Dear Jane Hirshfield,
My name is Ethan, and I’m a senior in high school. Thank you for taking the time to share your poetry with us young students, and for giving us the opportunity to respond. It is very much an honor to write to you.
I think what I enjoyed most about your poem was the way you brought out the different flavors of solitude, particularly in the first stanza. I am the oldest of eight children, and solitude is a rare commodity in our house. I am also the kind of person who likes being alone with his thoughts, and a book, and maybe a cup of coffee (or tea). I take pleasure in solitude, and I can certainly identify with the idea of being “oiled” by it.
But your poem didn’t only address that kind of solitude. It acknowledged that being alone all the time can be a very bad thing, for yourself and for those around you. I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal…Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
That’s something I need to be reminded of. Solitude is very nice because it’s safe: a book or a thought can’t hurt you like a person who lives and breathes and thinks. But solitude in excess is dangerous as well. It is, as you say, vinegar to the soul.
So those first two lines simply by themselves were immensely powerful to me. The rest of the poem was very interesting as well, although I’m not sure if my interpretation of it is exactly right. It seems to me that you are continuing to express that duality of human existence you introduced in the beginning throughout the following lines. We are fragile, but there are still good moments; we come and we go, though we are often puzzled by fate. In many ways, we are like the donkey at the church (the church itself being a place of both solitude and fellowship): so many times, our lives seem “half-carved.” Perhaps this is not what you are getting at, but it’s what I saw. I would love to know exactly what you were conveying with the image of the donkey and the church.
Thank you again for your poem. It has provided me with plenty of food for thought as I sit in solitude—as well as plenty of motivation to get out and simply live.
Mount Pleasant, North Carolina
As you will be able to see, I'm answering your letter as one of four I picked from the letters I was forwarded for possibly replying, and those were chosen by people at the Academy of American Poets from among the many responses to all the poems offered this year. Some of the letters ask similar questions, and I don't want to repeat myself too much here, but your letter is so good, I wanted it to be among the ones that would get put up on the poets.org website for people to read. I've spoken in some of my earlier answers as best I could about the image of the fallen donkey. But I will try to add something more here.
In writing poems, the truth is that sometimes images and sentences come without any explanation. If they feel right, they stay in the poem. I knew when I wrote the poem that the opening would be easier to understand in regular ways than its ending. But because the thought of that donkey carved over a church door stayed with me, I decided to let it pass through me to stay also with other people. Sometimes the poems I like best to read are poems that leave me a little uncertain that I understand them entirely... yet something about them stays with me. For me, that's one criteria of what a good poem is: a poem you think of again, long after you read it.
Poems try to use words to take us past what words can hold. They use words to hold what words can't hold, the way a fish cannot hold a fish, it can only be one.
Are donkeys worried about solitude, whether the solitude of vinegar or the solitude of oil? This donkey, I think, is mostly worried about standing up again. But it was carved in the moment it was fallen, a reminder of how hard life can be, a reminder of donkey stubbornness, a reminder, perhaps, of the donkey in the Bible that carried Mary to the stable, and then, having done its work, grew old, grew tired.
I don't know what was in the sculptor's mind when he decided to put that donkey onto the church's portico. I can't say what was in my own. Only that I liked how it felt to say those lines, so I took a risk and let the poem end with something I couldn't explain. Just the way a life will end not-explained. We aren't math problems, we're human beings, we don't come with solutions that can be marked right or wrong. Maybe that's another thing poems exist for: to hold the dilemmas that can't be answered correctly and checked off a list. When you write one and put it out in the world for other people to hear or see, you hope that it holds something that will travel with them, into this unanswerable, unfinishable world and our unanswerable, unfinishable lives.
With my deep thanks for your rich response to my words,