Dear Chancellor Jane Hirshfield,
My name is Logan and I am a high school senior in Davenport, IA. I recently read your poem “It Was Like This: You Were Happy,” and I was completely awestruck. “It Was Like This: You Were Happy,” and the simplicity within it attracted me because it differs vastly from the works of most other poets I have read. Being able to interpret this poem easily gave me a much greater appreciation for the content. To me, “It Was Like: You Were Happy,” portrays a speaker at a funeral, acknowledging the life of a loved one. A few months ago, I nearly lost my parents in a head-on collision with a semi-truck trailer, so the image of a funeral while reading this poem came quickly to my imagination. Many people exaggerate stories of those they knew after death to comfort themselves. In contrast to this, your poem epitomizes how simple life truly is.
I relish the paradoxical nature of your poem. Reading through the poem for the very first time, the lines that struck me were, “you were happy, then you were sad, then happy again, then not,” and “You were innocent or you were guilty. Actions were taken, or not.” These phrases and their dissimilarities, to me, represent the constant emotional roller coaster that we endure throughout our lives, as well as, illustrating just how black and white our decisions are in life; we are either innocent or guilty, we take actions or we do not.
The subtle repetition of the word ‘silent’ within the lines “At times you spoke, at other times you were silent. Mostly, it seems you were silent — what could you say?” also spoke to me because in some cases there is nothing to say, but remaining quiet instead can be even more beneficial. I find this especially true, because if you pause from constantly speaking, you have time to reflect on what is truly important. Your use of personification in “Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life” is extraordinarily inventive, and I imagine a loved one kissing another in thanks for the life they have shared together. I picture the man or woman in the poem having no regrets either, due to the line “between you, there is nothing to forgive—.”
I see God in your poem as well, granting the end of one’s life as the baker as “he sees the bread is finished with transformation.” I believe that the person in this poem and the bread have a likeness to each other because said person is reaching the end of their life, just as bread finishes rising. There is almost a resentful demeanor towards those who will tell stories of the man or woman in your poem in the denouement of the poem. I suppose this is so because the narrator wants for the true story of the person’s life to be told, rather than falsified tales. The distinctive bitter nature of the conclusion compared to the sweet, loving stance of the remainder of the poem leads me to presume that the narrator cared for the person spoken of very much, and they wish for them to be remembered in the manner that they deserve.
After reading “It Was Like This: You Were Happy” multiple times, I have a few questions as well. Was it your intention to associate the baker with God, and the bread with the person described in the poem? In your line “Eating, too, is a thing now only for others,” were you portraying that the person had passed on? Also, if you do not mind me asking, did you write this poem as a remembrance of one of your loved ones? Did you intend for the closing of the poem to have an almost angry tone?
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter, and even if you do not select it for “Dear Poet,” I would greatly appreciate hearing back from you.
First, I need to say something about your parents, the accident and that they survived. I can only guess how difficult the months after that accident must have been. The joy of survival, of life, must balance the hard parts in the largest way, but the hard parts, the initial shock and the aftermath times, these are very real. I'm glad my poem has given you one small way to continue feeling and thinking your way through that experience.
Your comment about the poem's outward simplicity makes me happy. I've thought a great deal over the years about simplicity and complexity in poems. Sometimes a complex surface holds a simple thought, sometimes a simple-language surface holds complex undercurrents and ideas. This poem is of that second kind. The great Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1980, opened one of his most well-known poems, “Dedication,” written just after the end of World War II, with this stanza:
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.
The most serious things in a life do often require us to be simple, direct. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” was Emily Dickinson's way of saying the same thing—and saying it simply, directly. We name what can be named, and beneath it, there is that constant emotional roller coaster you name in your letter, hurtling us forward. You feel the press of that velocity sometimes most strongly in the most straightforward statements. There is no time, no space, to be ornamental. Experience is faced eye to eye.
I was also glad, reading your response to my poem, that you understand so well my feeling about silence. That there are necessary silences, and that to honor them is right and good. As a poet, a person of words, I sometimes notice how frequently I praise of silence. I've done this in many poems, and in my books of prose also. But I have always felt that for new thought, new phrases, new understandings to arrive, we need first to give them an open field to take root in. Old ideas, old words, preclude new ones. Even in an old-growth forest, some trees need to fall to make way for new succession-- grass, then brush, then young trees that can only come up when there's light that can reach them. Silence for me is that opening to the sun.
Your understanding of the lines “They will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man, / all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention” is startlingly close to another poem I wrote a few years before this one, “The Silence.” What I wrote about in that poem, you seem to hear so accurately in the far fewer lines of this one. Here are some lines from “The Silence,” from its middle section:
I am remembering a funeral,
friend after friend rising to speak
of the lost one.
I did not know him well,
yet still, by one thing he had told me,
wore fully our closeness.
Or perhaps it was even simpler--
to whom else could he say the truth?
I wondered, even then,
how many others attending knew also one thing.
Each secret separate, different,
leading its life now without him:
carrying laundry, washing the windows, straightening up.
As they do, perhaps, I would like to sit down now and rest.
I would like to ponder the flavor
of how much I know of others, how much I do not;
of what of me is known and what is not.
We do keep thinking about the same things over a lifetime, because life keeps presenting us with the same crises and crossings and truths.
To answer your specific questions—while I didn't pin the baker down as God in the specific sense, to call the baker that is faithful enough to how I wanted the poem understood.
“Eating now is a thing now only for others”—for many people, in illness, there's a time at the end of when they no longer eat. That's what I was thinking of—the end of life, but not yet death.
For the poem's personal, autobiographic source, if you look very carefully, the grammar is deliberately ambiguous. “You” is a word that in English can carry many meanings. It can sometimes mean “me.” It can mean “anyone.” It can mean one specific other person. It can mean more than one specific other person. It can mean you, the reader. In this poem, the “you” shifts. I wanted to leave it ambiguous. But this poem comes at the end of a book titled After, and the “after” I had in mind was a time of many losses, both public and private. The big losses of September 11th and the Christmas Tsunami in Indonesia. The private losses of my father, my sister, beloved friends, beloved elder poets. I began writing about one loss, but the poem grew to encompass them all. That's why it says, “They will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man.” The poem is about one death and about many deaths and about each death, any death.
For the last line—if by “the closing” you mean the final statement, “Sometimes you ate chestnuts, sometimes persimmons”—I think the poem leaves it up to the reader to put whatever emotion into receiving that he or she feels. You can feel many different things, contemplating that thought. Persimmons are interesting—if they aren't fully ripe, they are inedibly bitter. If they are ripe, they are (to me, anyhow) the epitome of sweetness. Neither chestnuts nor persimmons are everyday foods for most of us, and each is very seasonal. They have their time and are gone until the next year comes. Or does not, for the person who has died. But even after saying that I know many interpretations are possible, and to hear bitterness in it is possible, I will answer your question by saying that, no, for me that sentence is not said or felt in anger. For me, it's a statement of acceptance. Life will bring us its offerings, we will eat them. We will be happy or sad many times, never able to rest for long in only one or the other. We will eat things that need to be cooked and things eaten straight from the tree, things that are satisfying in very different ways. All are needed, to sustain us. And of these different sustenances, our untellable stories are made.
All gratitude for your deep reception of my poem's words,