Dear Ms. Hirshfield,
My class is taking part in the “Dear Poet” activity on Poets.org. After listening to all the featured poets read their poems, your poem, “The Weighing” was the one that stood out the most to me. It interested me and confused me a little but made me want to go and read the poem again to figure it out. When I went back and studied the poem further, I began to understand the poem more and more and was inspired to think about a few things. At first, I thought this poem was an allusion to the Egyptian god Osiris and his “weighing of the hearts.” In Egyptian mythology, when a person died, they were sent to the underworld and their heart was put on a scale and weighed for all the good and bad they had done in their life. This weighing determined whether they would be granted a place in Heaven or if they would have to remain in Hell and pay for the bad things they had done. The first stanza of your poem (and especially the last line about forgiveness) swayed me to think that this is what you were alluding to. However, when I read more of the poem, I started to think about what you said in the video before you read. You said this was written during a dark period in your life. When I read the stanza about the eland being eaten by the lion, I began to think that maybe you were supposed to be the eland. Coming from a dark place, I thought maybe you were trying to say that you, being the eland, needed to learn how to forgive the lion, which represented those people in your life who wronged you. The last stanza really stuck with me long after reading the poem. I think everyone at some point in their life feels as though the world is asking too much from them but that they have no choice but to give in to the world’s demands. I loved this poem when I first heard it and loved it even more when I went back and analyzed it to find what you were really trying to say.
April 21, 2015
Thank you for responding to and reading my poem so very well—and for understanding it better than you think.
I did have in mind in its opening lines exactly the Egyptian god’s weighing of the heart of a person after death, measured against the deeds of her or her life. I'm glad to hear that what I hoped the poem’s readers would think of and feel is exactly what came to you, when you read it. I wasn't thinking so much, though, about the Heaven or Hell of an afterlife. I was thinking about the way this moment, any moment, is itself the sum of hearts and deeds, both our own and others'. That weighing scale is with us every hour of our lives.
You were also just right in your understanding of the rest of the poem. I could not rephrase it any better than you have in your letter. You've understood the eland, the lion, and what those images mean to me. Sometimes you can't change a thing that happens, you can only agree to let it happen, and go on in what way is left to you for going on in, and try to understand that other people's actions and words and decisions, even if they cause you pain, must be forgiven—they are also the sum of the hearts, deeds, actions that emerged from everything that has happened to them. A lion can't help being a lion, and needs to devour, to live.
The observation held in the poem’s last stanza—”The world asks of you only the strength you have,/ and you give it./ Then it asks more, and you give it.”--is something I feel in my own life and see in other people's lives, in many ways. Sometimes the devastation can be emotional, sometimes outer. As I'm writing this letter, the news is filled with the stories and images of people in Nepal, where a major earthquake just happened. People have lost their houses, their relatives, any sense of power over their own lives. They sit outside in the dark and the cold, waiting for someone to come with water, with food, with blankets, hoping someone will come who is able to treat those who are injured. It's hard to imagine how a person lives through such a thing. Yet all over the world, people are asked this, one way or another, every day. War, earthquake, an illness, the death of a parent or child or beloved, betrayal, disappointment when people don’t turn out to be as we imagined them, the heart's changes in love—none of us escape this life without experiencing what feels to much to bear.
After another major earthquake, the one in Haiti some years ago, I watched a television reporter speaking about the fear of complete social breakdown, that people who'd been left too long sitting outside without food or water or shelter would begin to riot. The journalists had been saying this more and more. Meanwhile, behind the reporter, what you saw and heard was a wholly different story: people, families and strangers, sat on the ground together, outside in the dark (in the period of aftershocks, you don't want to go back into buildings that could still collapse). They were singing. Singing in shared darkness, shared cold, shared unknowing.
This is how we get through the hardest of times. Art (song, poetry, dance, storytelling, theater) offers a way for the uncarryable things in our lives to be carried. It's been that way for me in my own life. Art saves me. Some specific poem or story comes and makes for me a life raft. And also, I know I am not alone, in whatever happens to me, because some poem or story tells me it's happened to others, and they survived. I can know they survived because the poem itself exists.
I've heard from some people that this poem has done that for them in their lives, and that's why I chose it as the one to put on video for students to see. Because it might be there to help someone, someday. Thank you for letting me know that this poem spoke especially strongly to you, and thank you for your wonderfully open-hearted, deeply perceptive, and very accurate reading of my words.
All warmest wishes,