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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Dear Epistle Anna Jackson
FIRST PRIZE in the 2015 Pen America Prison Writing Competition went to a poem called ‘Dear Voyage’, by Brian Batchelor, a prisoner serving a life-sentence without parole.1 Letter-writing has long been important to prisoners, and poets writing from prison have often figured their poems as letters; Richard Lovelace’s ‘To Althea’ proclaims his freedom to love equal to the liberty of angels.2 Batchelor’s poem looks to a more final liberty, the voyage out of life itself.  If Lovelace’s poem proclaims all the world a world of liberty, so that even a prisoner is free within his prison cell so long as he lives and loves, Batchelor’s poem proclaims life itself a prison. ‘Dear crusted gravestone,’ he addresses his final destination, ‘Dear lichen / Dear vine, Dear dirt / ditch and spade […]’ It is an eerie and moving poem, and it is hardly surprising that the judges recognised the power of its tender address to an ‘anchorless and adrift’ voyage, the ‘Dear hunched horizon’ ahead, the ‘looming dark’. The use of the word ‘Dear’ to give a poem a particular charge has been a significant strategy in contemporary poetry; Batchelor’s ‘Dear Voyage’ must have stood out not only for its originality, power and strangeness, but for its knowing use of one of the most significant of contemporary poetry moves.  

To consider what the word ‘Dear’ is bringing to poetry today, I want to begin with a poem by Emily Berry, whose work I first encountered in an anthology of new poetry entitled Dear World and Everyone In It, and whose poem ‘Letter to Husband’ appears in her second poetry collection, Dear Boy.3 ‘Letter to Husband’ begins not with the word ‘dear’ but with the word ‘Dearest’, and it runs through ‘Beloved husband’ and ‘Most respected / missed and righteous husband’ before shuttling back to ‘dear’, intensified with further adjectives and honorifics:

                                                        Dear treasured, absent
husband.       Dear unimaginable piece of husband  
Dear husband of the moon […]


It is a poem full of longing, for a husband ‘much lamented, distant’, from a wife lost ‘in a long undergrowth of wanting’, calling, without a telephone, from ‘these white corridors’. Not only the husband but the postman, the night-time, knee bones and palms are addressed as ‘dear’, as the lyricism of the address spills over to fill the poem. It is a poem that poignantly evokes the vulnerability involved in letter-writing, which so often allows the writer to express themselves more intimately than they would talk to someone present. The poem is full of gaps, spaces on the page, that seem more full of meaning, or emotion, even than the words. The broken, fragmented sentences suggest interruptions or hesitations and the repetitions suggest false starts, revisions, a repeated attempt to find the right words that would persuade the absent husband to return, that would evoke love. What more important, impossible purpose can words have than to persuade someone to love you? Hasn’t this always been the most important purpose for letters to serve, isn’t this also what lyric poetry has so often been for?  

‘Letter to husband’ recalls, for instance, Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife’, which in turn looks back to Li Po’s ‘The Song of Ch’ang-kan’.4 At the same time, Pound’s poem, like Berry’s, is very much of its time, Modernist in its simplicity of language and form and in its focus on concrete scenes and images. The absence of the husband is observed in the different mosses grown too deep where he used to walk to be cleared away, while the fallen leaves and the paired butterflies indicate the changing seasons, the passing of time. In contrast, instead of presenting images and asking the reader to supply the emotion, Berry’s postmodern version presents the reader with the language of emotion, and language which is cultural and charged with social convention in a way the reader can’t overlook. ‘Most respected missed and righteous husband’ is language that might have come out of the source material Pound worked with, while a ‘serrated’ husband might suggest the serrated fragments of paper we are left with, or a serrated marriage: the language gets increasingly expressive, personal, particular, poetic and strange.

                                                      it is written
over and over          that         please come.
A scribble is the way a heartbeat is told      Dear serrated
husband. My heartscribbles       your name. My mouth
scribbles […]

The actual source of the poem, Berry has revealed in an interview, is not Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife’, but letters that really are no more than scribbles: looping, overlapping pencil writing-like scrawls in which it is from time to time possible to make out words, ‘Herzensschatzi komm’, or ‘komm komm komm’ repeated over and over. These desperate, illegible letters were written by Emma Hauck, a patient in a psychiatric institution, to her husband Mark, and can be accessed at online (lettersofnote.com/2011/08/sweetheart-come.html). Berry’s poem both expresses, and compensates for, the inarticulacy, the unreadability, and the raw emotion of the original material.  

