Stamped by everyone

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiMar 04, 2015 | 16:08

Stamped by everyone

I have been thinking of letters, about who writes them anymore and under what circumstances. Formal letters, certainly; letters to banks, municipal authorities, admissions offices, a dozen such. But letters, what used to be called informal letters, to people we know? I know very few people who still write those and I admit I am one of those few.

Recently, I was in Karachi and at the hotel I was staying, was a small post office counter. I was inspired to raid the hotel stationery and write a letter to my son. I stuck stamps on it and - with the briefest of hesitations - handed it to the man behind the counter to send it on its journey back home.


It has still not reached and I wonder if it ever will.

Thoughts of that letter, still making its way across our fraught borders, or lost forever in some bureaucratic tangle, made me think of other kinds of letters - the ones that forever remain forms of letters or a mere intention - the epistolary poems.

A poem in the form of a letter is a curious paradox. It is unreal, in that if we were to write a letter, we would naturally choose to write it in prose. To make a poem out of a letter, it would appear that one must state one's allegiance first to poetry and only later to the matter in the letter.

And yet, the simplicity and directness of William Carlos Williams' most famous poem, 'This Is Just To Say' should make us reconsider the trickery involved in disguising a poem as a letter (or vice versa). This is the poem in full:

  • This Is Just To Say
  • I have eaten
  • the plums
  • that were in
  • the icebox
  • and which
  • you were probably
  • saving
  • for breakfast
  • Forgive me
  • they were delicious
  • so sweet
  • and so cold


The tone is as direct as a letter might be; it isn't hard to imagine the person to whom it is addressed or, indeed, the person who wrote that note. And yet, it is clearly a poem in the characteristic style of Williams, and in its progression of ideas and images.


In Michael Ryan's 'A Thank-You Note' the poet addresses a friend whose son is suffering from cancer but who has taken the time out to send drawing materials to the speaker's daughter. It is a compact poem that speaks of friendship, comfort in times of suffering and the nature of art itself in such times.

Other poets have chosen a variety of strategies in their epistolary poems: Primo Levi, in his poem 'To My Friends', also makes a direct and piercing address but it's not to a single person but all his friends. It might even be to all that is human in humanity.

Sometimes, poets can be speculative. That is, they address someone who does not exist but is conjured into existence by the poem. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's 'To an Unborn Daughter' is one such; my own 'Dear Stranger Deciphering This Ancient Script' is another. In Mehrotra's poem, the lines are an act of creation as much as they are an act of re-creation; in the other, the confessional nature of the poem is a ruse because the confessions are hidden behind the clearly incomprehensible nature of the script.

Letter poems can also be explicitly political, as in Elana Bell's poems 'Letter to Arafat' and 'Letter to Jerusalem'. Here is the latter poem, in full:

  • Letter to Jerusalem
  • To hold the bird and not to crush her, that is the secret. Sand turned too quickly to cement and who cares if the builders lose their arms? The musk of smoldered rats on sticks that trailed their tails through tunnels underground. Trickster of light, I walk your cobbled alleys all night long and drink your salt. City of bones, I return to you with dust on my tongue. Return to your ruined temple, your spirit of revolt. Return to you, the ache at the center of the world.

The poem's sharpness lies in the slant nature of the political content. It is not a harangue; it is an address to an entire city, rather than the leaders or residents of it and so it addresses the manifestations of policies - the sand, cement, tunnels, bones, and ruined temple. It eschews the bludgeon for a series of pinpricks.


This month, I would like you to write a letter poem. Think of whom you are addressing and why. Is it a single person? A collective? An idea? Are you asking them for news or giving it?

You could describe something of importance; you could communicate something simple (as in Williams' note); you could be satirical or speculative, serious or facetious. Your poem could work out ideas, it could philosophise or even theorise. Please don't be sentimental, however.

Write your letter poem and read it over to see how much it says and how much it implies. Confessions place a burden on the listener and - as a good letter-writer - what you seek is to leave an opening for a reply. Think about what kind of a reply you might expect in return and if that is what you might have wanted. 

Finally, remember that this is first and foremost a poem. Craft it as you would a poem but leave at its heart the entity you are addressing, whose presence will make it the letter it also is.

Keep the poem under 20 lines. Send in your submissions to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com by the 20th of March.

Last updated: March 04, 2015 | 16:08
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