Epistolary poems, from the Latin "epistula" for "letter," are, quite literally, poems that read as letters. As poems of direct address, they can be intimate and colloquial or formal and measured. The subject matter can range from philosophical investigation to a declaration of love to a list of errands, and epistles can take any form, from heroic couplets to free verse. Elizabeth Bishop's "Letter to N.Y.," for example, uses rhyming quatrains:
In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:
taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl
The rigid rhyme scheme and structure of the poem belie its mournful, almost obsessive nature. Bishop employs the direct address to express her isolation and longing while maintaining formal distance.
This is counter to epistles that assume the more recognizable conventions of a letter, complete with a traditional opening address, such as Langston Hughes's "Letter," which begins: "Dear Mama / Time I pay rent and get my food / and laundry I don't have much left / but here is five dollars for you." The simple intimacy of the epistolary form gives the poem a familiar ease.
The epistle form dates back to verse letters of the Roman Empire, and was refined and popularized by Horace and Ovid. The latter used the form as a venue for romance and sentimentality, such as in his Heroides—love letters from the great women of antiquity. Ovid's epistolary explorations were adopted by the courtly poets from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, including Samuel Daniel, who introduced the form into English in the early 17th century.
The Horatian epistles, however, more deeply influenced our modern understanding of the form. Horace drew on the familiar and confessional nature of letters to tackle lofty moral and philosophical conjectures. It is this tradition that produced what are generally thought to be the greatest epistles written in English: Alexander Pope's Moral Essays and the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, a thinly-veiled autobiographical defense of satire and poetry written in heroic couplets as an address to his friend John Arbuthnot.
The appeal of epistolary poems is in their freedom. The audience can be internal or external. The poet may be speaking to an unnamed recipient or to the world at large, to bodiless entities or abstract concepts. Many contemporary poets have introduced this form into their works: Mark Jarman's collection, Epistles explores religious faith and doubt. Bernadette Mayer's The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters is a series of unsent letters written over a nine-month period. Laynie Browne's follow-up homage to Mayer's text, The Desires of Letters takes on motherhood and community during a time of political unrest. Elana Bell's epistolary poems, such as her "Letter to Palestine," also render the political in a confessional voice.