Poetry

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

“Let them not say” acknowledges a universal human fear that we will all be judged, and the poem’s message, neither strident nor harsh, is all the more effective for its compassion and restraint. For my part, “Let Them Not Say” addresses a very specific fear I had in the early days after the election: How could this happen? Could I have prevented it? What kind of world have I created for my children to inhabit? Once again, though, it strikes me that the fear the poem addresses is not limited to those disappointed in the 2016 election. Everyone felt uncertain in its aftermath. Republicans and Democrats alike knew it was momentous, a sea change, something that would greatly affect future generations, and no one was sure how. By acknowledging these fears and then addressing them in its quiet way, the poem offers great solace, whatever your political affiliation. It removes blame, but not responsibility. We did see what was happening, it says. We did hear about and took part in events (“we ate”) and suffered their consequences (“we trembled”). Some of us began to resist, the way some always have: “We spoke, / we witnessed with voice and hands.” What we did was “not-enough,” the speaker admits; we could and should have done more. But we did not do nothing. We were not utterly blind, deaf, and dumb to the fact that something momentous was happening.
For “they must say something,” the poem tells us.  The future always judges the past, and this truth speaks to events broader than those affecting this nation and this time. Whatever we do or do not do, those who come after will armchair-quarterback our every mistake. The answer to these criticisms is not a point-by-point defense of actions we did or did not take, but instead the single, potent image of “A kerosene beauty. It burned.” To me that fire evokes the resistance, long quiescent in this country, which awoke and took to the streets after last November. It evokes the Women’s March and the Science Day march and the millions of small acts, from knitting pink pussy hats to wearing safety pins on our lapels, taking place even as I write these words. But it strikes me that the poem is larger even than that expansive vision. It encompasses and forgives in advance both sides of the current controversy. We are human beings. We see, hear, feel, touch, taste, and experience the world through our bodies, a world that is limited by our time and place. It is what we believe in and hope for collectively that enables us to transcend individual existence, what illuminates us and gives succor in the form of light and warmth.
Another device contributing to the power of this poem is its call-and-response format, hearkening back not just to the Bible but also to pagan cultures—think of the role of the chorus in ancient Greek plays. Besides being written into our spiritual and collective DNA, the call-and-response format is by its very nature one that makes us complicit. Someone calls, we answer, and it is very hard to stand outside of that activity. In this poem, the “call” is “Let them not say” and the answer is everything done and said to countervail the assertion that we apprehended and did nothing. The structure creates a counterpoint that is inclusive, dramatic, and compelling, and a source of the tension that keeps the poem taut and alive. Another device reminiscent of scripture is the use of anaphora, the repetition of similar sounds (here, “Let them not say”) at the beginnings of lines. Orators have long used this device to capture their audience’s attention, and one need go no further than any of the speeches by JFK or Martin Luther King, Jr. to assess its power.
The result in “Let Them Not Say” is a poem that includes and speaks to everyone and, moreover, at any time. We envision our children as the “they” asking us how the world got into such a mess, but we can also envision ourselves as the “they” asking how our parents could have supported a government that allowed Hitler to come to power or invented the atom bomb, just as we can imagine them asking their own ancestors how they allowed World War I, or Manifest Destiny, or slavery to happen. With perhaps a little more imagination, I can even conceive of being part of a different “we,” those true believers who yet believe their vote for the current president will be vindicated by history. Regardless, the poem’s “we” includes every person now alive regardless of political orientation, and it treats us all with dignity (by acknowledging our agency and responsibility) and compassion (by forgiving us for our shortcomings).
To get an idea of the generative power of a poem like this, try using its title as a prompt. Write down the words “let them not say” and then list all the things that occur to you. You may find yourself writing down the things that matter the most to you, that transcend everyday petty concerns. This is the poem’s magic power—it makes us think beyond our individual selves and specific time and circumstances, and makes us imagine something more collective and eternal. It lets us assess where we are and brainstorm ways to improve the situation. It lets us be better than we are, and in the words of essayist Ann Pancake, encourages us to “dream forward.”
Maybe an even better exercise is to offer the phrase as a prompt in a circle of people, perhaps at a reading or in church or around the dinner table. What do you hope future generations will not say about yours? The class I visited in San Rafael recently consisted of about twenty students, mostly [email protected] and likely undocumented, kids who keep “go-bags” packed at all times in case ICE knocks on their door in the night and who go to school each morning worried that their parents will not be there when they return. They left oppressive political regimes for a country they trusted would offer refuge, and many risked their lives to get here. I looked around at those faces, young and guarded and hopeful. If ever a kerosene beauty burned, it burned there]]>

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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