Dear Letter Poems / Love, Aaron
by Aaron Counts
When poet Charles Simic was a boy, he knew firsthand the sound of bombing. Growing up in Belgrade during World War II, his hometown was bombed first by the Germans, then later, after the Nazi occupation, by US and British forces. It was those Allied bombs he remembers best. They began dropping on Easter Sunday in 1944, killing thousands and leveling neighborhoods close to Simic’s home. One bomb even hit the sidewalk in front of his home, spinning harmlessly to a stop and refusing to explode.
In 1972, thousands of miles from the city of his youth at a poetry event in San Francisco, Simic met poet Richard Hugo. Upon hearing that Simic had spent his summer in Belgrade, Hugo began to draw detailed recreations of the town’s topography on the tablecloth, prompting questions like, “When were you in Belgrade? How long did you spend there?” Unaware of Simic’s background, Hugo’s response was, “I was never there; I only bombed it a few times.”
Both men were astonished to learn they were on opposite ends of those bombs that were dropped, one a soldier, the other a citizen. According to Simic, Hugo was more shaken by this strange fate than he was. Later, Hugo composed the following:
Letter to Simic from Boulder
Dear Charles: And so we meet once in San Francisco and I learn
I bombed you long ago in Belgrade when you were five.
I remember. We were after a bridge on the Danube
hoping to cut the German armies off as they fled north
from Greece. We missed. Not unusual, considering I
was one of the bombardiers. I couldn’t hit my ass if
I sat on the Norden or rode a bomb down singing
The Star Spangled Banner. I remember Belgrade opened
like a rose when we came in. Not much flak. I didn’t know
about the daily hangings, the 80,000 Slavs who dangled
from German ropes in the city, lessons to the rest.
I was interested mainly in staying alive, that moment
the plane jumped free from the weight of bombs and we went home.
What did you speak then? Serb, I suppose. And what did your mind
do with the terrible howl of bombs? What is Serb for “fear”?
It must be the same as in English, one long primitive wail
of dying children, one child fixed forever in dead stare.
I don’t apologize for the war, or what I was. I was
willingly confused by the times. I think I even believed
in heroics (for others, not for me). I believed the necessity
of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do
it again. But I was young. The world never learns. History
has a way of making the past palatable, the dead
a dream. Dear Charles, I’m glad you avoided the bombs, that you
live with us now and write poems. I must tell you though,
I felt funny that day in San Francisco. I kept saying
to myself, he was on the ground that day, the sky
eerie mustard and our engines roaring everything
out of the way. And the world comes clean in moments
like that for survivors. The world comes clean as clouds
in summer, the pure puffed white, soft birds careening
in and out, our lives with a chance to drift on slow
over the world, our bomb bays empty, the target forgotten,
the enemy ignored. Nice to meet you finally after
all the mindless hate. Next time, if you want to be sure
you survive, sit on the bridge I’m trying to hit and wave.
I’m coming in on course but nervous and my cross hairs flutter.
Wherever you are on earth, you are safe. I’m aiming but
my bombs are candy and I’ve lost the lead plane. Your friend, Dick.
Letter Poems, as the name suggests, are poems that take the form of correspondence, or perhaps they are correspondence that takes the form of poetry. They are great tools in the teaching of poetry to young writers because their strengths are easily identifiable and easily understood.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of letter poems—as is exhibited in this example—is that they are directed towards a specific audience rather than an anonymous, faceless crowd, and in doing so have a more directed sense of purpose. The body of the letter should illuminate something about the relationship between the writer and the addressee: an event, a shared experience, an emotional connection. What is shared with readers about that relationship is what makes the letter poem compelling or not.
Letter poems aren’t afraid of the ordinary. In fact, they embrace the seemingly mundane, and look to draw particular effect from the exquisite details in day-to-day events. Such poetry is immediately accessible to most readers in its avoidance of abstraction. Take a look at this well-known poem from William Carlos Williams.
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
“This is Just to Say” feels much like a found poem. We can picture this note affixed to the refrigerator with a magnet, can picture the grin of the note writer and the anger of the note’s receiver at the non-apology. We might even picture the white plate on the counter with a few plum pits and dribbles of juice around the rim.
Letter poems can also help poets make deliberate choices about line and stanza breaks, since by adding the word “poem” after “letter” we are in effect transforming a piece of prose into poetry. One of the most visible (some might argue, only) difference between poetry and prose is the use of line breaks rather than the margins of the paper to determine when the line ends. If a letter poem is, in fact, a letter, then those line break decisions become highly important in the creation of sound, rhythm and meaning. They become the biggest tool the poet can wield in that transformation into poem. “This is Just to Say” carries the astounding word to line ratio of 28:12, slightly better than 2 to 1. It eliminates punctuation altogether, instead using visual cues via line and stanza breaks to create a sense of timing and rhythm.
Writing letter poems can help us get closer to our personal voices, since they are often an attempt at direct communication between the poet and someone else. Unless the poet is also adopting a persona in the poem, it is his or her own thoughts and ideas that are being communicated. The subject matter and way of expressing that subject matter will likely be closer to the way the poet actually speaks or talks than in any other form.
Read the following by Michael Cirelli:
I’m sorry if my poem
hit you over the head today.
I was trying to beef it up,
give it more punch and
apparently the ending got
away from me, wiggled
off the line like a feisty rainbow
trout. But it was just humiliating
last week limping through school
with that giant shiner around
my left eye. All week I worked
my abstract, pumped irony, stayed
up late praying to my avant-guardian
angel, burned incense to Ashbury—
and after all that, my sentences are still
flat. It seems I’ve busted my index
finger in a word playground, the loaded pun
shot blanks in my foot, carnal syntax
got the best of me. Porno and play station
has sucked the milk from my days.
But this week, I promise to lock myself
in a stanza and throw away the keyboard
until I stink so damn good you’ll say
I wouldn’t change a thing.
Welcome to my sauna where everyone
speaks peanuts here! This is where
I rub turtle wax all over my verses
until they are more polished than my
grandpa’s Town Car. I want you
to see yourself in them.
Since I count Cirelli as a friend, I can say this poem is a true representation of him and his voice. Family plays a big role in Cirelli’s life and writing; he flips between humor and seriousness quite seamlessly; he doesn’t shy away from a pun, and he is a quite accomplished slam poet that initially felt out of place in the more academic MFA program at NYU. I hear all of those things in this poem, though knowing them is certainly not a pre-requisite to understanding this piece.
There are no strict rules to writing in this form, but in general, letter poems begin with a salutation (“Dear Somebody,”). They often end with some sort of sign-off (“Love, Aaron” or “Yours Truly, Me”). The beginning and end are already decided, so they can reduce that blank page paralysis we sometimes face in our own work and in the classrooms where we teach. Students who are otherwise intimidated by writing poetry are less reluctant to write a letter. Framed that way, you’ll usually see less empty stares or motionless pens. Allow them to write to whomever or whatever (to Beyonce, to homework, to that creepy guy who mumbles to himself at the bus stop, to Monday mornings). Among the submissions, you’ll get a handful of the most poignant, funny and surprising letter poems you could have hoped imagined.