“Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to the test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, ‘I must,’ then build your life upon it,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1903 in the first of his Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke, whose 140th birthday was on Friday, is widely known for these letters, though he is far from the only one to engage in the art of the epistle.
In a time of texts and emails, some say letter writing is a lost art. However, today we celebrate epistolary writing with National Letter Writing Day. Including and extending beyond Rilke is a rich tradition of poets who corresponded with each other via letters, sharing news, poems, essays, critiques, gossip, advice, and more. Letters provide new perspectives on these writers—their quirks and preferences, joys and anxieties—and the context for their poetic legacies.
But letter writing isn’t limited to the prose addresses one may mail to a friend; the epistolary form is used widely in poetry, borrowing from the conventions of traditional letter writing. Emily Dickinson writes to March as a close friend in one poem, saying “Dear March – Come in - / How glad I am – ” while Hayden Carruth begins his “Letter to Denise” with a warm recollection: “Remember when you put on that wig / From the grab bag and then looked at yourself / In the mirror and laughed, and we laughed together?”
In celebration of all forms of epistolary writing, check out our collection of archival letters and correspondences from poets, texts and poems about letter writing, and a variety of epistolary poems, because, as John Donne writes in his epistolary poem “To Sir Henry Wotton,” “more than kisses, letters mingle souls.”