Yet if Berry wasn’t intentionally referencing Pound, ‘Letter to Husband’ does all the same resonate with a sense of the letter in history, the place letter-writing has had as a repository for the same intense Romantic emotions that we associate also with lyric poetry. Amit Majmudar has pointed out, in an article titled ‘Our Hidden Contemporaries’, how much closer to our idea of poetry were the letters written by Victorian poets such as Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough than their poetry now seems. Give these letters some line-breaks, and Arnold’s conversational description of the limestone of the Swiss Alps as ‘terribly gingerbready: the pines terribly larchy’, coming after the assertion of self in the opening lines, ‘I love gossip and the small-wood of humanity generally’, offer exactly the surprising details, the movement between self and the world, the associative thinking that we find in contemporary poetry, and which seems more poetic now than the extended working out of a metaphor or argument in metred verse.5 Amit Majmudar is not alone in looking for poetry in what the subtitle to Liz Williams’s Kind Regards refers to as ‘The Lost Art of Letter-Writing’.  Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink, Ian Sansom’s Paper: An Elegy and John O’Connell’s For the Love of Letters are amongst a slew of recent books looking back on the slower, hand-written, more literary art of letter-writing that has been increasingly replaced by email, texts, and other forms of messaging.6 The word ‘dear’ will soon hardly be seen except in poetry.  It is becoming poetic at exactly the point it is no longer functional, no longer a part of the vernacular.

Many of the poems that appear at first glance epistolary may be better understood as odes (including Batchelor’s ‘Dear Voyage’), the phrase ‘Dear somebody,’ or ‘Dear something’ working much like the word ‘O’ in the Romantic ode. The word ‘O’ had, after all, its own functional origin, representing a perfectly ordinary, everyday piece of grammar, the vocative case, but its use to address not only a person in conversation but also the subject of a poem, as when Horace writes, ‘O Bandusian fountain,’ gives it a lyric strangeness even before the grammatical construction is translated into English, where the word ‘O’ has long been associated entirely with lyric poetry. The address to the fountain allows the poem to do more than simply describe its clear waters, ‘more splendid than glass’, honoured with sacred offerings, appreciated for its ‘pleasant cold’ – it turns into poetry the descriptive details that the Victorian poets were not alone, before the Modernists, in seeing as insufficient in themselves as poetry. It adds the drama of a relationship, in which the poet elevates the fountain – ‘you will become the most famous of fountains, / with me singing of the wood established on hollow / stones, from which your talkative / waters jump down’ – and the fountain elevates the poet, its ‘talkative / waters’ giving him a place like Orpheus in which he can write of, and as a part of, the lyric world.  

In fact, the translation of Horace I’ve been quoting offers not ‘O fountain’ but ‘Oh fountain’.7 This vernacular ‘oh’ can be found not only in translations of apostrophic verse but also in original poems attempting to evoke the very strangeness and archaism of the address itself, an evocation the shift from ‘O’ to ‘oh’ – from poetical to natural – would otherwise seem a strategy to avoid. Perhaps just as the lyric address with its accompanying ‘O’ crossed over into poetry from translation, the ‘oh’ of address is a response to translations that replace the vocative O with the more vernacular-appearing ‘oh’. Yet the effect is equally strange, to address an object with the exclamation of surprise, delighted or dismayed, that a person might ordinarily make alone as often as in company: ‘Oh good,’ we might say to ourselves, or ‘Oh dear.’ In contemporary poetry, we might say ‘Oh horse,’ interchangeably with ‘O horse.’ The poem ‘Horse’, by Annaleese Jochems, for instance, opens, ‘There you are O lonely, lovely horse in moonlight,’ in quick succession offering us the lyrical elements of presence, address, sound echoes and moonlight.8  This ode to a horse – a dead horse, we soon learn – is also a poem about longing for the more aesthetic, more significant feelings the poem itself is full of, in contrast to the domestic scene the poet must return to, the ‘mediocre violence / on television’, the milk that has gone off, the absence of any real intimacy, unlike the intimacy (as much as invocation) that the address to the horse gives the poem. By the end of the poem – by the last ‘oh’ in the version published in Ika – the poem is no longer reading ‘O horse’ but ‘oh horse’: ‘oh horse, you’re so hairy’.9 Both ‘Oh’ and ‘O’ in this poem seem equally to signify the same exclamation or sigh of feeling that ‘oh’ does in phrases like ‘Oh dear,’ as well, perhaps, as some lingering surprise over the very address to the horse that the phrase constructs.  

