Article for Students

Learning the Epistolary Poem

Poems that serve as letters to the world.

It’s an old story: star-crossed lovers don’t know they’re star-crossed. They fall in love through the exchange of letters (or emails), not realizing that in real life they despise each other—until letter is matched to person and true love results (see the movie The Shop Around the Corner and its remake, You’ve Got Mail). Art that showcases epistolary practice—the writing and exchange of letters—comes stocked with such themes of romance, revelation, deception, and authenticity. Letters are vehicles for our truest selves, but they’re also a space in which we construct those selves.

What does this have to do with epistolary poetry? Like our movie couples, poets use epistolary techniques to reveal and construct. On one hand, letters expose the fact that poetry itself is a form of communication. We frequently write to something or someone. On the other hand, poems that use the conventions of letters make us think about how we read, categorize, and imagine both letters and poems. Although our glossary’s definition of an epistle appears to be simple enough, its brevity belies crucial questions. Does the poem have to be an actual letter? If it was sent to a person—especially one “close to the writer”—what does it mean that other people are now reading it? If it wasn’t sent to a person, how does it count as a letter? Why write a poem that looks like a letter, or use a letter as a poem, anyway?

Epistolary verse is one of poetry’s oldest forms, yet the questions it raises remain remarkably consistent through the centuries. In this guide, we’ll look at the history of epistolary poetry and explore how poets have adopted the form; you’ll also try your hand at composing some original-verse epistles.


August Beginnings

Some of the earliest epistolary poetry occurs in ancient Greece and Rome. Horace, in his Epistles, and Ovid, in the Heroides, set the terms for one of the epistolary debates that continues to this day: the distinction between epistles that appear to be true letters—written by the poet, ostensibly as a communiqué to an actual person—and epistles that are obviously fictional, perhaps because they’re written in a persona other than the poet’s. Both types are poems and letters, but the first might emphasize a poem’s letter qualities, while the second foregrounds the poem as a poem.

Horace’s Epistles are the first kind: a series of poems written to real persons—fellow writers, patrons, and even Augustus, the Emperor himself. Since these are distinguished as epistles, we might assume that these poems were initially sent as letters. But their appearance, in 20 BCE, as a book suggests that they were open letters “sent” via publication itself. In David Ferry’s translation, the poems can begin with salutations—“Dear Fuscus, I, a lover of the country, / Send greetings to you, a lover of the city”—or start with the kinds of contextualization we associate with letters: “While you’re in Rome, studying declamation,” Horace writes to Lollius Maximus, “Here I am in Praeneste, reading Homer.” That kind of casual situating remark is a hallmark of epistolary poems. Horace uses such effects throughout the Epistles to achieve a meandering, digressive, and conversational style. These poems are chatty, ask questions, and make inside or private jokes. Here is the beginning of his letter to Vinius Asina:

Just as I’ve told you over and over, Vinny,
Deliver these books of mine to Augustus only
If you know for sure that he’s in good health and only
If you know for sure that he’s in a good mood and only
If it comes about that he asks in person to see it.

From the familiar form of Vinius’s name, to an expectation that Vinny will know Augustus’s “good mood” when he sees it, we can tell that Horace’s poem is clearly written to a specific, singular person. The poem reiterates a conversation between the two—“as I’ve told you over and over”—reinforcing the sense that we are intercepting a letter intended for someone else. The poem’s qualities as both letter and poem are tied up in its casual style and authentic address. And this brings us to our first writing exercise:

Exercise 1: Try writing a poem that enacts a similar experience for the reader. Write about a past event to a friend, and frame it as a private letter in which you explain your side of what happened. Keep in mind that others will end up reading your “letter.” How does knowledge of a larger audience affect your letter-poem?

Horace’s poem to Vinny is the kind of “true” letter-poem to which Ovid’s Heroides stands in opposition. The Heroides are a collection of letters written in the voices of women from classical mythology. They’re not real letters, but fictional letters written using the technique of persona. Addressed mainly to absent lovers, the letter-poems exemplify another truism of epistolary practice: that letters are outpourings of our innermost selves. Ovid’s letter-writers beg, cajole, mourn, and indict the men who have abandoned them. But Ovid also gives the women recourse to introspection.

Exercise 2: Try writing a letter from someone else’s perspective, perhaps a famous person or a literary or mythical character. Have your character write to someone they’re angry or upset with and explain why.


