In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "It Was Like This: You Were Happy" by Jane Hirshfield.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 4: “It Was Like This: You Were Happy” by Jane Hirshfield
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “It Was Like This: You Were Happy” by Jane Hirshfield. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim, a podcast where we explore the fullness of things through poetry.

Today I'll be reading the poem "It Was Like This: You Were Happy" by Jane Hirshfield. This one is from her beautiful collection entitled After, published in 2006.

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"It Was Like This: You Were Happy" by Jane Hirshfield

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness—
between you, there is nothing to forgive—
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is a thing now only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

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So the first thing I thought about after reading this poem was what John Keats once said in a letter to his friend: "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination."  I feel like this poem is a gesture to "the holiness of the heart's affections" and it makes these affections felt so matter-of-factly and clearly with its statements.

I think the poem suggests the non-existence or, better yet, the vast incompleteness of what we take to be our ordinary selves. All the facts about you as Jerry the Engineer or Sally the Working Mom do not matter when the dust settles, when the sums of a life are made. What most matters are the affections of the soul by which you moved through life, and the affections you perhaps have stirred in others.

So when all is said and done, you felt what you felt, you did what you did, your story doesn't really matter. Now this shouldn't be understood in a cynical manner; rather, it should be understood with reverence and humility—in the manner of pure acceptance of moments and circumstance, in awe of the vastness of Being. The poet Jane Hirshfield and the speaker of the poem and you the reader write yourself or inscribe yourself into Being, or more precisely, as Being itself. This and all your affections occur before some fiction or factual catalog can written or made of your life.

Just like a baker who finishes baking, each moment of your life is complete, the actuation of some inner transformation. An endless dynamism. And to feel into that dynamism is what life, or the "it" in the poem, was like for you.

I love how in the poem the baker who's finished with baking gives just a "simple nod." What a phrase. And in the poem, "Eating, too, is a thing now only for others." People eat what has materialized or what has become visible from the workings of your hand or your being, but ultimately it doesn't matter what others say about you, or what you the baker say about yourself. The world deals in material and visible forms, and most of us would like to cling to that materiality, thus we create stories to hold on to life; but as I mentioned, the oneness or the dynamism of life or Being is essential, not the graspings we make of it.

So to extend this thought a little further, I wonder if art is great if and only if it's able to capture this dynamism of Being. In a sense, I think great art can unify the material world with the so-called spiritual world, or more precisely I think can allow the spiritual world to subsume the material world. I think great art makes ordinary things extraordinary or sacred. This reminds me of Marie Howe, the poet I read in the second episode, who once said "Great poetry holds the mystery of being alive between the words." The dynamism is the mystery.

Another line in the poem that stood out to me was: "Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life." This reminds me of the famous William Blake poem "Eternity" [2]. It goes like this:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise

The transience of life requires we do not hold on to stories or circumstance (less we be disappointed by the natural law of change); rather we must kiss each moment, your life and your joys, as if they're blessings. I think this poem echoes Blake's sentiment.

Lastly, to truly kiss each moment requires silence most of the time. Hirshfield writes, "At times you spoke, at other times you were silent. / Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?" All speech (even the one I'm enacting right now) creates a separation within Being; but hopefully what I've said points at Being itself. It's not me here, Alan, trying to give you my wisdom about the poem. I hope what I've said is more in the manner of "wow, look at This—This is it." Once we realize This, there really is not much to say. Just silence remains.

Anyways, I really love this poem because I think it paints the proper picture of the quote-unquote "real story" of each of our lives. And I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

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"It Was Like This: You Were Happy" by Jane Hirshfield

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness—
between you, there is nothing to forgive—
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is a thing now only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

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Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you read the poem differently and would like to share your thoughts, or you have general suggestions about the show, I'd love to hear. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, and find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

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Citations

  1. Hirshfield, Jane. "It Was Like This: You Were Happy." After: Poems, HarperCollins, New York, 2006.
  2. "Eternity" by William Blake