"We may be the last generation to write to each other," Philip Larkin wrote to Judy Egerton in 1981. He was probably correct, in the spirit of the thing. It was a popular topic for a while, that letters are distinctly different from email. Those little articles written about it were composed, usually, with a pinch of nostalgia, that dash of regret that suggests we should have tried harder but oh well, there it goes, like every other old-fashioned activity.
It should be mourned, such a loss, with more than that. Maybe it's too sentimental to say that writing a letter was like living in a personal universe, but it was, as far as activities go, a planet unto itself, an island unfixed, something to still need in a life already too full of noise. There is much to regret in its passing, because the discursiveness and privacy that go into writing a letter, the focus, the pleasure and the isolation (just you and your recipient, just you and your reader, just you and your correspondent) are energies that feed us in real way, and nourish a brainy happiness. There is in the act of composing a letter a kind of deep, drifting ability to dream and go on, to elaborate, to cross out—to rethink, to write a page and then go back to it the next day and keep writing. I never much like having to sit down to begin one but, once having started, am always surprised by how much I then have to say. Writing a letter permits thinking, a kind of excursion into dimensionality.
And then, when the letter is written, it is literally dimensional. It exists on paper, with the potential for archiving, for permanence. Here I'm thinking of a number of collections I have used as sources of information. I love collected letters, don't you? Letters—in my case, letters of writers and people involved in the production or consideration of poetry— are one of the great sources of scholarship, each note intriguing at the same time that it informs, by turns delightful, tragic, strained, intense. Because in writing a letter one confesses to the page, a letter creates a space in which one is forever open; though the letter itself concludes, it doesn't fade. It may be read again, as present tense, repeatedly, and while it does become a part of a time, it remains, somehow, alive. So in my letter-loving logic, I understand them an echo of survival, an artifact, a record--yet all the ways I try to define it sound like I, too, am filing the letter under "historical relic." It's quite the opposite, although I dislike the term living history. But it's something like that. What's the word for something that can revive, reanimate? Is a letter a zombie?
|This maybe isn't what I had in mind. A great movie though.|
It's no secret that I am attracted to letters. They're compelling. They open up the letter-writer, yes, but they offer a vista too, like keyholes in door hardware, pinhole views, allowing readers access, like passkeys. There are the standard, startling, examples: Ted Hughes writes a letter in February of 1963 (to Daniel and Helga Huws), which begins "Sylvia killed herself on Monday morning." A few brief sentences later: "A Nurse was to arrive at 9 a. m.—couldn't get in & it was 11 a. m. before they finally got to Sylvia. She was still warm." This note is short, but a few pages later in Letters of Ted Hughes we get a much longer missive to Plath's mother Aurelia, explaining in tender terms the reasons Hughes believes it's not best for her to come visit her grandchildren at this time. And a bit later, to Assia Wevill, he describes returning to the pond that, we can presume from this letter, inspired him to write "Pike" so much earlier. He describes the pond, once fantastic to a young boy, as a "ruin," and the experience sounds like the beginning of a Hughes poem:
The garden was a forest, We went down to the pond, and it had shrunk to an oily puddle ...with oil cans & rubbish. Nicky had bought the fishing rod and he made a few casts into the poisoned looking water among the rubbish. It was horribly depressing. My name carved on the trees..... Then I made one token cast—a ceremonial farewell—and there among the rubbish I hooked a huge perch. The biggest I ever caught. It was very weird, a complete dream.
There is so much to absorb in this passage, a letter to his mistress Assia, who had begun her tango with then-married Hughes the first time they met by recounting her dream of the night before, of a huge pike (a dream straight out of his "Pike" poem, a reference that made him belive they shared an interior world together). However you feel about Hughes—and my feelings are complicated—I'm struck by his authentic self, his eye entirely open here to a lowercase turbulence, that kind of underworld in this world. Alan Bold writes that Hughes seems, in his work, "more possessed by his material than in control of it," and the letters bear this out. Reading Hughes' letters, reading any really good collection, is something of a privilege--the closest I can get, now, to overhearing a writer and his raw materials.
Photo of Ted Hughes via The Telegraph