Epistolary poems are one of the oldest forms of poetry: poems that are conceived as letters to a third person other than the readers, There is an interesting triangulation at work there: the readers are not addressed directly so we feel that there is a greater context which we perhaps do not fully understand. The poet can play around with the identity of the addressee: it can be a single person or a group of people, it can be a real person or a fictional character, living or dead. So epistolary poetry focuses our attention on the audience (the “to whom”) of poetry rather than its subjects and meanings (the “what”).
One of the oldest and most illustrious poets of epistolary poetry is Ovid. The best known of these are his Heroides, a series of poems supposedly written by much wronged mythological heroines from Ancient Greece and Rome (and goodness knows there were plenty of those!). But the epistolary poems I enjoy most are his desolate and self-pitying letters from exile, from the town of Tomis on the Black Sea coast (present-day Romania). He hated everything about the place and does not hesitate to complain bitterly about his surroundings: the hairy barbarians, the long and harsh winters, the landscape, the language. He personifies his letters, written to his friends and wife back in Rome:
A letter of Ovid’s, I come from the Euxine shore,
wearied by the sea-lanes, wearied by the roads,
to whom, weeping, he said: ‘You, go look on Rome,
who can do so. Ah, how much better your fate than mine!’
He wrote me weeping, too, and he lifted the gem
I was sealed with to his wet cheeks, first, not his lips…
I can’t stand the climate, I’m not used to the water,
and the land itself, I don’t know why, displeases.
There’s no house here suitable for a patient, no food
that’s any use, no one to ease his pain with Apollo’s art,
no friend here to bring comfort, no one
to beguile with talk the slowly moving hours.
I’m weary lying here among distant peoples, places,
in sickness now thoughts come to me, of what’s not here.
After centuries of glory for both letter-writing and epistolary poems (and let’s not forget St. Paul’s Letters to Romans, Corinthians and many more in the Bible), there was a steady decline in the 20th and 21st centuries. In an age where speed is of the essence, where no one writes proper letters anymore and emails disappear all too easily, is there still time and place for such poetry? We’ve played with poems addressed to specific people on dVerse before, but would we have the patience to read whole volumes of such poems?
Here are some interesting modern examples of epistolary poems:
During her third pregnancy, American poet Bernadette Mayer wrote a series of letters – prose poems, really – about the so-called ‘motherhood brain’: fleeting impressions, thoughts, descriptions, delicious moments of intimacy. They were never meant to be sent and were published as The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (1994). Here is the opening of “To the Tune of ‘Red Embroidered Shoes’”:
It’s a rare windy day where the sun never goes away, some new weather must be moving toward us very fast as they say, you always say I notice the weather too much, that most people don’t know if it’s hot or cold, I find it hard to remember I’m not supposed to have to include it all. I think to myself I’ve gotta say that to you and then when I forget it it’s lost. To celebrate without a plan—will he buy her an ice cream on the way home?
Elana Bell is a poet, performer, and educator whose work seeks to bridge the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Her political message appears in a series of epistolary poems addressed to politicians, real people and whole cities, such as her haunting ‘Letter to Jerusalem’:
To hold the bird and not to crush her, that is the secret. Sand turned too quickly to cement and who cares if the builders lose their arms? The musk of smoldered rats on sticks that trailed their tails through tunnels underground. Trickster of light, I walk your cobbled alleys all night long and drink your salt. City of bones, I return to you with dust on my tongue. Return to your ruined temple, your spirit of revolt. Return to you, the ache at the center of the world.
Finally, let me share with you a very interesting experiment of translated fictional poetry. The real author is Argentinian poet Juan Gelman, but his volume The Poems of Sidney West are ostensibly the work of an unknown American poet, translated into Spanish. They have been translated (back?) into English and present very much an ‘outsider looking in’ version of the American West and its wide open spaces.
oh dear ones!
that rain fell years and years on the
pavement of Hereby Street
without ever erasing the slightest trace
of what had happened!
without dampening one of the humili-
ations not even one of the fears
of that man with hips scrambled tossed
in the street
late so his terrors can mix with water
and rot and end!
and so died parsifal hoolig
he closed his silent eyes
kept the custom of not protesting
was a brave dead man […]
and if someone supposes this is sad
if someone is going to stand up and say it
know this is exactly what happened
nothing else happened but this
under this sky or vault of heaven
It’s been a rather long Bar Talk, I apologise. I’m one of those garrulous drunks that never shut up, obviously, but here are some questions I wanted to ask you to ponder:
Do we always have to invent a persona (either for the author or for the recipient) to create a meaningful epistolary poem? Do you read such poems and, more importantly would you write such poems? What are your favourite examples of epistolary poems? Do they have anything to add that is different from ‘normal’ poems? Do they constrain you as a poet or liberate you to try new things? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!