Dear Alicia Ostriker,
My name is John, and I am a 12th grade student in Los Angeles, California. I have been taking AP Lit in this past year. We have read a variety of different poetic, theatrical, prose works, including Moby Dick, The Orphan Master’s Son, A Raisin in the Sun, A Doll’s House, and The Fountainhead. I was drawn to “Utopian” because I personally resonated with it. I was a nine-year-old child when my mother and father divorced, and so the character you portrayed felt very real to me. On top of that, I loved the language that you used and the poetic elements that you incorporated within your work.
I see in the poem a young person struggling with what is going on in the world around her. I see the same young person retreating to her happy place, “a city you cannot see / on an island to which you cannot swim.” This person is going to a place where no evil can come in. Where her parents cannot lie to her anymore. Where she feels safe. It is a place where the things she loves are most prominent, hence the “athletic consort.” I very much appreciated the way she “buried certain words” so that they could never get inside her town. A person’s utopia, or happy place, is very sacred in this way. All that exists are the things that the person can escape to. My absolute favorite line in the poem is at the very end, “the name of the city is one you can almost pronounce.” This to me highlights how every person’s utopia is subjective to them. You can almost pronounce it. You know the idea of it. But you will never be able to know exactly the name of the city.
I found a very personal connection with the character in the story. When my parents split up, I was nine years old, and it was a very difficult time for me. Like the character, I created my own utopia. I created a place where no lies, no fighting, no sadness could ever reign, could ever even exist. I needed that place, because the world outside me, the one I’d known my whole life, was falling apart. And so, I shared the fear that the character inside the story is feeling. I also share a feeling that came through in your writing, in particular with that last line. I hated it when people thought they completely understood it. With your last line, you acknowledged that truth. The truth is that everyone’s escape, everyone’s happy place is unique to them. I greatly appreciated that.
Does the character who you portrayed really exist? If not, what was your inspiration for creating this poem? Have you personally ever struggled with anything similar? I’m very curious to know what your utopia looks like. Is that reflected within the poem? As someone who is a budding writer, I would like to know, what is the life of a poet like? Why did you want to be a poet? Do you have a favorite poem you’ve ever written?
Thank you for reading my letter. Thank you for writing your poem. Thank you for being an inspiration.
Santa Monica, California
Thank you so much for writing to me about my poem "Utopian." You understood it very well as an escape fantasy of a happy place where nothing evil can intrude, a sacred space that nobody else can really understand.
As you probably know, the word Utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More in the sixteenth century from the Greek compound ou-topos meaning 'no place' or 'nowhere.' It is also a pun, as the almost identical Greek word eu-topos would mean 'good place.' More's book Utopia was a critique of the corrupt society he was living in, and his ideas for how a better society could be created. When people imagine a just society, we say they are being utopian. But isn't this idealism something that may be born in anyone who who feels that the world they are living in is wrong and hurtful--even (or especially) in the mind of a child?
Your point that a person's utopia is unique to that person is an important one. At the same time, it makes me glad that a reader like you can identify with the character in my poem. She is, in fact, partly real and partly imaginary. I had the idea for the poem from a friend who was describing her daughter, a dollmaker who makes many different kinds of idealized dolls including -- of course --princesses. My friend's love and admiration for her daughter was infectious, and so I
found myself writing this poem by fantasizing what her fantasies might be. And I confess to you that this is my own favorite poem of the last year or so.
My own parents never were divorced, but I've had enough trouble in my life, and enough disappointment with the world as it is, to make the idea of an ideal world appealing, while at the same time recognizing that we can imagine it but not reach it. In a way, all poetry (and fiction) comes about through some compound of the "real world" and the world of fantasy--and the love of language. As a budding poet, you may already have experienced this. With the reading you have been doing, your imagination has already been opened, and it's clear from your letter that you are unafraid to look within yourself.
I wish you luck in your reading and writing life. May inspiration arrive often at your doorstep.