Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Let Them Not Say,” by Jane Hirshfield

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
This poem was published, as it happens on the day of the inauguration of our current president, and almost instantly went viral. I heard about it on social media and also the old-fashioned way, by word-of-mouth. Everyone here in the Bay Area was talking about “Jane’s new poem,” and people began reading it at open mikes, board meetings, PTA meetings, and to each other over the telephone. Riding the ferry home after the Science March in San Francisco in April, I overheard someone saying she’d not planned to attend but that hearing Hirshfield read “Let Them Not Say” on the radio spurred her to get up off the couch and go to the March. I heard it read and read it myself at more than one of the many readings I attended during April, National Poetry Month. In a classroom of immigrant schoolchildren I visited recently, “Let Them Not Say” was at the head of a list of prompts, and that class ended by going around the circle and having each student complete the sentence.
This is what poets dream of, or at least I do: the chance to write a poem that actually makes a positive difference in the world. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden famously said, and equally famous is William Carlos Williams’ rejoinder, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” For years people have complained that poetry is at best frivolous and at worst a sop or sedative for the masses. Some find it an offensive response to human tragedy. “No poetry after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno said, and for a time, many believed that was true. But poetry can be a great consolation in times of turmoil and unrest, and the best of it can be something more: a way to change people’s hearts and minds and a rallying cry to action.
I’ve written before about political poetry and what distinguishes strong examples from mere rants or complaints. Some political poems bash us over the head with their message, telling us what to think or not think and alienating us with their too-strong invective or self-righteous lack of awareness and responsibility. The best political poems sneak up with their message, presenting their cases in a way that at least seems objective and then allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Eavan Boland’s “Quarantine,” for example, does not mention the hundreds of thousands of Irish people who starved from famine, nor does it rail against the English rule that caused the shortage of food. Instead, it presents two human beings, a man and a woman, in the small human drama of their last hours together. We who sit and read this poem in the comfort of our homes are part of the world that is not starving or freezing and thus in some sense complicit in the guilt of the oppressor. We come to this conclusion on our own and perhaps not until hours after we have read the poem, but we do come to it, and it is with a greater sense of empathy and responsibility for the effects our actions—or failures to act—in the larger world.
“Let Them Not Say” is one of the strongest political poems I’ve ever read, and I want to spend a few moments trying to figure out what makes it so effective. Maybe the first thing I notice is that the poem is not tied to specific, immediate political events. It could have been written, and read, with equal impact at many other crossroads in our nation’s history: our entry into World War II, our decision to use nuclear weapons in Japan, the day our current president began to dismantle the EPA. In fact, the poem could apply to almost any country at any important political juncture in the history of the democratic world. Totalitarianism rarely happens all at once; it creeps like a dark virus through the political body until its symptoms overwhelm, and it is then that we begin to wake up and understand that we must take steps to survive. “Let Them Not Say” is strong in its restraint; by not mentioning the 2016 election and its aftermath, the poem acquires universality and will, I believe, be read with equal impact as long as there are people to read anything written.
Universality makes a political poem stronger. The goal is to speak to many people at once, and to speak to them through the ages. One way to achieve this quality, mentioned above, is to avoid language that pins the poem to a specific place and time. A poem that inveighs against a Betamax will have no meaning in two hundred years when people will have forgotten what a Betamax was, but a poem that addresses the issues of technology more generally may still have resonance. Poems that are too general, though, can lack focus and impact. “Let Them Not Say” is not limited by specific dates, names, or events, but its language is very precise and is, moreover, tied directly to human experience, body, and emotion. Notice how many senses are invoked: sight (“we saw”), hearing (“we heard”), taste (“we ate”), and feeling (“we trembled” and “we warmed ourselves”). Appeals to the senses are a powerful way to engage readers, particularly when, as here, they are communicated in the first-person plural point of view. Punctuation and grammar are regular, and diction is simple. This is straightforward utterance that invites readers into its message, and the kind of quiet statement that makes louder speech seem hysterical and ineffective by comparison.
That first-person plural point of view—we, us, etc.—is perhaps the most powerful device contributing to the universality of the poem. The “we” voice has been called the “collective we” or the “community voice,” and it feels large and inclusive in this way in today’s poem. By using it, the speaker is not holding herself above or apart from us, the readers, but instead gathers us into her point of view, and we are complicit, that is, we become vested in and responsible for it. Whether or not we share the chagrin and distress felt by the speaker in “Let Them Not Say,” we are all undeniably part of a generation that will be judged by future generations. We all have skin in this game. That is a powerful message, regardless of which side of the current political controversy you now occupy.
There is also a “they” or “them” in today’s poem—those in the future who will look back upon us—and the we/they dichotomy is a powerful engine driving the poem. It does not matter whether you count yourself among the “we” who think the election was a disaster or the “we” who think it was a necessary but positive step; both are a subset of the greater “we” who will be judged by the future. Dividing the world this way, into the “we” who are living now and the “they” who will look back on us, is powerful, for it is a way of unifying groups of people now living in great conflict. It is a great leveler, this question of how history will judge us. Hirshfield does something in this poem no president or congress has been able to do in this country for many decades: find common ground.

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  • Jan Hersh June 13, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    I am so glad I didn’t miss this and am sharing it with my friends on Facebook.

    Reply
  • Jan Hersh June 13, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    I am so glad I didn’t miss this and am sharing it with my friends on Facebook.

    Reply
  • Woody Winfree June 5, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    New to your offerings. Thank you for your work.

    Reply
    • janis fleming June 11, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      Absolutely love the quiet, powerful language and feeling of this poem. Thank you.

      Reply
  • Woody Winfree June 5, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    New to your offerings. Thank you for your work.

    Reply
    • janis fleming June 11, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      Absolutely love the quiet, powerful language and feeling of this poem. Thank you.

      Reply
  • Jennifer Dorner June 5, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Hi Rebecca,
    Thank you for this insightful article and story of the impact of this poem. I appreciate your comments about universality and Hirshfield’s timelessness. Could the reference to Ann Pancake’s essay be more specific? I would love to look that up. Thank you! — Jennifer

    Reply
  • Jennifer Dorner June 5, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Hi Rebecca,
    Thank you for this insightful article and story of the impact of this poem. I appreciate your comments about universality and Hirshfield’s timelessness. Could the reference to Ann Pancake’s essay be more specific? I would love to look that up. Thank you! — Jennifer

    Reply