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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

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

Letter Already Broadcast into Space

                        —To Sun Ra, from Earth

You are not here,

you are not here
in Birmingham,
        where they keep your name,

not in Elmwood's famous plots
                or the monuments
of bronze or steel or the strew

        of change in the fountain
where the firehoses sprayed.

                In the furnaces, in the interchange sprawl
        that covers Tuxedo Junction,

in the shopping malls, I think,
                they've forgotten you,

the broadcast towers, the barbecues,

        the statue of the Roman god,
spiculum blotting out
                part of the stars.

To get it dark enough,
        I have to fold back
into the hills, into the trees

                where my parents
planted me, where the TV
        barely reaches and I drift

with my hand on the dial
                of my father's radio,

spinning, too, the tall antenna
        he raised above the pines.

I have to stand at the base

                of the galvanized
pole I can use as an azimuth
        and plot you in.

The hunter's belt is slung again,
                and you are there

in the pulse, in the light of
        Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka,

all your different names,

                you are there
in all the rearrangements
        of the stars.

                        Come down now,
come down again,

                like the late fall light
into the mounds along the creek,

        light that soaks like a flood
to show the Cherokee sitting upright
                underground, light

like the fire they imply.

        Come down now
into the crease the freight train
                hits like a piano's hammer

and make the granite hum
        beneath.

                        Come down now

as my hand slips from the dial,
                tired again of looking
for the sound of another way

        to say everything.

Come down now with your diction
                and your dictionary.

Come down, Uncle, come down
        and help me rise.

I have forgot my wings.

Jake Adam York
2011
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
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