How interior the exclamation ‘oh’ can be is beautifully illustrated in Smith’s novel Autumn, when the dying Daniel Gluck dreams he is enclosed in a pine tree:


One might imagine it’d be unpleasant, being sealed inside a tree. One might imagine, ah, pining. But the scent lightens despair. It’s perhaps a little like wearing a coat of armour, except much nicer, because the armour is made of a substance through which the years themselves, formative, have run.
    Oh.
    A girl.
    Who’s she?
 

And unlike, perhaps, Horace’s fountain, the girl doesn’t hear a thing when he tries to communicate with her.

In Theory of the Lyric Jonathan Culler refers to exactly this distinction between ‘oh’ and ‘O’ in discussing the significance of the lyric’s address in a reading of William Blake’s ‘O Rose Thou Art Sick’. This disquieting little poem reads as follows:



O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.


Observing that ‘Blake’s lyric has provoked a good deal of critical discussion, especially because other texts of Blake’s do not treat sexuality as a dark destructive secret’, he comments on how strange it is that ‘in arguments about the meaning of the poem, none of the critics ask why the speaker addresses the rose, rather than observing that the rose is sick: “Oh this rose is sick,” or “This rose here is sick.”’  The difference, according to Culler, is the difference between description and ritual:


Instead of describing with some detachment the nature of the sickness of the rose, the poem tells the rose that it is sick – poems, like prayers, often tell the addressee something the addressee presumably already knows. It thus acquires a ritual character […] The energy of poetic address creates a surprisingly strong sense of prophetic revelation and marks this speech act as poetic discourse. If one has trouble saying what a speaker would be doing in saying ‘O Rose, thou art sick,’ it is because this does not correspond to any everyday speech act, and the simplest answer to what the speaker is doing is something like ‘waxing poetical.’   11   


It is this ‘waxing poetical’ that contemporary odes play up, in part by the very act of writing an ode.  Indeed, to write a poem at all is to wax poetical, and it no longer seems convincing to write a poem in everyday language as if writing a note on a scrap of paper and to pass it off as both poetry and ordinary speech. Sharon Olds’s ‘Spoon Ode’ is one of the most stringent dedications to the work of waxing poetical, an ode as much to the vocative ‘O’ and the letter O as to its ‘spoon’ that contains them.12 It begins (as it continues) in high flight:


Sharon Olds's Spoon Ode


There is a tremendous pleasure to be taken in waxing poetical, and at being waxed poetical at. But it is somewhat unsustainable. One spoon ode is enough. More intricately poised in its performance of waxing poetical is Tom Disch’s ‘Ode to a Blizzard’.  A poem that begins not just with ‘O’ but with ‘O!’ and indeed ends every sentence, except one, with an exclamation mark, is clearly open to the charge of waxing poetical. Beginning with the presentation of the blizzard as an ideologue winning arguments by ‘making the opposition disappear’, by the end of the poem a ‘sponsor’ has been invoked, ‘whose chill is more severe / than any here […] And every monument that you erect / belongs to him!’ In the face of this dispossession, even the beautiful artifice of the ode itself is revealed as the series of snowflakes it is, with every stanza looking as if it is modelled on the same syllable count but, on closer inspection, proving to have a slightly different arrangement, just as the rhymes shift about from place to place within the stanzas, in similarly almost regular but always new geometries.  

Unlike the word ‘O’, the word ‘Dear’ doesn’t offer the same echoes of Shelley or Blake or Horace. Yet more and more often it is being used to remarkably similar effect, as a way of ironising the act of waxing poetical while, at the same time, continuing to avail the poet of all the resources of the lyric. Heather Christle’s ‘Acorn Duly Crushed’, for instance, includes a nightingale early on, if only to tell her forest to shut up, while refusing to leave her forest alone.14 It opens:


Dear stupid forest.
Dear patently retarded forest.
Dear beautiful ugly stupid forest
full of nightingales
why won’t you shut up.


