Dear Arthur Sze:
I recently read your poem “The Shapes of Leaves” for my English class project and I found that it was very inspiring. While reading, I saw how you made connections with emotion and different parts of nature. I really liked how you asked the readers “Have you felt the expanse and contours of grief along the edge of a big Norway maple?” It made me think about the poem after reading that line.
When I first read the poem, I didn’t know what contour meant. So I decided to look it up and I found out that it means "an outline, especially one representing or bounding the shape or form of something.” Also “mold into a specific shape typically one designed to fit into something else.” The more I thought about how you wrote the poem it can mean both definitions as feeling the mold of grief, or feeling the outline of grief.
As I was reading the poem I was wondering if you wrote this based on personal experiences or if it was just something that you made up. But to me it seemed like you were connected to the poem in a way. A line from your poem that stood out to me was ”I am living on the edge of a new leaf.” I was not sure what you meant when I read it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope you create more pieces like this, I hope kids or adults can read your piece of work and be inspired like I was when I read it. I look forward to hearing back from you if you have the time to reply.
Thank you for your beautiful letter. I like how you looked up the meaning of contour and saw that the two definitions apply to my poem. I believe poems have multiple layers and multiple meanings, and that is a part of their mystery and power.
A series of personal experiences are indeed behind this poem. I once worked in the Alaska Poetry-in-the-Schools program and was invited to give a two-week poetry residency with students in Edna Bay. I flew to Ketchikan and then boarded a float plane to Kosciusko Island. On the way, the pilot flew between and over small islands. At one point, I looked down and saw an island entirely stripped of trees. The clear-cutting was devastating, and the only things left were gravel roads that ran, like a leaf’s veins, over and across the land.
The next image with sand hill cranes comes from New Mexico. I live in Santa Fe, and about one hundred fifty miles south, along the Rio Grande, is a wildlife sanctuary, called Bosque del Apache. Thousands of sand hill cranes winter there. I like to go see the cranes lift off at sunrise and return at dusk. On one trip, I watched sand hill cranes moving through the remnants of a cornfield and was startled to see a single, endangered whooping crane amid that flock.
If these images are based on personal experience, a reader doesn’t need to know the personal stories behind them. What’s important, I think, is that in my creative process the two images, placed next to each other, started to vibrate. In that way, I am making something up. I say this to express my belief that a poem can be based on but need not be bound by personal experience. A poet needs to be free to adapt the materials at hand, and, in the end, a poet’s responsibility is to imaginative and emotional truth.
With all best wishes,