Dear Ms. Hirshfield,
Hi, my name is Janet and I am a seventh grader. I love to read and yet I confess that I do not read a lot of poetry, which I should because poetry is a lot harder to understand than a normal average book. For example, the poem you wrote, “It Was Like This: You Were Happy” is a poem with lots of meanings just trying to describe death. I love the way you describe how death feels, not like the physical feeling but the emotional feeling of death. I also love the way you show that in death you regret because other people would say that death is peaceful or evil, but not that death is about a person regretting. This poem is strong and filled with emotion of sadness yet it is understandable to see that death is a person looking at their timeline of life. While they look at their timeline of life they discover that they did not do a lot to change the way people live, they did not leave a mark on this world and they did not do something amazing to be remembered. One thing about this poem that stood out to me was the part where you describe that after someone dies, that person will be remembered yet not likely so. When you die and people tell stories about your life, it is in their own perspective because they do not know what went on in your head so they will miss you, but not the real you. I just really love the way you communicate that you should not take your life for granted because when death comes for you, you will just be filled with regret. I also want to ask you questions. What came to your mind as you were writing this poem? What inspires you to write poetry? Do you think about what you are going to write about or do you just simply write? Do your poems come from your heart or your mind? When do you write poems? Have you ever had a moment where you came up with a poem and couldn’t wait to write about it? I know that these are a lot of questions but I cannot stop because I am interested in how you are able to send a message through such deep meanings and make someone think about their life. I hope you can write back to me because I really am excited to learn if I got the meanings of this poem correct. I also want to learn how poets like you come up with poems with one message but send many more through their deep and meaningful words. Thank you for taking your time to read this letter because I know that you can be busy, but you took some of your free time to read this letter.
Thank you for reading and receiving so deeply the words of “It Was Like This: You Were Happy.” Especially when you say you don't read much poetry, I'm made happy to know how strongly my poem has entered your life.
It's true, sometimes poems seem less straightforward than factual prose, or fiction. Some poems are hard to understand for anyone, and some poems don't really want to be 'understood' in any normal way. (Think of Lewis Carroll's “Jabberwocky,” which doesn't make sense and yet is so full of mouth-joy you can't help but laugh, reading or saying it.) But when you read a poem like this one, try to imagine it as the inner voice you hear when you are thinking quietly, just before falling sleep, or perhaps as a friend's inner thoughts, shared in the dark, the kind that let you navigate the parts of a life that are not simple to name but are—because they are not simple— what is most real to us.
That in some way is what my poem is about, as I can tell you already have seen: the unrecognized, simple moments. Art is often a way for us to notice the things we tend not to pay attention to—the sheen of light on a table, the speckled skin of a pear. But when we are reminded to notice, they are not only the things that occupy our lives most of the time, they are the real sustenance for everything else. How much richer a life is when the small-bodied moments are felt and seen and tasted, not just rushed through in between the large things. That is, as you call it, “the real you,” the real life: all those unnameable moments.
You've understood the poem just right.
For your other questions, they are the kind of questions that can take a lifetime to answer, which is the best kind of question. Writing each individual poem is a new experience for me, they are not all the same, so it's hard to give single answers.
Let me try, though, to say something to at least a few of your questions. “When do you write poems?” When I was your age and living with my family, I most often wrote late at night, because that was when I could be alone to think and feel my own thoughts without being interrupted. Later on, I wrote when poems came to me—which was usually when I had that same kind of uninterrupted time. Not everyone is like me. Some people write on busses, in coffee shops. Some people write in their heads as they're walking to work, and then stop and put the words in a notebook. Any way a person writes is a good way to write. Now, I write most often very early in the morning, when the day hasn't yet started, sometimes before it's light. That is the quiet time now, for me. But also, I write when something happens that I need to write a poem to take fully in. Poems are my way of understanding things I can't quite enter fully without them. And yes, sometimes that means a poem comes and batters down my door, no matter what else I might think I'm doing just then.
“Do poems come from your heart or your mind?” Always both, and also from my ear and my tongue and my feet and hands and hips. Someone once called poetry “thinking with your whole body.” That is the job of poems—to think with the whole body and the whole life. The music, the sound of the words, is as important as their meaning. The subtle rhythms of even poems that don't use rhyme and meter are the music of feeling, of tone, of emotion. The commas and periods and spaces of a poem are the sounds of the feelings and the sounds of meaning, not only what's needed for grammar. A poem always thinks with its music, not only ideas, and all feelings have sounds—just as all planets do... I've heard NASA recordings of the planets. Saturn is ethereal, Jupiter growls.
“What inspires you to write poetry?” That is the question a poet can't ever know the full answer to, because inspiration is always new, always different, with every poem. I will see something, or hear something, or something will happen, and I cannot quite enter the experience except through the doorway of poetry. Often I write because I'm faced with something large and insoluble—a death, a bewilderment about why we humans treat one another as we do. But sometimes I write because I pass a little hole in the ground, made by some creature, and it makes me start thinking about all the lives that are always going on around us that we don't know about—and the lives that go on inside us that we also don't always know. Sometimes I simply get curious to think about something—what is the word “and” really about? What do I think about the idea and experience of “judgment”? What would thinking about “cellophane” make me think about also—Transparency? What it's made of? How it was invented? These are all things I've written poems about, along with the “big” subjects we think poetry is “for.” Poetry, I think, is “for” navigating those large and unnavigable moments, but it is also for thinking and feeling in the ways that only poems can think and feel. You can start almost anywhere and end up by surprising yourself with what you discover. It may be that the specialized ways of using language in poems exist to create an instrument whose playing will lead to discovery.
You say that you don't read poems often, but your questions are the questions of a person who thinks and feels deeply and is thrilled by thinking and feeling deeply. I suspect you may be a writer, even if not of poetry. But I suspect that you may find yourself writing your own poems, at least sometimes, also. Thank you for your letter, and for thinking about what poems can do.
All warm wishes,