Thursday Sep 28

hoppenthaler I’d like to muse a bit on the epistolary poem.  The typically conservative, overly-stylized, and impersonal neo-formalism of the eighties and early nineties is now mostly behind us, but one observable poetic trend of the past ten or so years is that many younger (and some not so young) American poets have reconsidered received forms and have found that they remain usable and fruitful mechanisms for poem creation.  Poets with fresh ideas about subject matter and linguistic possibility as starting points are regularly publishing, all manner of sonnets, villanelles, ghazals, sestinas, syllabic verse, etc. in literary journals and books.  That many of the poets who are using these forms are persons of color and hyphen-Americans is particularly interesting and relevant but not what I wish to consider today.  Rather, despite their presence in a number of important contemporary poetic texts (Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Native Guard and her earlier Bellocq’s Ophelia come immediately to mind), I wonder why the epistolary poem has not been similarly revisited.

With long historic roots that extend from the Bible to Ovid to Homer to Jonson to Pope and beyond, the epistle poem is now largely out of vogue.  I see them from time to time, poems like Carol Frost’s “To Fisherman, Jane Hirshfield’s “To Judgement: An Assay,” Major Jackson’s “Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden,” Doug Anderson’s “Letter to Martin Espada,” and others.  I remember how, as a young poet, Richard Hugo’s epistolary poems fascinated me, how the form seemed well-suited to presenting a mind in the midst of examination, the elasticity of its conversational nature, how the best ones seemed a talking through rather than a talking to.  The wry humor of some of Hugo’s poems also struck me, and I remember laughing out loud—though the poem is concerned with the serious problem of alcoholism—once in a class while reading his “Letter to Logan from Milltown” and having to explain the outburst to the professor.  I discovered in that mildly sarcastic and damaged voice a kindred spirit.

This month’s Congeries features Alfred Corn’s “Letter to Robert Pinsky.”  In the poem, we are made privy to Corn’s coming to terms with fate, poetry, aging, and fortune.  We are able to understand what it might feel like for a poet of a certain generation to look back at his career and consider what might have been and what has come to pass.  The poem seems to me not unlike Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking” in its reflective nature, in its quiet revelation.

I guess what I’m getting at is to suggest that more poets might turn to the epistle poem as a viable possibility, that in this age of tweets and chats and texts, much can be gained by writing and reading letters that are thoughtful, artful, and full of the love, desperation, longing, and communion that those letters we sometimes find stashed away in our attics still so poignantly convey.