Essays, Features

Stanley Plumly: “Something of the Sort: Full-bodied, paper-original, non-expedient correspondence”

We begin 2008 by featuring Stanley Plumly’s essay “Something of the Sort: Full-bodied, paper-original, non-expedient correspondence,” which appears in Poetry Northwest Fall-Winter 2007-08 v2.n2.

Something of the Sort
Full-bodied, paper-original, non-expedient correspondence

The difference between Keats and a longshoreman is a matter of a drop of
blood in their brains, or of the shape of their skulls or something of the sort.
—Wallace Stevens
Journal Entry, February 5, 1906


In the not-too-distant future those to whom it matters may look back at some point in the 1990s, when the networking of the Internet really started to take off, and wonder if at that moment the actual writing of thorough and styled and even personal letters, as a medium of one reflective silence speaking to another reflective silence (roughly Rilke’s definition of poetry), ended. The advent of e-mail, it may be seen, changed the very nature of—let alone the impulse to write—personal prose. In fact, it may be seen to have changed the nature of reflective time: the time, for instance, that it takes to think up and compose letters by pen or typewriter, the time it takes for such letters to arrive; then, the open, relative time it takes for those letters to be thoughtfully answered, mailed, and received. Days and days, perhaps weeks, depending on the correspondent and distance. E-mail, on the other hand, by its electronic nature, has proved to be about as instantaneous (short of a phone call) as can be—particularly if the person on the receiving end is perched right there at the screen, “waiting.” And if the price of these means and speeds compromises the compositional and fulsome qualities of the writing, then so much the better, since shorthand and abbreviation are what e-mail expects in the first place.

But from a so-called literary perspective we have seen that e-mail prose (an oxymoron?) has tended to be reductive, legal-like, business-toned or snappy, off-the-cuff, often cutesy, whatever, siding on the side of the ephemera of information or the glibness of an assumed intimacy rather than the more meditative hope of inspiration: while, for its practical portent, its words on the screen have seemed to float, as if filled with transparency, ready to disappear by machinewhim or mispressed key. Try to imagine—via a fantasy of an anachronism of history—the letter prose of Proust or Faulkner or Henry James pressed into e-mail service.

To paraphrase Yeats: Even sons and daughters of the swan must share something of every paddler’s heritage. So e-mail—or some future further telepathy—is certainly here to stay. Has it, though, come to replace the true letters of true writers, not to mention the now old-fashioned exchanges of the old-fashioned, amateurs who simply like to write personally, having taken time to think through what they want to say, word by made word? Doubtless, e-mail has replaced the impulse of letter-writing, if not yet the directness of the telephone. E-mail, therefore, like the remote, is with us, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it until it rudely replaces snail-mail. It is its tendency that is scary, its substitutive convenience, the way the even more reductive, Tonto-talking picture prose of text-messaging replaces e-mail itself, and the way iPod pictures of our faces moving our lips may replace words themselves. Lip-reading prose.

(It might be interesting to compare the e-mail wartime prose coming from Iraq with the letters home from Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and so forth, going back to the wonderfully rhetorical, poignant prose of the letters from American Civil War soldiers. At another level of engagement, it could be argued that U. S. Grant’s skill with the necessary concisions of the telegraph and his clarity in his battle-scene missives via messenger-on-horseback won the war for the Northern cause. Grant used this short mail to instruct, change strategy, inform, and otherwise encourage his generals in the very midst of the common “fog of war.” You might say his was e-mail with dramatic purpose in understated but dramatic style, yet it was also a hand-written, hand-delivered hard copy. Grant’s writing talent, which is ultimately proved in his now classic Personal Memoirs, is responsible for the effectiveness of his abbreviated war communiqué prose, a prose filled rather than abridged.)

Will we look back at the death-decade of the poets who came to maturity during or just after World War II as the end of the history of literary letter-writing—no, that sounds too high and mighty: will it be seen as the closing of the time when writers write palpable mailable letters? And if not that World War generation, then will it be the generation after, maturing in the sixties and seventies, when the patience for compelling prose composition itself begins to wane? Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Larkin, Ted Hughes, and Plath, whose various collected correspondence has begun to see the light of day in recent years, will probably signal the last in the significant long history of writers’ mail sent and received in real time—that is, mail traversing physical space by coach, train, or air.


