Dear Ms. Jane Hirshfield,
I read your poem “Vinegar and Oil” in my English class. Despite its length, it speaks very deeply to me; it is honest in its brevity. Have you experienced similar feelings?
“Wrong solitude vinegars the soul, / right solitude oils it.” I interpret wrong solitude to mean loneliness while right solitude signifies privacy. This is true, but I’ve learned how much farther it goes.
When combined into a single mixture, vinegar and oil stay separate. Vinegar is acidic, sour, and sinks. Oil saturates, heals, and floats. It makes sense for loneliness to turn the soul sour and heavy, the same as time spent in the company of oneself to heal the soul.
As someone who’s suffered from depression, the line “How fragile we are” resonates with me. Oftentimes we as humans are only a step away from a ledge, and when we hit the bottom we shatter like fine china. “The few good moments” are our saving graces that we strive to reach like checkpoints.
We’re “unfinished.” We’re “half-carved.” Who cares about a donkey in a church in Finland? In fate’s eyes, in the world’s eyes, we are insignificant when we are alone. Because when you are alone, you feel you have no purpose.
Thank you for being a part of this project and sharing your work. I enjoyed reading and studying this poem, and I look forward to possibly hearing back from you.
New Palestine, Indiana
Thank you for your close reading and appreciation for my words, and for telling me about your own life in your letter, also.
First, let me say that your finding my poem “honest in its brevity” makes me glad. I've always been drawn to very short poems that do large work— chili pepper poems, firework poems, I sometimes think of them. The reading of a good short poem may pass quickly, but its after-effect is strong and lasting, the way even one seed of very hot chili can burn in the mouth for a long time after it's been eaten. If short poems were longer, they wouldn't be better. Every poem has its own right length, and is its own recipe for raising and answering its own question, its own dilemma, its own state of being and feeling. Poems exist to hold truths impossible to discover or say in any other words.
This poem does come from experience. Every poem I write does. Poems, for me, are the inner and outer voice of the heart and mind. A poem that doesn't use the pronoun “I” still comes from the person who made it. What interests a writer is shaped by who we are, and I don't know any reason to write poetry, other than having something I need to feel and think my way through. I need some answer unfindable in any other way to a question that can't be posed in any other form. Poems are specialized tools of the imagination and emotions, like the specialized tools certain auto mechanics use to reach into parts of an engine inaccessible without them.
You've understood perfectly that the “right solitude” and the “wrong solitude” that “Vinegar & Oil” speaks of are the difference between the experience of a person who finds solitary time a treasure and the experience of a person who finds herself or himself forced into unchosen loneliness, or who finds being alone frightening or uncomfortable. I am a person who happens to love solitude. The world grows larger, more visible and audible for me when I'm on my own. I can hear and see each moment fully, undistracted. I also of course love time with other people. And while I don't tend to feel lonely when by myself, everyone knows loneliness, sometimes. If you feel your connection with others, you feel it when they are absent.
Vinegar and oil are interesting. Yes, they are separate, but if you put them into a bottle and shake them, they emulsify, and become one thing, at least for a while. Our wanted experiences and our painful experiences are like that, I think. If we can feel them as part of a single, emulsified life, each becomes something more interesting, more desired. A salad dressing of only oil is boring. A salad dressing of only vinegar stings the tongue.
“How fragile we are, between the few good moments” is probably the line of my poetry that's been most often quoted. I was simply saying my own experience, in that line. In a moment, a person can go from feeling the world is kind, welcoming, thrilling, filled with mystery and treasure, to feeling vulnerable, sad, anxious, depressed, inadequate. One unkind word or look can do this. We humans are so susceptible to the changing elements of the social world, the political world, even the physical world. A few degrees extra, we're hot; a few degrees less, we're cold. One moment we're fine, the next moment we're tired or hungry or in despair. The amazement is how often we can be happy, can feel we are doing the work we are meant to do in this life, with the people we want to be with. I love your description of the good moments as “checkpoints.”
And a life will always, I think, feel to us unfinished—because it is, until the final breath, and perhaps even beyond that.
I am, I think, a little unusual in liking to feel insignificant, not so important. To be only one small decibel in the great chorus of beings is to recognize how much we are part of all existence. None of us is the whole orchestra. Yet what happiness, to be part of that music.
My thanks to you for your deep response to my words.