Dear Jane Hirshfield,
My name is Audrey and I am an eighth grade student in Denver. Yesterday we read a collection of poems from Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. The one that stood out to me was your poem “Vinegar and Oil.” This piece caught my attention due to how it begins with a metaphor and continues with a description of life. I am hoping you could read my letter and answer a few questions.
Since it seems you’ve stuck with me, my first question is about the beginning of “Vinegar and Oil.”The very first sentence jumps out at me. “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul, / right solitude oils it.” My interpretation of your work is that being alone has both benefits and consequences based on how one uses it. I think that theme connects to many lives, including mine, very well. Is this what you mean, if “Vinegar and Oil” has a meaning? What inspired you to write about solitude? I know that being alone is a common experience of many people, but what set it apart for you? If it’s not private, I hope you can respond with an answer.
Another set of lines interested me. “Coming and going unfinished, / puzzled by fate, // like the half-carved relief / of a fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland.” This sentence was harder to understand. Was that your intention? I think the gist of those lines is that an unfinished carving of a dead donkey above a Finnish church door connects to humanity because we are both going back and forth in an unending cycle that we fail to see. By concluding with those lines, the poem conjures an image in my head of an old church like the one described. On one side there is a heart pumping olive oil, which soothes it, while on the other side a heart is filled with stinging vinegar. Why did you choose to use this comparison? Is there actually a Finnish church with a half-finished carving of a fallen donkey? If so, how did you come across it?
Finally, what stood out to me and my class was the format in which your poems were presented. We are used to reading them, but you and the rest of the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors also offered the option of watching you perform your poems. In the fall semester seventh and eighth graders performed narrative poems and I, for one, had stage fright. Are you ever nervous when practicing or performing? But maybe it depends on the type of poem that is being presented. How is performing a non-narrative poem, like your piece “Vinegar and Oil,” different from performing a narrative poem?
My final question comes out the curiosity of an aspiring poet. What advice do you have for students who write poetry?
Thank you for reading my letter. I hope you are able to send me a response.
Thank you for being struck by my poem, and for your questions, which show me how careful and precise a reader you are.
“Wrong solitude vinegars the soul, / right solitude oils it” is, just as you say, about two different responses to being alone. For some people, it's difficult to be by themselves. They feel lonely, or rejected. For other people, solitude is a way to feel the world more deeply. But this isn't only about different types of people, it's also about one person, at different times and in different circumstances. And of course, by that “one person,” I mean not only other people but also me. I had noticed this in my own life. And I found it interesting to notice how much I usually love being by myself, but how painful it can be at other times. That seemed to me something worth exploring: how every moment of your life you are either alone or with other people, and sometimes you want one, and sometimes you want the other. And when I want to notice and explore things more deeply, I do that by writing a poem.
I like your word “consequences.” It recognizes that why we feel the way we do at any given time has something to do with its context, with what led to it and what we imagine will follow. Usually I love time by myself, when I can write, read, look around, do things at my own pace and in my own way. But of course, like anyone else, there can be times when I want to be with a person I love, or with friends. For some reason I think now of a haiku, by the 17th c. Japanese poet Basho:
Seeing friends off,
being seen off—
autumn in Kiso.
There's almost nothing to these simple words, yet they hold things that move me. They show how we look at others as they come in and out of our lives, and how we ourselves are looked at by others as we pass in and out of their lives. Connection is always there, even in moments of separation. Sometimes you see, sometimes you're seen. We're always coming and going. And somehow, for me, Basho's haiku of staying and leaving and looking at how that happens connects for me just now to the little fallen donkey at the end of my poem. That donkey, after all, is carved above a church door that people are always passing through, century after century, entering, leaving.
Certain kinds of events bring people together—if someone you love has died, you want to be with other people who also loved them, to share different memories, to share grief. At such a time, it can be hard to carry your thoughts and feelings alone. And of course anyone in love will miss the person they love if something separates them. But love, its coming, its leaving, isn't at the center of this poem.
I'm being a little general in how I'm talking about the poem. I know you were asking, what was my life like when I wrote it? But that story doesn't really matter to the poem, which, as you noticed, isn't a narrative poem; it's doing something different from that. When you read this poem, I want it to be for you about your own life, not mine. If I'd filled it up with some specific situation and story, you might be thinking more about me. But it's about you too, about how you feel about your own solitude, sometimes one way and sometimes another—and perhaps that's why it struck you.
It's very hard for me to say why I suddenly thought about that church carving when I was writing this poem. The mind goes where it goes, when you open it up to the imagination's own ways of looking. I was told about the carving years before I wrote this poem, by a Finnish poet I met at a festival in London where we both were reading, and the image stayed with me. That struggling to stand donkey (I see it that way, as wanting to stand again, even though it has fallen and I don't really know, I haven't seen the carving in person)... maybe it's an image for how we all fall and stand again, or sometimes don't, in our lives. We don't always understand everything that happens to us. We don't know why we're alone when we wish we weren't, or why we sometimes are glad to be in solitude and other times aren't. The culture tells us we're supposed to understand everything, that it can all be figured out and solved. But lives aren't like that. Sometimes all a person can do is abide in perplexity. How strange every life is... yet that mystery is also part of its richness.
For your final two questions, for many years I was quite terrified when I spoke my poems in public. I am not by nature a person who likes to be on stage. I'd much rather look than be looked at. Yet somehow my life—because I loved poetry and because poets are asked to give readings—has asked me to learn to be looked at, and to speak to strangers and not be so afraid. I learned that if you do something enough times and live, you will eventually stop being as nervous. I tend to go inside the poem, when I say it in public, and then it's the poem speaking itself, not me. Even though I'm the person who wrote it, it now exists as its own life in the world.
My advice for young writers is simple: write, read, experiment, don't be afraid to write bad poems and don't be afraid to write good poems. Take on any subject that knocks at your door. Don't worry too early about what other people might think, find what you want to say and what ways of saying it feel like a discovery to you. Surprise yourself, and see with your own eyes, hear with your own ears. Be fearless. If you love writing, you'll keep writing. And if you love what language can do when it's making new experience the way a volcano makes new ground, you'll keep writing, and you'll keep reading. I find new language and images thrilling—new words are new worlds—and to read a poem by someone else that makes my life larger is just as thrilling for me as writing something new myself.
I thank you for your close attention and all your good questions, and I wish you well on this path of poems that we share.