Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

The second page of this letter from 1966 is not shown to protect the privacy of the writer. 
It is one of the most treasured letters in my digital collection.

In the recent New Yorker, August 25, 2014, on pages 54-55, there is a poem by Eavan Boland the title of which I stole for this post. I have been thinking about letter-writing for the past few days. On my table are the photo cards I plan to send: sympathy for an injury; congratulations on your retirement, and I-thought-you-might-like-this-photo of your young daughter and her violin from the early 1990s. I often think to send notes; I make cards with my photos and I recently bought a passel of bird stamps to send them with, but somehow, I get fewer written and sent than I plan.


The ratio of daylight to handwriting
Was the same as lacemaking to eyesight.
The paper was so thin it skinned air.

The hand was fire and the page tinder.
Everything burned away except the one
Place they singled out between fingers

Held over a letter pad they set aside
For the long evenings of their leave-takings,
Always asking after what they kept losing,
Always performing—even when a shadow
Fell across the page and they knew the answer
Was not forthcoming—the same action:

First the leaning down, the pen becoming
A staff to walk fields with as they vanished
Underfoot into memory. Then the letting up,

The lighter stroke, which brought back
Cranesbill and thistle, a bicycle wheel
Rusting: an iron circle hurting the grass

Again and the hedges veiled in hawthorn
Again just in time for the May Novenas
Recited in sweet air on a road leading

To another road, then another one, widening
To a motorway with four lanes, ending in
A new town on the edge of a city

They will never see. And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see

The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became

Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew

By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?

Eavan Boland

It always pleases me to see a poem by Eavan Boland. Many years ago she came to San Jose under the auspices of the Poetry Center and someone funded a reading, at the library I managed, as part of her visit. She couldn't have been nicer and gave a beautiful reading to a small group in this library in one of the poorer neighborhoods. I've always been grateful for the chance to present a truly great poet in one of my special places, the Alum Rock Library. 

Boland's poetry manifests the spirit of someone who has been paying attention to things that matter to human beings. This particular poem is beautifully constructed of 3-line stanzas, which is one of my favorite forms. It is not a simple poem, but a rich one which brings in much related material in an economical way. I particularly call your attention to the fifth and sixth stanzas which are so interesting about the physical act of writing with a pen and the use of related images (cranesbill, bicycle wheel, rust that relate to writing with dip pen and ink.

I am reminded again that I need to scan the letters my father's father sent to my aunt/ He wasn't particularly happy at the time, but he expresses it in the most beautiful 19th century handwriting.

The rainstorm going on right now has just intensified. But if the internet is still working, I will post this now.

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