Dear Jane Hirshfield,

My name is Sapphire, and I am writing to you because your poem “Vinegar and Oil” really spoke to me. “Vinegar and Oil” made me feel like other people experience life the same way I do: drifting between the good moments, craving both time with others and by myself, never sure of what is to come.

In the beginning of your poem, you talk about how solitude affects the soul. Many people would think that solitude is banal or boring, but I like how you personify solitude, as if it were alive. Sometimes solitude can be good, like “oil” for the soul, but other times it can be as sour as vinegar. This paradox is very present in my life; as one of four children, I know the value of time spent alone, but at times, being alone can be very disheartening. I sometimes feel very lonely when I am alone, while other times I am perfectly content by myself. I guess this is the difference between the “good solitude” and “bad solitude” that you talk about. The scariest part—it may sound bizarre—is even when I’m around others, I sometimes feel completely alone. I guess that’s the worst solitude of them all.

In the second stanza, you talk about how we are “fragile” between the “good moments.” My good moments—laughing with friends or performing on stage, my brother getting into college or my sister getting braces—are plentiful and wonderful, but I completely understand how we can be fragile in between them. Many times, I feel like I never know what will happen next in my life, and I don't have any control over my future. I'm so “puzzled by fate” that I can't even make up my mind about what I want for lunch. While many people may think that what you eat is a trivial detail, in my mind, some of the smallest details are the most important ones.

In the end of the poem, you talk about how you feel “unfinished,” like a “half-carved… fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland.” I lingered on this detail the most because I didn't understand what you meant when you said you feel unfinished. However, the more I thought, the more I read, the more I waited, I slowly understood. Someone can feel unfinished when they don't know what they want or need, or when they don't know their goals. In this way, I also feel unfinished: I don't know what I want to study, where I want to go to college, or what job I want when I'm older. When everyone else around me has all of their dreams and plans figured out, I feel like I'm not complete.

Finally, I want to ask you what inspired the paradox of vinegar and oil? What does the half-carved donkey symbolize? What in your life makes you feel “unfinished”?

“Vinegar and Oil” spoke to me because it made me realize that while sometimes we may feel lonely, we are not alone. Going through life and trying to make decisions and reach your goals can be challenging, especially when you don’t have any idea of what those goals are in the first place. Through your poem, I learned that other people feel the same way I do. I want to thank you for writing this poem, and for making me feel less alone.

Best regards,

Grade 10
Houston, Texas

Dear Sapphire,

Your letter is so perceptive and clear and interesting, that I'm answering it pretty much only so that the other students and people who read these letters online can read it for themselves. I've already answered most of your questions, as best I could, in the two other letters I've written replies for, letters that were also very good and interesting. You can see them online. But I'm writing these few sentences in response to your letter just so that other people will be able also to read yours.

Perhaps the one thing I haven't talked about in my other answers enough is the reason I was drawn to the image of being unfinished.`I'm going to reply to that here with another poet's words, a poem by the Polish poet Julia Hartwig, from a book titled In Praise of the Unfinished.

                    Feeling the Way

The most beautiful is what is still unfinished
a sky filled with stars uncharted by astronomers
a sketch by Leonardo a song broken off from emotion
a pencil a brush suspended in the air

                    Julia Hartwig

                        (translated by  John and Bogdana Carpenter)

Re-reading that poem, I can say more clearly—because the poem made it clearer to me—that I want to be unfinished because that is where all the possibility still resides. Anything can still happen, can still be discovered, before something is finished.

Thank you for letting me see so much of who you are—I, just like you, feel less alone, reading such amazing responses to my poem. As I said in one of my other replies, to Audrey, where I quoted a poem by the Japanese poet Basho, we see others, we are seen by others, and that is part of what knits us into this world, so that even when we are alone, we feel less lonely.

All warm friendship,


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