Dear Ms. Jane Hirshfield,
My name is Guadalupe and I am a current senior in San Antonio, TX. Through my creative writing class, I was able to read your poem, "It Was Like This: You Were Happy." We were able to listen and read various other poems, but yours strongly connected to me. As I first read the title of your poem, I expected the overall mood and tone to be jubilant and lighthearted. Although at some moments in your poem, I received that sense of happiness, it also made me realize the deeper meaning of emotion. It allowed me to acknowledge the spectrum of emotions, ranging from happiness to sadness.
The particular lines that resonated with me were, "At times you spoke, at other times you were silent. / Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?" The tone and simplicity of these two lines were the most relatable to me throughout the poem. Throughout my whole life, I was always the quiet student who didn't say much and kept to herself. I love how you incorporated a question into the line. It made me think about all those times I wanted to include myself in a situation, but never had the courage to do so. The rest of your poem also gave me a chance to reminisce on these types of experiences, both good and bad. However, these lines really struck me because I was so afraid to express my opinions and views to others. The fear of being wrong and talked down to was always at the back of my mind whenever I tried to convey my thoughts.
However, that was when I was younger and experiencing fast changes in my life. As I continued to read your poem, these lines, "It doesn't matter what they will make of your days: they will be wrong," exemplified my overcoming of these fears through experience and time. These words allowed me to realize how far I have personally progressed mentally and academically. No matter what bad things others think about me or what they say, I know they will always be wrong. I know me, and I know my values and morals. Your poem has inspired me to fully acknowledge how much potential I had and continue to have. It has allowed me to recall all the ups and downs of my life and how they have shaped me today.
I am extremely glad to have come across your meaningful and beautiful poem and I thank you for taking time to read my thoughts.
San Antonio, TX
Thank you for your letter, for its words that show me how deeply “It Was Like This: You Were Happy” found a home in your thoughts and your heart. This is what I hope for any of my poems, when they're read by another person. That they will resonate, be meaningful, and help articulate what might already be felt but not yet named. That they may feel useful, encouraging, good companions; a friend whose late-night words might feel needed, might say, “Yes, I have felt what you are feeling, and here's how I went forward from there.”
I especially appreciate your saying that the poem helped you acknowledge the full spectrum of the emotions. That's something that another poem once, long ago, gave me—the recognition that if I wanted to feel happiness, joy, the thrills of new love, the sense of connection with the large that comes with great beauty, I had also to be willing to let in the darker emotion: despair, fear, uncertainty... That if we want to feel anything, we need to keep the heart and mind open to the full range of any human life. That poem's words, a thousand years old, changed my life, by changing my understanding of what can feel hard to bear. It was written by a Japanese woman poet, who wrote during the only Golden Age of literature in the world's history created by women writers as much—or more—as men. Here it is:
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
—Izumi Shikibu (ca 1000 CE, translation by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani)
If the house of your life is walled off against wind and storms and cold, it will also be walled off against beauty, against the kinds of light that become visible only in darkness.
One of poetry's amazing powers is that in poetry words new ways of feeling can pass from one person to another, between you and me, alive at the same time, and also over a thousand years and across languages and cultures. And that a poem can show us that even our painful silences, which you write about so eloquently in your letter, and also our good silences—the ones that hold mystery—can be filled with moonlight in one moment, wind in another, and later, perhaps, with some words that could emerge from a person who is not always speaking.
The last part of your letter also moves me greatly. We will always be misunderstood sometimes, at times even by the people who love us most. It's up to us to weigh our own hearts and intentions, and to sometimes choose to do things that we know will be misunderstood, if we feel them deeply right. I think it's important to question oneself, to always double check that we aren't fooling ourselves, and making excuses for doing what's easy or self-serving. But if a person looks at her words and acts with genuine integrity and some self-skepticism, and truly weighs them, she will have an interior compass that will be a trustworthy guide all her life. In the end, as my poem says, we lead our own lives. They will bring us different choices and flavors, they will bring us happiness and sorrow, gains and losses. But what you do with each of your moments is the full truth of your life. Not the ideas anyone (even we ourselves) have about who we are or what we did, but the actual, complicated, unsummarizable life.
May yours be as full of heart and thought as this letter is.