As to “style,” there is something about the medium for e-mail as such that dramatizes a crucial difference between words typed onto the abstraction of a screen and words written down (typed or otherwise) on the literal wood-pulp of paper. The writing act may appear the same, but the result is not, and that difference is all the difference to thoughtful style and thoroughgoing content. And this is not simply recognition of a difference of means or nostalgia for how writers of the past wrote letters as opposed to writers now—if, indeed, contemporary writers even bother with full-bodied, paper-original, non-expedient correspondence. Nor is the difference parallel to the historically different methods of pen-and-ink and traditional typing, both of which are paper-applied. The e-mail difference has to do with the screen itself, its window surface, and its machine’s multipurpose as a communicator. Paper is neutral, it doesn’t talk back. The screen, on the other hand, effects an ongoing picture—still or in motion, silent or articulate—whether or not it is worth a thousand or a million words: while its words themselves resemble “soft copy” pictures of words. The letters (the alphabet, that is) on the screen just don’t feel fixed there enough— not the way real type or penpoint fixes words to the white field of the page. And this “impression” leads to the further indictment that e-mail has little tolerance for complexity and/or ambiguity, texture, and/or sustained labor—certainly not in personal exchange. In addition to its floaty feel, e-mail’s tone is one of sufficiency.

I lately finished a tolerably long novel, & I’ve written a third of another—with still another begun & two or three more subjects awaiting me thereafter like carriages drawn up at the door & horses champing their bits. And apropos of the 1st named of these, which is in the hands of the Harpers, I have it on my conscience to let you know that the idea of the fiction in question had its earliest origin in a circumstance mentioned to me—years ago—in respect to no less a person than yourself. At Torquay, once, our young friend Jon. Sturges came down to spend some days near me, and, lately, from Paris, repeated to me five words you had said to him one day on his meeting you during a call at Whistler’s. I thought the words charming—you have probably quite forgotten them, & the whole incident—suggestive—so far as it was an incident; &, more than this, they presently caused me to see in them the faint vague germ, the mere point of the start, of a Subject. I noted them, to that end, as I note everything; & years afterwards (that is 3 or 4,) the Subject sprang at me, one day, out of my notebook. I don’t know if it be good; at any rate it has been treated, now, for whatever it is; & my point is that it had long before—it had in the very act of striking me as a germ—got away from you or from anything like you! had become impersonal and independent. Nevertheless your initials figure in my little note; & if you hadn’t said the 5 words to Jonathan he wouldn’t have had them (most sympathetically & interestingly) to relate, & I shouldn’t have had them to work in my imagination. The moral is that you are responsible for the whole business. But, I’ve had it, since the book was finished, much at heart to tell you so. May you carry the burden bravely.

 This is an excerpt from a thousand-word letter Henry James writes to his fellow novelist William Dean Howells on August 10, 1901. The novels James refers to are, in order: The Ambassadors (“long novel”), The Wings of the Dove (“a third of another”) and The Golden Bowl (“more subjects”). James, famously, is a demanding stylist—in all his prose, whether fiction or non-fiction. He represents, one might say, the extreme example of the epistolary, though doubtless his “style” would have to be adjusted to a tone more contemporary were he writing today. The point, however, is that not only is James not writing letters today, he could not exist and be Henry James. The computer might facilitate his prose: it would certainly change it, both his mindfully composed as well as his spontaneous correspondence. As e-mail, the passage above (let alone the letter as a whole) would have to be at risk of being short-handed in some way, if not reduced to something more efficient, or direct. It would have to be, surely, de-Jamesed.

Because it tends to be, oddly, a more public— or potentially exposed—forum, e-mail also has problems with, for want of a better word, intimacy: those categories of sincerity, empathy, and vulnerability that define so much of real mail. Public figures such as writers may have, eventually, their personal mail made public, but, at the source of its composing, such correspondence is strictly person-to-person, in prose always searching for the right tone. Here’s a sample of the start of a letter dated June 17, 1909, New York, from a young Wallace Stevens to his future wife, Elsie Moll.

My Lady:

The sweet sound of the down-right rain changes the city into something very much like the country—for rain falls on roofs, pavements etc. with pretty much the same sound with which it falls on trees or fields: no, trees; for surely it falls on fields (and the grass of them) with a softer sound than this.—So much for the sweet sound of the down-right rain!—The whistles on the river are drowned in it, the noise of the Elevated is swallowed up, a neighborly mandoline is quite lost (except in snatches.)—One long, unbroken, constant sound—the sound of the falling water.—A sound not dependent on breath. One sound made up of a multitude. A dark chorus blending in wide tone. A numerous sound, to speak so (and it wouldn’t be shocking at all.)—A sound native to the mind, remembered by the mind.—Therefore, the ancient and immemorial sweet sound of the down-right rain.—Perhaps, a certain damsel, sits in her porch to-night, with her chin, say, in the palm of her hand and watches—the leaves wet in the lamp-light, the shining street, the water flowing down-hill.—Perhaps, (on the other hand,) she is at her piano—improvising—a “song to a lute at night.” But surely there never was a more melodious fall of rain than this—more musical than winter’s music-box.

