Completely Subjective: Daniel Johnson’s “Do Unto Others”

Daniel Johnson’s “Do Unto Others”, featured in the 2007 edition of Best American Poetry is a whimsical yet powerful poem about a young boy’s inner thoughts while listening to a pastor’s sermon in church (according to Johnson). The poem is essentially his answer to the question in the first line, “How many rocks would I stack on my brother’s chest?” (Johnson). The striking idea in this poem is that not only is the speaker responding by thinking about stacking rocks on his brother’s chest (a question that most people would reply to with “none”), but he also draws out a list of reasons why he would do such a thing to a loved one. The speaker disregards the well-known bible verse and has a selfish thought that could symbolize some inner demons that are troubling his own life like insecurity. He could be jealous of his brother because of the free-spirited life that he lives, while the speaker is trapped constantly trying to keep up with him and make himself feel good about himself. The brother is described as more flamboyant than most young boys, depicted by “lips redder” and “singing on car trips,” characteristics that create a gap between the two siblings. However, if the boy were to somehow rid his brother of this personality, how much better would his life really be?

The other mysterious quality about Johnson’s poem is the last two lines. Each line is the same four words, “limestone, shale, sandstone, flint” all types of sedimentary rock (Johnson). How or why Johnson chose this particular list of rocks I don’t know, but I do know that it sort of rolls off the tongue and has a good sound to it. This is most definitely intentional, but it also has a greater purpose than just sounding nice while read aloud. Each rock is a representation of the jealousy or envy the speaker feels for his brother as he tries to cover up his heart and spirit. This, however, creates a sense of complexity because it is difficult to understand the true message behind the rock-stacking. Does the speaker just want his brother to be normal? The lack of context and details about the speaker’s inner thoughts leaves the door open for multiple interpretations. There is a certain mystery to Johnson’s choices of rocks, his repetition, and the fact he leaves the last line in its own stanza as if to be the one thing the reader should remember about this poem.

I cannot necessarily relate personal experiences to this poem, but it does remind me of the world I see around me nowadays. Being in high school, it seems like everybody wants to be someone else and is mesmerized by the lives that other people have, only because they have not realized what kind of life they have. People are too caught up in looking at amazing pictures on social media believing that everyone else lives extraordinary lives while the individual admires and envies from afar. The speaker in Johnson’s poem is getting so caught up on how his brother lives his life that he has not stopped to realize what he likes or could change about his own life. This is a lot to ask for just a young boy, but it is something that happens to a lot of teenagers due to the modern influx of media. I think this is what initially attracted me to the poem, because it was so simple yet not very accessible in terms of extracting meaning. I enjoyed coming up with my own interpretations of each line and trying to understand the different choices Daniel Johnson made for this poem. This idea of judging somebody else’s actions without them knowing is a great deal of what modern society consists. Johnson’s poem unknowingly depicts how the inner thoughts of individuals reflects how people in society see each other today and how much negativity, hatred and jealousy is circulating through unbeknownst to the general public.


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