|sealed letter – via Flickr|
An epistle is a letter in verse, usually addressed to a person close to the writer. They are sometimes moral and philosophical, or intimate and sentimental. It was most popular in the 18th century, but has continued to be used by poets. Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” is an example of this classic form.
Lord Byron and Robert Browning composed epistles in the 19th century. One of Byron’s is the “Epistle to Augusta,” written to his sister.
But the epistle is an ancient Roman poetic form. You might associate it with the epistles that are commonly found in the Bible, especially the New Testament.
Epistolary poems, from the Latin “epistula” for “letter,” are poems that read as letters. They are poems of direct address. They are free verse, without rhyme scheme or line length considerations. They are addressed to real people, imagined people, groups of people and even to things and abstract concepts.
But poets like to break rules. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y.,” uses rhyming quatrains. It begins:
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
In the past two centuries, the epistle is generally less formal and more conversational. An example is “Dear Mr. Fanelli” by Charles Bernstein.
In Hayden Carruth’s “The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill,” he addresses his epistle to a fellow poet and translator who was a friend to Carruth. Is Sam dead? Can we construct a person from our imagination?
The poem I chose this month as a model is by Jean Nordhaus. When I first read it, I immediately thought of the mail that I still receive at my home for both my mother and father, both of whom have died – my father a long time ago; my mother more recently.
Her poem, “Posthumous,” begins:
Would it surprise you to learn
that years beyond your longest winter
you still get letters from your bank, your old
philanthropies, cold flakes drifting
through the mail-slot with your name?
There are many other epistles old and new to consider as examples, including “The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students” by Galway Kinnell.
Our June writing prompt is to write your epistle.
Submission deadline: June 30.