This is what one might call turn-of-the century “period” letter-writing—poetic, of course, but also richly embroidered, thoughtfully detailed, carefully paced, then transformed into a maid-in-her-castle fantasy. Eve-of-St.-Agnes-like. Yet it sustains a light touch, a sense of humor, and perhaps a parody of the poet in love. The rest of the letter, like so much of Stevens’s early mail, shifts to even more of a weather report (the spring “misty evening” is “the color of November” and Manhattan’s Metropolitan Tower is “cloud-capped as Fujiyama.”) and to the news in the newspaper in front of him, taking particular notice of a celebration of “the Wright Brothers, the aeroplanists,” this day in Dayton. Hundreds of words later he is waxing philosophical, “as if I had discovered for myself why Life is called noble, and why people set value on it, abstractly.” It is—for this letter-writer at least—impossible to imagine Stevens’s wandering, romantic prose—so present here—bruised into an e-mail.

If we skip over the moderns and the mountain-high perspectives of such figures as Stein and Wharton, Valery and Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and enjoin the more modest postmodern domestic heights of, say, the confessional era of Lowell and Bishop, the subject of intimacy may change but not its imperative. “Confessional” psychic energy itself is enough to fill the page (Sexton to her lovers; Plath to her mother; Ginsberg to his father) with an ebb and flow of whining and worry. For me, it’s impossible to imagine Robert Lowell e-mailing Elizabeth Bishop with a long-suffering complaint about alimony now due his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick. It’s too long a letter to quote but it covers just about every financial contingency in Lowell’s personal and literary life. (“I am sore about my alimony…I keep what I make: salary, manuscript sales, royalties. I lose everything I inherited, all trust interest, NY apartment, Maine house and barn…”) Nor possible to imagine Bishop, in turn, emailing her friend Anne Stevenson—over the course of nearly two weeks (January 8–January 20, 1964)—a chronology letter that covers a multitude of personal issues and opinions yet sustains a consistency of tone thick with insight. (“My outlook is pessimistic. I think we are still barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives, as just possibly future ages may be able to see. But I think we should be gay in spite of it, sometimes even giddy,—to make life endurable and to keep ourselves ‘new, tender, quick.’”—Is “gay,” in 1964 a pun? or just texture?)

Nor possible to imagine Philip Larkin emailing his friend James Sutton a series of long letters debating Larkin’s problems with women, notably one Ruth Bowman, whom he is thinking of marrying. “What mainly worries me, if you’ll excuse my speaking of my own affairs for the moment, is a strengthening suspicion that in my character there is an antipathy between ‘art’ and ‘life’. I find that once I ‘give in’ to another person, as I have given in not altogether voluntarily, but almost completely, to Ruth, there is a slackening and dulling of the peculiar artistic fibers that makes it possible to achieve that mental ‘clenching’ that crystallizes a pattern and keeps it still while you draw it. It’s very easy to float along in a semi-submerged way, dissipating one’s talent for pleasing by amusing and being affectionate to the other—easy because the returns are instant and delightful— but I find, myself, that this letting in of a second person spells death to perception and the desire to express, as well as the ability.” This kind of elaborate, self-conscious, rather innervating self-analysis, bled out over time, could be self-destructive, which it proves to be, as Larkin eventually drinks himself to death, alone. Hard to imagine this over-thought, potentially over-wrought prose being allowed its page-on-page complex, intimate, and slow expression in e-mails with their bloodless efficiency.


Certainly, however, there are those writers who find the mechanism of e-mail no impediment to lengthy, immediate, personal and/or speculative communication, and who just fly away on the screen, regardless of the demands they might make on their correspondent or “listener.” One can imagine e-mail serving exactly that temperament: chatty, familiar, non-sequitured. But it’s the beauty of the language we’re talking about, its chances for a turn of phrase, the right sentence, the developed paragraph, however wandering, beauty that depends on a certain privacy, perhaps secrecy, and does not depend on speed or display. As if we are writing our mail on a window, there’s something at once public and narcissistic about the medium of e-mail, TV with a typewriter, the window as a mirror. We see too much of our own faces and feel too much of our isolation looking into cyber space, which is one reason we love those quick responses, which in themselves expect a quick return. Such needy speediness is the enemy of style.

