poem index


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.


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

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.  I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
   As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

        By Rihaku
Ezra Pound

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

Self-Portrait as Letter Addressed to Self


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.


J. Michael Martinez