In the course of this lively, personable poem, the forest is addressed as a ‘Dear bitchy stupendous forest’, an ‘Indulgent municipal forest’, a ‘Dear nasty pregnant forest’ and a ‘Dear naive forest’. It is told it talks all the time (‘you are not pithy’), that it is ‘environmentally significant’, and that it has ‘an ancient noble terror’. It is asked to trade seats, to stop looking at the speaker, and finally, to come back to her house to bag drugs and talk about the forest’s new windows (‘How they are just now / beginning to sprout.’) Full of nightingales, ‘standard old growth trees’ and ‘important gangs of leaves’, it is possible to imagine this forest as a forest, but the way the forest is addressed, which is what gives the poem its energy and verve, is no way to talk to a forest, nor is it the usual address of the celebrated object of an ode, nor is it the way someone (certainly not a forest) is likely to be addressed in a letter. Like the word ‘O’ and not entirely unlike the way the word ‘Oh’ has come to be used in lyric poetry, the word ‘Dear’ addresses itself to the object of a poem in a way that allows the poet to express an interiority we continue to pine for.

Yet my best demonstration of the closeness of the epistle and the ode works a little differently. All of Ian Wedde’s odes in his Horace-inspired collection The Commonplace Odes are addressed to someone or something: the titles read, for instance, ‘To my mirror’, ‘To my twin brother’, ‘To Donna’s young dogs’, ‘To art and praxis’, ‘To Mt Victoria’, ‘To Autumn’, and so on.15 Several of them are also titled epistles, and do read as letters. ‘Epistle: To John Dickson’ begins ‘Dear John, you left your sweater behind / Last time you came down,’ just as a letter might begin, and goes on to give the details of how ‘it got left down the side of the sofa’, the mushrooms also left behind, the tomatoes and bottles of Merlot and the draft of a new book. If we are beginning to stray into the territory of the ode, in which, as Culler writes, the addressee is being told things he, she or it must already know, and in which the level of detailed description evokes a way of looking at the world that is itself celebratory, lyrical and out of the ordinary, the transition is barely perceptible and the poem quickly crosses back into the terrain of the ordinary note, announcing, ‘Here’s your sweater back. / The mushrooms and tomatoes were eaten’.15  

Wedde wrote The Commonplace Odes after ‘a dry spell’ of not writing poetry at all, having become bored, he writes, ‘with mundane unpretentiousness, writing as small talk’, while at the same time he ‘choked on the grandiloquent’.16 If these odes elevate ‘the marvellous, surreal details of ordinary life’ they do so without waxing poetical in the ironic way Sharon Olds does in the spoon ode, or Heather Christle does addressing her ‘Dear forest.’ And this creates a different relation to time. The ‘O’ of the ironic ode at once collapses time, in the way the belatedness of postmodernism uses the quotation marks of irony to bring any traditional element into play in an indistinguishable present, and marks an unbridgeable gap in time between the present and a past that can never be taken straight, can never be truly accessed. In his long engagement with the classics, Wedde has always acknowledged the distance in time that inevitably alters a reader’s relationship with an author ‘Whom I know only by the garlands / laid daily on this tomb,’ as he writes of Horace, ‘and whose tomb / I know only by the books I read, hoping / To hear in them, in their different accounts of the work done, / The equitable voice of the poet, wine cup in hand…’ But to acknowledge this gap in time is not to collapse time – quite the opposite. Shane Butler offers a useful approach to thinking about this difference in his recent work to direct classical reception theory away from thinking of reception only in terms of the immediate present – so that every translation, every reading of a text, is regarded as an entirely new reading best understood in the context of current and local concerns – to thinking, instead, in terms of a ‘deep classics’ that positions our engagement with the classics as an ongoing process taking place across (if not beyond) time, that recognises that our engagement with the classics is, in part, an engagement with the very passage of time that comes between the reader and the text (or, to put it more intimately, between the reader and the poet).17

Perhaps as email becomes obsolete, replaced by other forms of instant messaging, or taking on the form of instant messaging itself as the email is increasingly sent by phone, it might be time to take up the greeting ‘hi’ into poetry, in a way that could suggest this engagement with distance, both the distance of space and the distance of time. Unlike the word ‘dear’, which expresses a positioning in terms of relationship rather than space or time (or doesn’t, encompassing in letter etiquette anything from the familiar to the purely formal, in contrast to the elaborately coded distinctions between ‘dearest’, ‘my dearest’, ‘beloved’, ‘darling’ and so on),18 the word ‘hi’ calls out from one location to another, from one person to a person positioned elsewhere. Having only come into popularity as a greeting in the twentieth century, it doesn’t have the poetic associations of words brought into the lyric tradition through the translation of the classics, though it is hard to think of a more literal translation for ‘ave’. Instead it has retained something of the jauntiness of a casual greeting on the street, even as it has moved into the immateriality of cyberspace and is used with the impersonality the word ‘dear’ took on in the business letter. But just as the move into poetry has brought back into play the more resonant senses of the word ‘dear’, so is it timely now to see distance across time and space charged with poetic significance. ‘Hie thee hither’, the poem might address its reader, the word ‘hi’ echoing a call not so much to action, as to presence.