Ladies, Letters, the 18th Century

The 18th century was an epistolary heyday. A regular mail service and newly literate masses encouraged writers to adopt the conventions of letters in many genres, from political treatises to a newfangled form called the novel. Aspects of epistolarity—salutations, dating, and address to a specific person—mark much poetry of the 18th century, not all of which we’d call verse epistles. Odes and occasional poems, for example, also tend to address a person directly. But as the category of epistolary poetry expanded, the distinction between true and fictional epistles remained. Alexander Pope exploited the possibilities of the latter in “Eloisa to Abelard,”one of the most famous verse epistles of the period. The poem, like Ovid’s Heroides before it, purports to be an outpouring of impassioned speech from one lover to another. Eloisa writes to Abelard:

Yet write, oh write me all, that I may join
Griefs to thy griefs, and echo sighs to thine.

Abelard and Eloisa are “joined” despite distance through letters. Correspondence might allow them to literally correspond, in a kind of emotional echo. Of course, the reality is that Eloisa is in a convent; Abelard is, well, no longer the man he once was; and Pope is the real author of the poem. Epistolary writing in the 18th century frequently remarked on its own limitations, even as letters and letter-poems imagined they might overcome them. It’s a theme that runs throughout epistolary writing: you’re absent, but also present, because I’m writing to you.

Exercise 3: Take out your cell phone and find a contact you haven’t talked to in six months or more. Now, write him or her a letter-poem describing how you feel about the silence between the two of you.

Pope’s other verse epistles are less fervent than “Eloisa to Abelard,” and yet might strike us as just as “fictive.” His poem “Epistle to Miss Blount” and the series “Epistles to Several Persons” are clearly labeled as letters, but sound like traditional poems (or even criticism, in the case of “An Essay”). Unlike Horace, Pope valued epistolary poetry not for its ability to mimic conversation, but for the particular kinds of decorum it permitted. As Ange Mlinko has pointed out in a poem guide to “The Answer,” an epistolary poem by Anne Finch that responds to Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,”poets of the 18th century—another Augustan age—wrote to amuse, provoke, and persuade friends and foes in their immediate circles, almost like an older, slower, and more formal version of today’s social media.

Mlinko’s guide focuses on female poets, and women and epistolary writing have always been linked. Yet 18th-century female poets’ use of epistolary verse can call into question those categories of true and fictional—whether a poem was intended as a poem or a letter. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letter to Lord Herveyis a good example of the blurred boundaries between letters and poems in the period. As scholar Bill Overton points out, “epistolary verse was a social practice of the period, and … especially for upper-class women, the writing of a letter in verse by no means entailed an intention to publish it."Yet even unpublished poems and letters were circulated, and it is likely that letter writers in the 18th century understood that their words would be read and reread by people they might not know personally.

Epistolary scholars call this sense that a letter is written not just for its recipient, but for a potentially wider audience, the “third-person reader.” It’s especially useful in thinking about verse epistles because letter-poets acknowledge that their missive is at once public and private. For female poets writing in a time when normal modes of publishing were difficult or undesirable, this third-person reader was often their first and only reader. Anne Finch’s “A Letter to Daphnis” is a good example of this interplay. Lady Mary Chudleigh’s verse epistle addresses itself explicitly “To the Ladies,” but it uses epistolary style in title only—the poem forgoes greetings or situating remarks in favor of pure polemic.

Exercise 4: Try writing an epistle to an entire group of people. As in your Horace imitation, think about how the sense of a third-person reader might shape what, and how, you write.


New-Fashioned Epistolary Verses

The distinction between true and fictional continues to mark epistolary poetry to this day. Poems such as Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” are obviously in the tradition of Ovid. More contemporary examples of this kind of letter-poem include Evie Shockley’s “From the Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass,” Carolyn Kizer’s “Fanny,” and William Stafford’s “Report to Crazy Horse.” Such poems are related to the dramatic monologue in their reliance on readers’ suspension of disbelief.

While all letter-writers consciously construct a version of themselves in their letters, letter-poems from a persona might strike us differently than those from a “real” poet. And letter-poems intended, as Horace’s were, for actual friends and acquaintances of the poet seem unlike those letter-poems, such as Julia Bloch’s Letters to Kelly Clarksonor Major Jackson’s “Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden,” obviously written as poems first. The question is as old as Horace and Ovid, Pope and Montagu: letter or poem? And why?

