Dear Ms. Hirshfield,
My name is Evelyn. I’m a Creative Writing student in High School, and I read your poem, “Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight.” It reminded me of the feeling I sometimes get when I walk home by myself, which I don’t get to do very often, and how much more I appreciate everything around me when I’m by myself. Instead of talking to someone and focusing on the conversation topic, I’m allowed to look around while I walk and notice things like puddles of water on the sidewalk and the one yard on the street that had the autumn leaves raked off of it, and I’ve never known any way to explain this to other people because these images and smells and sounds around my neighborhood are so normal and ordinary that I don’t think anyone would understand what I thought was so nice and special.
The stanza in which you said, “There is more and more I tell no one, strangers nor loves” was an exact description of how I feel.
I think your poem captures the idea that sometimes we feel more connected to something unhuman—like the enigma of a forest—than we do to close friends or loved ones, or just other people. However, the line, “I wish I had thought to put my face to the grass” is still a bit unclear to me. Is it a meant to be a literal wish—the speaker wishes they had been more careful and quiet so the foxes wouldn’t have gone? Or is this wish a metaphor for giving in to this connection to the abstract feeling of wonder and understanding, instead of continuing to walk with the other person?
I love the metaphors you use—describing one fox as a “rusty shadow” gave me the image of an older fox, which didn’t want to run and play anymore, and in your poem, “Left-Handed Sugar,” calling the tongue “left-handed” as opposed to “different” or “special” really stuck in my head. The language you use is beautiful, and I enjoy thinking about the different interpretations one can make, but when I write my own poems, I wonder just how much I’m supposed to leave for the reader to figure out. I don’t want to explain everything I intend to convey in my poetry, but I also don’t want readers to be completely lost and decide that it doesn’t make sense, either. Is there any way that you can tell when to stop elaborating or explaining within your poetry?
I’d be grateful for any answers you may have. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Thank you for your letter, which tells me so much about you, as well as about your response to my poem. Noticing the extraordinary within what seems normal and ordinary is for me also something that happens most often when I can give things my whole attention. It’s hard to focus on more than one thing at a time, and if I’m with another person, that is where the fullness goes. One reason I could see those three foxes was because, in the actual conversation the poem describes, we did sometimes walk in silence, just looking...
You are right that I want to be able to feel a connection with what lives outside our human-centered concerns. That’s the poem’s main point, how the gaze of the wild, the knowledge of the wild, recalibrates my own lives and its meaning. What a small part of this planet we humans are—and how much the rest of the biosphere now depends on our respect for its own importance, if any of us—people, trees, birds, fish, insects—are going to continue to share this world at all. Environmental, ecological awareness is no small part of this poem, along with an awareness of the simple, thrilling intimacy of existence.
Things don’t always reveal themselves to us fully—as you describe the leaves and puddles do—but if we look with eyes open to what is there, how often they do. You’ve named exactly the way that these moments can feel among the most profound and moving ones—but trying to convey them third-hand is almost impossible. It feels almost rude to this kind of experience, to try to do something with it, when the whole quality of those moments is their revelation of what can reveal itself to us when we’re simply being, not doing. An odd paradox is that conveying the existence of such moments is something that making art, music, and poems can sometimes do. Art exists in part to restore our sense of the extraordinary, and poems can, through words, reawaken that feeling in all its wordless knowledge. The kinds of speaking you’ve noticed, “rusty shadow” and “left-handed,” help break us out of the usual linked-train of thought, and let us see, and feel, in a different way. Then the world can pour in.
The line you are confused by is one I knew people might not be able to figure out. The literal thought behind it is this: I wished I could have put my face to the grass where the foxes had been so I could have smelled the fox-scent that must have been left there.
That leads right to you last questions. Did I make a mistake by not making my line clearer? Maybe I did, if it stops people from reading the poem and feeling moved by it. But clearly you did feel and understand the poem as a whole, and maybe having something a little mysterious and inexplicable, a little recalcitrant to paraphrase, might be all right. Foxes for me have always felt mysterious and inexplicable. Maybe that line is the poem’s own elusive fox?
I can wonder now if it would have made any difference if I’d written instead, “I wish I’d thought to put my face to the grass where they’d been.” That might have helped people figure it out.. But I didn’t know the line would be so hard to understand until after the poem was published... and maybe it’s all right, even striking, for people to be startled into unknowing for a moment.
It can be hard to know where the boundary falls between being obvious and being baffling. But everything interesting in art lives between those two places. I want people to have the sense that something has happened, when they read my poems. I want them to have an experience, even if they can’t necessarily spell it out. The way, for instance, a Jackson Pollock painting gives me a genuine experience of the world’s own existence, its complexity and multiplicity and speed. Pollock’s paintings bewildered me for a long time, until one day, standing in front of one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, it became three-dimensional. The painting didn’t change, my eyes did.
As a writer, you can ask your readers to change their eyes for your poems... but if you’re going to do that, you have to give them enough reason to want to keep looking until that happens. Does that make sense to you? You also have the right to write for only yourself. Emily Dickinson did, and it took many years before her work became hearable, legible, to others. But her poems didn’t get lost, because enough was in them that somehow we, her readers, understood that we needed to change our eyes and ears. And then we could walk right into them, as she had.
with all warm wishes,