The journalist Anne Applebaum has written recently in The Washington Post, “I used to write letters. Long ones. They described nothing in particular and achieved nothing in particular, but then they weren’t supposed to. They were intended, in that pre-Internet, pre-Skype time, for keeping in touch with people who lived on a different coast or across the Atlantic.” She feels, she says, great nostalgia for those letters; in fact, “nostalgia for letter-writing itself. Though I won’t pretend that this activity is morally preferable to e-mail or instant messaging, letter-writing certainly was stylistically preferable. Letters had a beginning, a middle, and a carefully crafted conclusion. Effort was exerted to make them discursive, amusing, and readable. E-mail, by contrast, is intended to convey instant thought and to evoke fast responses. Theoretically, there is no reason not to write long, elegant e-mails, but the medium works against it.” Applebaum adds that she’s “inhibited by the mental image of the recipient scrolling impatiently to the bottom, trying to get to the point so that he can get to the rest of his mail.”

What e-mail promotes, she concludes, is “the need to write several dozen messages a day, as opposed to a single, occasional letter.” Of course, there’s no going back, is there? No going back, not even for writers themselves, and their single, occasional, elegant, exciting, personal letters, such as those written by Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Sigmund Freud, or D.H. Lawrence, and especially by the greatest writer letter-writer of all, John Keats. We’re talking, when we speak of Keats, of early nineteenth-century England and of a little bit of time in faroff Italy. We’re talking about pens dipped in India ink and words written on paper milled and aged in letters filling both sides and the margins since the postage is so dear. We’re talking the only means of communication short of a conversation. We’re talking a whole day, at least, or weeks, depending on distance. We’re talking time, reflective time, and patience. We’re talking the richness of writing and the deeper richness of waiting. Of sending, receiving, and responding over time. We’re talking silence and the value of people wishing to speak…thoughtfully.

Keats’s letters cover a period of about four years plus, from the summer of 1816 to the autumn of 1820. Their intensity, often good humor, sometime anxiety and depression, their hurry and dash, their poetry and poetry theory, their reportage and sense of dailiness, their honesty and worry over a word, their truth and beauty, their love of the language and feeling for life should not obscure the fact that they are written under the quiet, understated threat of a deadline. He wrote to a devoted circle of friends, to his brothers and sister, his publishers, and to Fanny Brawne. What survives are some two hundred and fifty letters and notes, most the focus of an hour or two, others month-long, sequential, journal-like letters to his brother George and sister-in-law in America. Their passion and profundity, whether mailed from Hampstead, Scotland, or Italy, sets them apart; their humanity and vulnerability marks them as literature. Yet for all the genius they demonstrate they are still personal letters, drawn directly from the moment of their making though that moment arrives with the weight and wit of a long thought. Almost every letter is luminous with some kind of insight. “Brown and Dilke walked with me & back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.”

This from a December 1817 letter to his brothers, full of the busyness of the day and the above brilliance. All of Keats’s letters are like this: filled with the goingson of things, then a flash or a sustained discussion of what makes the art of poetry— the art of anything. What does T.S. Eliot say? “There is hardly one statement of Keats about poetry, which, when considered carefully and with due allowance for the difficulties of communication, will not be found to be true.” This is a comment, in Keats’s case, that applies across the board of his interests and insights. The philosophical and the playful each embedded within the fabric of the other. Keats’s pen, his very posture, factor into the soul of his letters, or as he speculates to George…“the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet…These are trifles—but…Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know what position Shakespeare sat when he began ‘To be or not to be.’” The body—that is what a letter should contain, the how and what of the body, the flesh of being, the senses, the implicit sounds and colors, the pen moving, the fingers typing, the noise of writing. The mind alone in the machine is not enough.

Stanley Plumly has published over ten books of poetry and prose including his most recent volume of poems, Old Heart (Norton), and Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry (The Other Press), a collection of essays. His meditation on John Keats, Posthumous Keats, is forthcoming. He is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland.

“Something of the Sort: full-bodied, paper-original, non-expedient correspondence “appears exclusively in the Fall-Winter 2007-08 v2.n2 Issue of Poetry Northwest.