In a review article for the Poetry Foundation, Abigail Deutsch observes some of the most cutting-edge poets already beginning to hail their readers with a ‘hi’ or a ‘hello’ she regards, still, in terms of address, and as such characterised, she argues, by a ‘pained glibness’. When Matthew Zapruder writes ‘Hello everyone,’ or ‘Hello you,’ as when Dorothea Lasky writes ‘Hi everybody / It’s Dorothea, Dorothea Lasky,’ Deutsch objects, ‘They aren’t actually addressing you: they don’t know you,’ nor are they addressing ‘everybody’ as the reader is most likely sitting alone with their books. This is true, of course, but where Deutsch reads glibness, the title of Zapruder’s collection, Come On All You Ghosts, suggests the relation to the past and the future, to mortality and immortality, that, again, brings into play the ‘deep’ approach to literary tradition, authorship and readership of contemporary reception theory. In The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, Susan Pinker draws on a large amount of research demonstrating how social media fills our craving for social engagement and affection without in fact giving us the same biological benefits as actual social presence. What is true in terms of social closeness might perhaps also be true in terms of physical distance: when I have gone to write in the small town of Rangataua, where we have no internet access, I find myself needing to go for walks in a way I don’t while sitting in my connected office at work, or at home in the evening in Wellington, where I find myself instead looking up sites on the internet, as if this satisfies some biological craving for movement, for a change of scene.

What poetry does so beautifully (think of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, Batchelor’s ‘Dear Voyage’) is to make a space for longing, for absence and for craving, as we continue on (more or less rapidly depending on the amounts of affection and exercise in our lives) towards that final destination – hi, tombs! – we all must reach in the end.

NOTES

  1. Batchelor, Brian. ‘Dear Voyage.’ www.pen.org/poetry/dear-voyagel
  2. Lovelace, Richard. ‘To Althea, from Prison’, 1642. www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44657
  3. Dear World and Everyone In It, ed. Nathan Hamilton (Bloodaxe, 2013); Emily Berry, Dear Boy (Faber, 2013).
  4. Ezra Pound, ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife’, first published in Cathay (Elkin Mathews, 1915). www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47692
  5. Amit Majmudar, ‘Our hidden contemporaries’, The Dark Horse, Spring/Summer 2013, http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/Resources/Horse30Majmudar.pdf
  6. Liz Williams, Kind Regards: The Lost Art of Letter-Writing (Michael O’Mara, 2012); Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink (Macmillan, 2012); Ian Sansom, Paper, an Elegy, (HarperCollins, 2013); John O’Connell, For the Love of Letters (Atria, 2013).
  7. www.nonnumadanda.blogspot.co.nz/2011/02/horace-ode-313.html
  8. Annaleese Jochems, ‘Horse’, Ika (May 2016).  
  9. Curiously, along with differences in layout on the page, the version published in Ika replaces the second to last ‘oh’ in the author’s unpublished version with ‘o’. This difference was brought to my attention by Pip Adam, and Annaleese Jochems helpfully sent me her unpublished version for comparison.
  10. Ali Smith, Autumn (Hamish Hamilton, 2016).
  11. Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 221–223.
  12. Sharon Olds, ‘Spoon Ode’, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/58774
  13. Tom Disch, ‘Ode to a blizzard’, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/41335
  14. Heather Christle, ‘Acorn Duly Crushed’, www.bostonreview.net/heather-christle-acorn-duly-crushed
  15. Ian Wedde, The Commonplace Odes (Auckland University Press, 2001).
  16. From the dust jacket.
  17. Shane Butler, ed. Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception (Bloomsbury, 2016).
  18. See Bee Wilson’s review of Stefan Buczacki’s My Darling Mr Asquith: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Venetia Stanley, ‘A Little Talk in Downing Street’, London Review of Books 17 November 2016, for a lovely sense of ‘the complex gradation of affection that could be expressed by different salutations’.
  19. Abigail Deutsch, ‘Oh, hi there reader! Hello!’ www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/detail/69665
  20. Susan Pinker, The Village Effect: Why face-to-face contact matters (Atlantic, 2015).

This article is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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