the most wonderful aspects of poetry––the way we are changed, at least just a little, both in the writing and the reading of poems.
My inspiration for this poem came from a true story, a story of a small kindness. It made clear the importance of small, seemingly unimportant, moments of human connection. Writing this poem was a way to remind myself to pay attention to the tenderness and vulnerability of each of us.
Many of you said you want to read more poetry and to write. Your letters are an example of how well you write and I want to encourage you to keep on! I hope that you will also pay attention to the world around you, to notice what you see and hear and feel, and to keep a notebook of details and ideas.
You are young, but the state of being a beginner is one that I hope you will cultivate forever. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote a series of letters to a friend. He said something that I often repeat to myself and to my students, so here it is for you: “If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced him, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning.”
With every best wish,