Dear Letter,
It's been a long time since I've written you. But I think about you often. It's always great to hear from you, to hold you, to gaze at the stamp of your beauty, your unique hand. Reading this article made me worry if you are OK. Are you OK?


Sure I'm always sending electronic missives and epistles. (You must have known I was dallying with someone.) I must spend as much time on that per day as a Jane Austen heroine keeping a beloved sister abreast of her adventures in Bath. But what becomes of them all once I zap them through the aether? I was thinking the other day, as is my wont, about etymologies, about the word "record." Sure enough it is from "cor", the heart--to recall to mind, to bring back to the heart. What record is there now of all those passionate conversations about poetry, of the vicissitudes of mood, of the little anecdotes (etymology again--"unpublished"), that are the real history of a life, of the intricate gossip? When this generation of writers passes from the earth, what will we know of them besides their public personae--their poems, their Wikipedia entries, their web sites, their... blogs? (Assuming these even survive, and are not inaccessible on a technology as lost and mysterious as the cartoons on the Phaestos Disk.) Poets are the saints of other poets--isn't it relics we want? Words they have touched?
Of course, maybe, as with many such neophobias, the article has a whiff of the hysterical. Is a "collected e-mails" really that different? "Collected correspondence" would do the trick, wouldn't it? Don't we save the e-mails that really matter, even print them out and put them in a folder? Wouldn't going back to pen and ink in a self-conscious way for our writerly friendships smack of the phoney, the posed, the stagey? "Hmmm. I"m writing this for posterity: I'd better not pass on that AWP gossip or dis that new book. After all, maybe I'll be famous someday and someone will publish this!"
On the other hand, does it really take that much longer to sit down with pen and paper and write something to a friend, doodle in the margins, enclose a newspaper clipping, slap on a stamp? Isn't it just a habit we have got out of? Does speed of transfer really matter that much? Waht about warmth, thoughtfulness, permanence? Isn't our business News that Stays News?
All I can say is, that I miss you. And that it is my own fault. And that I am going to think harder next time I bang out a long letter to a friend, attach a new poem and just press send.
You know I want to come back to you.
love,
Alicia

Originally Published: January 16th, 2008

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. January 16, 2008
     Daisy

    The more I type, the less I'm able to think in handwriting, is the problem. And yes, I type much faster than I handwrite. Semi-relatedly: I was complaining once when I was traveling, computerless, that I found it impossible anymore to write poems in ink by hand on paper. My husband reminded me that Milton dictated Paradise Lost.

  2. January 19, 2008
     Emily Warn

    Alicia,
    Thanks for your epistle to the letter. I read it and the linked article just after learning of tragic events in a friend's life. Sending her an email or calling is out of the question. She’s not responding to either. A letter, though, I'm certain she'll want to receive. Have we reserved handwritten notes and letters for such unspeakable moments, whether joyous or sad?
    Yet lately, I’ve received many epistle-like emails from fellow poets: carefully reasoned arguments, memorably descriptive travelogues, hilarious or apt recountings of the night before. Perhaps as the technology has aged and our nostalgia grown for real correspondence, we’re still leaving our records.
    Emily

  3. January 20, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Daisy, I'm with you on typing being faster--though I enjoy writing also. It is prose I would find hard to do enitrely longhand these days. I often do a first draft of a poem longhand, but I like to quickly shift to the computer for revision.
    Emily, yes, I think the letter is increasingly reserved for pivotal moments such as letters of condolence, for which e-mails will not suffice. Although the author of the article as special concerns for the letter as artefact, I think his concern for whether e-mails are being saved, pinted out and archived is an important one. I absolutely agree that e-mails are real records, real epistles--but more subject than a handwritten note to deleting or oblivion. Hmmm.
    It may too be a curious anomoly. Younger writers may actually return to the letter, as e-mail is something they associate with their parents and teachers, and brief messages are more easily dealt with by texting. I have friends who have lived and taught on the island of Paros for over 30 years. They teach American students there, and have watched these shifts in technology preferences from afar, as it were. After years and years of noting the increasing use of computers for communication with friends and family back home, they have suddenly started seeing a resurgence of letters and handwritten notes.
    And let's not forget--maybe e-mail was actually a return to the written communication. For years and years letters were supposed to be losing out to the telephone.

  4. January 20, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Dear Harriet,
    Thanks for starting your blog! How smart of you to give Poetry’s stars a forum to shmooze, kvetch, kvell, shine, and otherwise educate and entertain this outsider from the hinterlands, who is free to post (whenever she can summon the balls) the thoughts she had in the kitchen while making a broccoli-noodle casserole. Frankly, I was blogless until you, perhaps even a bit blog bored. Then I found there was a certain frisson in hobnobbing with the most feared, respected, and well-endowed literary journal in the world. Of course, I wouldn’t have dared utter a word if I hadn’t already become distantly acquainted with Alicia in another sphere. Now I understand Alicia’s days are numbered with you, Harriet. What a pity! I wish she could stay.
    Sincerely,
    Mary

  5. January 20, 2008
     Don Share

    I wonder if younger writers may also return to the epistle as a verse form. Just think of the poets who engaged in it: Horace, Ovid, Samuel Daniel, Petrarch, Ariosto, Pope, Auden, MacNeice, and Richard Hugo, to name a few. I suppose it has all but vanished because it is a victim not only of technology, but of the backlash against the "confessional" and "sentimental." We may have to start a thread on endangered species of verse forms!
    Dear Mary,
    I sometimes answer Harriet's mail, and let me thank you, on her behalf, for the lovely tribute to the blog and to Alicia.
    Looking forward to more of your own thoughts here, and with all best,
    Don