Emily Dickinson might help us here. Dickinson’s publication history is long and tangled, but scholars have started to emphasize the importance of epistolary practice to her work; recent editions even try to recover the way poems were knit into, and seemed to spring from, her letters. Her letters and poems circulated—like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, she wrote to a public-private audience—but Dickinson used her missives both to communicate and to describe communication’s difficulty. Dickinson’s “letter lyrics,” in the words of scholar Sarah Hewitt, “theorize poetry as a specific kind of social communication.”

Poetry, especially lyric poetry, was not thought to be especially communicative after Romanticism. So when Jack Spicer published letters as poems, as he did with “Letter to Gary Bottone” and “Letters to James Alexander,”he upended such notions, placing a poem squarely between people. James Schuyler’s letter-poems do similar work. Often embracing epistolary embellishments such as dates, greetings, and sign-offs, Schuyler’s poems frequently use the kind of patter real letters feature. Yet the poem “A Stone Knife”also includes a title, lineation, and extended ekphrasis, common telltale markers of poetry. Letter-poems by Schuyler or Spicer can complicate our automatic categories of what is or isn’t poetry.

Exercise 5: Find an email or letter you’ve written, and break it into lines. Does it sound or feel like a poem? Try adding a title.

Letters and letter-poems also help us think about how poetry is built—and again, it’s a blow to any notions of a visit from the muses. Lorine Niedecker and W.S. Graham both used letters to write poems, suggesting that a poem is less an inspired rush of language than the careful placement and arrangement of words. Here is Niedecker in a letter to Louis Zukofsky from 1948:

Dear Zu:

Saturday I arose from my primordial mud with bits of algae, equisetum, etc . . to attend an expensive church wedding. Whole of history went thru my head, a big step from algae to CHURCH […] from cell division to the male sweating it out while the other collects International Sterling Silver and dons and takes off satins and continues to sweat to pay for ’em. The little slave girl bride and the worse slave, her husband.

Compare this to Niedecker’s “I rose from marsh mud.” Niedecker doesn’t just raid her letter’s content for her poem’s purposes, she cribs actual phrases and words. Graham does something similar in his letter-elegy to his friend titled “Dear Bryan Wynter.”In that poem, Graham repurposes phrases from letters he sent to friends and Wynter’s widow. Both Niedecker and Graham take language from letters and tweak it for poems.

Exercise 6: Look at the letter or email you used in Exercise 5. Can you find phrases and even sentences that you might incorporate into your next poem?

Contemporary poets who use epistolary forms can also let language remain in its “lettered” state. During her third pregnancy, Bernadette Mayer wrote a series of letters. Never sent, they were published as The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (1994). Here is the opening of “To the Tune of ‘Red Embroidered Shoes’”:

It’s a rare windy day where the sun never goes away, some new weather must be moving toward us very fast as they say, you always say I notice the weather too much, that most people don’t know if it’s hot or cold, I find it hard to remember I’m not supposed to have to include it all. I think to myself I’ve gotta say that to you and then when I forget it it’s lost. To celebrate without a plan—will he buy her an ice cream on the way home?

Mayer’s long, fast sentences move us through a dizzying range of observation. The allusions are private and opaque, and the speed with which Mayer delivers them almost guarantees that our understanding is only partial. Yet Mayer wrote this letter not to send but to publish, as a prose poem. Like Spicer and Schuyler, Mayer explores the boundaries between letters and poems and our expectations of each.

One thing we expect of poems is that they stand alone: we shouldn’t have to know context or background to understand a poem. Poems should contain their own directions, allow us to assemble and read them on their own terms. But we know that letters are only products of context. They are part of endless chains of other letters and communications, and when we read them we can be comfortable and even delight in our only partial knowledge. From Horace and Ovid to Mayer and Spicer, poets have used letter-poems to explore not just the ways letters help poets write, but how letter-poems force readers to read.

Epistolary poetry also focuses our attention on the audience (the “to whom”) of poetry rather than its subjects and meanings (the “what”). And since we’re reading a poem not initially intended for “us,” one thing letter-poems ask is that we consider how we are, and are not, like the real people they’re addressed to. Poets who use epistolary address also attempt to figure out not just who that “you” is—whether it’s a close friend or all posterity—but what, and how to meaningfully communicate with them. It’s a question poets have been asking themselves since writing, and letters, appeared.

Originally Published: August 29th, 2013

Hannah Brooks-Motl was born and raised in Wisconsin. She is the author of the poetry collections The New Years (2014), M (2015), and Earth (2019). Her poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in the Best American Experimental Writing, the Cambridge Literary Review, the Chicago Review, Modernism/modernity, and in edited collections...