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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

Self-Portrait as Letter Addressed to Self

X.X.,


Someday, across glacier, a green horse will ride toward you; despite steam rising from heavy breath, you'll touch its snout.

When you paired a person's gait to signature, what lilt signed your step? What tautology, what tense was this body's hypothesis?

Do you remember your mother's Strawberry Fruit-Salad Recipe? 2 round Angel Cakes (2 pounds or 4 halves), 16 oz of vanilla pudding, 4 bananas, 2 containers of 8 oz strawberries, 1 big container of whipped cream. Layer and eat.

Your hands shaking, you wrote, "Christ is sentiment."

A cup cracked through with sky. A saucer planed into the shapes of numbers. Every written thing stripped bare, the more supple formulation of given law.

I told you distance to a thing is the purchase of its reality. Why are people like that for us? The more we love the more physical space our love inhabits & the world's lightness' & darkness' assume the order of human tongue.

Last night we tore & tossed memories into ponds. Geese swam across, pecked the waters. I splashed at them &, after, my hands shook. You stood beside me in a red dress. I wanted to drown you this pretty.

xoxo,
X.X.

J. Michael Martinez
2012
poem

Letter Home

--New Orleans, November 1910

Four weeks have passed since I left, and still 
I must write to you of no work. I've worn down 
the soles and walked through the tightness 
of my new shoes calling upon the merchants, 
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking 
my plain English and good writing would secure 
for me some modest position Though I dress each day 
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves 
you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat 
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins. 
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet 
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens 
my throat. I sit watching-- 

though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive 
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown 
as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite 
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets 
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes 
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, 
a negress again. There are enough things here 
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through 
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall 
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard 
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking 
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads 
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots 
and irons of the laundresses call to me.

I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending 
and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How 
I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced 
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Goodbye

is the waving map of your palm, is 
a stone on my tongue.
Natasha Trethewey
2002
poem

Dear Lonely Animal,

I'm writing to you from the loneliest, most
secluded island in the world. I mean, 
the farthest away place from anything else.

There are so many fruits here growing on trees
or on vines that wrap and wrap. Fruits
like I've never seen except the bananas.

All night the abandoned dogs howled.
I wonder if one dog gives the first howl, and if 
they take turns who's first like carrying 

the flag in school. Carrying the flag 
way out in front and the others 
following along behind in two long lines, 

pairs holding hands. Also the roosters here crow 
from 4am onward. They're still crowing right now 
and it's almost noon here on the island.

Noon stares back no matter where you are.  
Today I'm going to hike to the extinct volcano 
and balance on the rim of the crater. Yesterday 

a gust almost blew me inside. I heard 
that the black widows live inside the volcano 
far down below in the high grasses that you can't 

see from the rim. Well, I was going to tell you 
that this morning the bells rang and I 
followed them and at the source of the bells, 

there I found so many animals 
all gathered together in a room 
with carved wooden statues

and wooden benches and low wooden slats 
for kneeling. And the animals were there 
singing together, all their voices singing, 

with big strong voices rising from even 
the filthiest animals. I mean, I've seen animals 
come together and sing before, except in 

high fancy vaults where bits of colored glass 
are pieced together into stories. Some days 
I want to sing with them.

I wish more animals sang together all the time.
But then I can't sing sometimes
because I think of the news that happens

when the animals stop singing.  
And then I think of all the medications 
and their side effects that are advertised 

between the pieces of news. And then I think 
of all the money the drug companies spent
to videotape their photogenic, well-groomed animals,

and all the money they spent to buy 
a prime-time spot, and I think, what money 
buys the news, and what news 

creates the drugs, and what
drugs control the animals, and I get so
choked I can't sing anymore, Lonely Animal.  

I can't sing with the other animals. Because it's 
hard to know what an animal will do when it 
stops singing. It's complicated, you know, it's just 

complicated—
Oni Buchanan
2008
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

Letter from Town: The Almond Tree

You promised to send me some violets. Did you forget?   
  White ones and blue ones from under the orchard hedge?   
  Sweet dark purple, and white ones mixed for a pledge   
Of our early love that hardly has opened yet.   
   
Here there’s an almond tree—you have never seen         
  Such a one in the north—it flowers on the street, and I stand   
  Every day by the fence to look up for the flowers that expand   
At rest in the blue, and wonder at what they mean.   
   
Under the almond tree, the happy lands   
  Provence, Japan, and Italy repose,   
  And passing feet are chatter and clapping of those   
Who play around us, country girls clapping their hands.   
   
You, my love, the foremost, in a flowered gown,   
  All your unbearable tenderness, you with the laughter   
  Startled upon your eyes now so wide with hereafter,    
You with loose hands of abandonment hanging down.
D. H. Lawrence
1920