An England-born teacher I know exchanges weekly letters with her sister in London, real letters, written by hand with a pen on paper. The sisters also use e-mail but reserve it for what they call “emergencies” – a missing recipe ingredient, say, something factual that can be communicated in a sentence or two. Their letter-writing is self-consciously anachronistic, a defiant nod to another age.
They wish to preserve an account of their bi-continental lives and the evolving state of their relationship, a legacy for their descendants. E-mails, the teacher says, are by nature ephemeral, and their ephemerality influences the manner in which they are written – quickly, sloppily, without reflection or style, often without regard for precision or logic. A perfectly satisfactory e-mail is the opposite of a good letter, dense with detail and digression, an invitation to storytelling, a tracing of the mind’s wanderings for a specific reader. Their personal or semi-personal nature makes them ripe for comedy and its cousin, invective. A good letter in the old-fashioned sense – one by Cowper, Keats or O’Connor, for instance – has more in common with a good blog post than a good e-mail.
I first read excerpts from Anthony Hecht’s letters in True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, by Christopher Ricks. They are, like his poems, learned, charming, critically astute, funny and enviably fluent. An edition of Hecht’s letters is in preparation and The Hopkins Review has published a selection, three of which have been posted at Little Star Journal. All of the qualities of good letters described above are evident. Here, from a 1951 letter to his parents, Hecht describes the experience of having his poems read in manuscript by W.H. Auden:
“He feels that details are an ornamental embellishment to verse, and should never be allowed to distract the reader’s attention from the main line of discourse, whereas I believe that the details should be made to subsume, to contain, to embody, to incarnate the point and meaning of the poem. In a way, I think we’re working towards the same goal from opposite directions, but my way is better suited to me than his.”
Hecht’s point is prescient of his best future work. (Read “A Letter,” a dramatic monologue in epistolary form from The Hard Hours, 1967). Despite the opulence of his style, his poems are seldom marred by “ornamental embellishment.” At age twenty-seven, Hecht is appreciative of Auden’s criticisms and confident enough to dissent from them. In a poet, the balance is remarkably mature. How else would we know the details of such a meeting of great poets without Hecht’s letter? So much for the impermeable membrane separating life and work.
In “Letter from Palo Alto,” published in The New Compass: A Critical Review, Helen Pinkerton sketches a personal history of the verse letter from Wyatt, Donne, Jonson and Pope to her friends associated with Stanford University and the Palo Alto “literary tradition” – Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, J.V. Cunningham and Kenneth Fields, among others. She writes:
“Poets and rhetoricians noted the freedom of the form to take up any subject of interest to the writer and/or recipient, whether personal, even intimate, matters or those more general but of mutual concern. For the verse letter is, as traditionally observed, one half of a dialogue.”
Pinkerton does not mention that some of her own best poems are dramatic-monologues-turned-verse-letters, including “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell” and “Crossing the Pedregal” (both collected in Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002). She writes in her New Compass essay:
“The letter, while self-revelatory, ought not to be narcissistically self-obsessed, for that would leave out the other half of the dialogue, the presence of the friend.”
Or sister. My friend the teacher told me:
“We write letters because it helps us feel close together. We think of it as talking to each other with our pens.”