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Poets' Letters

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Langston Hughes and Bessie Head. These poets shared meaningful correspondence at times spanning decades. Check out Poets.org’s expanding collection of poets’ letters—and how they drew from the epistolary form in their poetry.

poem

My Grandmother's Love Letters


There are no stars tonight 
But those of memory. 
Yet how much room for memory there is 
In the loose girdle of soft rain. 

There is even room enough 
For the letters of my mother’s mother, 
Elizabeth, 
That have been pressed so long 
Into a corner of the roof 
That they are brown and soft, 
And liable to melt as snow. 

Over the greatness of such space 
Steps must be gentle. 
It is all hung by an invisible white hair. 
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air. 

And I ask myself: 

"Are your fingers long enough to play 
Old keys that are but echoes: 
Is the silence strong enough 
To carry back the music to its source 
And back to you again 
As though to her?"

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand 
Through much of what she would not understand; 
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof 
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.
Hart Crane
1920
poem

The Letter


Beloved, men in thick green coats came crunching
through the snow, the insignia on their shoulders
of uncertain origin, a country I could not be sure of,
a salute so terrifying I heard myself lying to avoid
arrest, and was arrested along with Jocko, whose tear
had snapped off, a tiny icicle he put in his mouth.
We were taken to the ice prison, a palace encrusted
with hoarfrost, its dome lit from within, Jocko admired
the wiring, he kicked the walls to test the strength
of his new boots. A television stood in a block of ice,
its blue image still moving like a liquid center.
You asked for my innermost thoughts. I wonder will I
ever see a grape again? When I think of the vineyard
where we met in October-- when you dropped a cluster
custom insisted you be kissed by a stranger-- how after
the harvest we plunged into a stream so icy our palms
turned pink. It seemed our future was sealed. Everyone
said so. It is quiet here. Not closing our ranks
weakens us hugely. The snowflakes fall in a featureless
bath. I am the stranger who kissed you. On sunny days
each tree is a glittering chandelier. The power of
mindless beauty! Jocko told a joke and has been dead
since May. A bullethole in his forehead the officers
call a third eye. For a month I milked a barnful of
cows. It is a lot like cleansing a chandelier. Wipe
and polish, wipe and polish, round and round you go.
I have lost my spectacles. Is the book I was reading
still open by the side of our bed? Treat it as a bookmark
saving my place in our story.

(here the letter breaks off)
Mary Ruefle
2000
poem

Letter Home

I can’t write you because everything’s
wrong. Before dawn, crows swim
from the cedars: black coffee calls them down, 
its bitter taste in my throat as they circle,
raucous, huge. Questions with no
place to land, they cruise yellow air
above crickets snapping 
like struck matches. My house on fire, crows

are the smoke. You’ve never left me.  
When you crossed the river you did not 
call my name. I stood in tall grass
a long time, listening to birds 
hidden in reeds, their intricate songs.

The grass will burn, the wrens,  
the river and the rain that falls on it.  
I can go nowhere else: everything 
I cannot bear is here.

I must listen deeper. Sharpen my knife.  
Something has changed the angles
of trees, their color. Do not wait to hear
from me. I cannot write to you
because this is what I will say.
Pamela Alexander
2007
poem

On the Persistence of the Letter as a Form

Dear murderous world, dear gawking heart,
I never wrote back to you, not one word

wrenched itself free of my fog-draped mind
to dab in ink the day's dull catalog

of ruin. Take back the ten-speed bike
which bent like a child's cheap toy

beneath me. Accept as your own
the guitar that was smashed over my brother,

who writes now from jail in Savannah,
who I cannot begin to answer. Here

is the beloved pet who died at my feet 
and there, outside my window,

is where my mother buried it in a coffin
meant for a newborn. Upon

my family, raw and vigilant, visit numbness.
Of numbness I know enough.

And to you I've now written too much,
dear cloud of thalidomide,

dear spoon trembling at the mouth,
dear marble-eyed doll never answering back.
Paul Guest
2003