Books for Poets | Mailing List | Copyrights | About Us


Poets Online Archive


June 2019

An epistle is a letter in verse, usually addressed to a person close to the writer. They are sometimes moral and philosophical, or intimate and sentimental. It was most popular in the 18th century, but has continued to be used by poets. Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" is an example of this classic form.

Lord Byron and Robert Browning composed epistles in the 19th century. One of Byron’s is the “Epistle to Augusta,” written to his sister.

But the epistle is an ancient Roman poetic form. You might associate it with the epistles that are commonly found in the Bible, especially the New Testament.

Epistolary poems, from the Latin “epistula” for “letter," are poems that read as letters. They are poems of direct address. They are free verse, without rhyme scheme or line length considerations. They are addressed to real people, imagined people, groups of people and even to things and abstract concepts.

But poets like to break rules.  Elizabeth Bishop’s "Letter to N.Y.," uses rhyming quatrains. It begins:

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl

In the past two centuries, the epistle is generally less formal and more conversational. An example is “Dear Mr. Fanelli” by Charles Bernstein.

In Hayden Carruth’s “The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill,”  he addresses his epistle to a fellow poet and translator who was a friend to Carruth. Is Sam dead? Can we construct a person from our imagination?

The poem I chose this month as a model is by Jean Nordhaus. When I first read it, I immediately thought of the mail that I still receive at my home for both my mother and father, both of whom have died - my father a long time ago; my mother more recently.

Her poem, "Posthumous," begins:

Would it surprise you to learn
that years beyond your longest winter
you still get letters from your bank, your old
philanthropies, cold flakes drifting
through the mail-slot with your name?

There are many other epistles old and new to consider as examples, including "The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students" by Galway Kinnell.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


You think you know where you're going.
You don't.
Your studies pointed to more studies
and a life on campus, an eternal student,
years beginning in September, ending in May,
summers of travel and writing

but that is not to be

Prepare for this: your studies will happen
in evenings and weekends
after 9-5 days and January to December years.
You'll write between days,
on weeklong vacations.

I'm telling you, but you can't change any of it.
The past is obdurate.
But now, at 33, I want you to know -
the future is unwritten
and we are putting pen to Time
and starting a new page.

Pamela Milne


I couldn’t explain this in English
as I rubbed behind your ear yesterday
before I left – and much less, in this letter.
But writing clears the writer’s head,
makes distance easier – why I was gone
all day yesterday, so when at last I walked
in the door, you needed to examine
me scalp to sole by scent. Where
had I been so long without you? What
had I been doing? You inhaled me, inch
by inch, to keep me in memory
forever. Could you tell, by tone of voice
and touch of hand, that I’d be leaving
again this morning? As I stroked
your chest, you grabbed – jaws wide-
open – at empty air, to fill yourself
with our moment.
What can an unreadable letter tell you
that you don’t already know?

Taylor Graham


I wrote down your story,
the one about the brain tumor,
the one where the phone call came
during supper and our father
wanted to finish the meal,

the one where our mother and I
packed away your things in black
bin liners for the charity shop,
where your brother took
your girlie magazines to the tip,

the one where I don't remember
who spoke at your funeral,
never knew who scattered your ashes,
(I would have done both those things
given half the chance)
the one where nobody hugged me
and my sibling grief got buried.

I wrote it all down on scraps of paper,
kept them in the back pocket of my jeans.
Over the years the pieces got smaller,
the writing faded as the jeans and I
went through the wash.

Corners broke off.
I no longer cried
at the thought of you.

Then I threw the tattered remains in the bin.
What use in holding on to all that sadness?

But I hold on to the anger.

Jocelyn Dacie


Hey Jude ... err, Dude
Saw you on the Tube the other day
I gotta say
You look pretty good
For a man your age
Thought what you said
Was pretty Sage ...
All that stuff
About still having
Something more to prove
Worried about what people think
Or say

With all that fame ... and cash?
That stash of memorabilia ...
Hell, a man could live on that alone
Sell a trinket now and then
But, from what you said,
That's not enough
To make you feel secure
All that stuff ... and still you worry

If someone once more popular than God
A man knighted by the Queen
Filthy rich and idolized
Still stews about his legacy,
Who am I to criticize myself
About how far I've come?
Maybe I should cut myself
Some slack,
Step back, reconsider
Am I a loser ... or a winner?
Be content
With how I am
And who I'm not

What constitutes a life well lived?
What we get ... or what we give?
A problem solved ... or who we loved?
What earns us a place in Heaven
Versus one reserved in Hell?

Impossible to tell

Frank Kelly


Lying here weary eyed,
bleary eyed, teary eyed,
hoping to escape another
sleepless night. Not a toss,
or a turn, a lump on a log,
chasing my imagination,
waiting for dawn.

How I miss the sound
of your breath, the warmth
of your body, finding
each other's hands in the darkness.
I cannot escape this isolation.
Withered as an autumn leaf,
waiting to be revived.

The last strands of your voice
hang on my ears like tambourines,
resonate in the night breeze,
oxygen from another planet.

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


you said my tears tasted like salt
so I swept them
into your wounds

you said they were hot coals
so I shed them
against your skin

you said they were drops of belladonna
so I pressed them
to your lips

when my tears dried
you said they were stale berries
so I left them on your grave

Barbara MacKay


Whenever I think of you,
the image of Pope rises from
the cover of the yellow-and-red
paperback text I had to buy
for Enlightenment Lit.

You could have been a stand-in
for the image, your white hair
the powdered wig; like Pope,
short, hump-backed, dour,
with a sharp wit, a bitter tongue.

You were quick and precise,
linear as logic in the way you
cleaned house, corrected
grandchildren, folded clothes.
Your look cowered my dad.

I never knew your world, but when
Mom was old she told me stories
about riding behind you as a child
on a horse across scraggly fields
in northern Alabama, skirts flying.

About your staying up nights to
read by candle light; about your
sitting at attention on the train
to Texas when Ben got a job
working on the rail in Mesquite.

She said you were a hard bargainer
on the plot of land you later share-
cropped in Oklahoma, learning
to shoot a gun, keeping dirt at bay,
chopping cotton under a boiling sun.

When Ben died of influenza, you
moved and got a job bottling an elixir
at McKesson & Robbins, taking
the street car to work, putting my
Mom and uncle Prince in school.

I remember your house—next to ours.
Clean and cool, off limits except by
invitation, paintings on the walls.
We had to take off our shoes on the
back porch before going in.

You bought me a winter coat, a
suitcase, when I left for University.
I, the last of your grandchildren,
now approach the age you
were when I knew you.

I wish I had had time to know
you better, for now I know your
restless intellect, your passion
for order, your skeptical bent.
But before I realized it, you

were gone. Having fallen in the
bathroom, you died as I carried
you to your bed one glorious
spring day when I was home, fresh
from pondering An Essay on Man.

Robert Miller


Do you even know how much you mean to me?
Dreams of losing you were the only ones
From which I woke up crying as a child,
And that still happens from time to time.

There’s a story that sums up
Why I’m so proud that you’re my Mum.
When an elderly lady, an ex-neighbour,
Was talking to with you on the street one day, she said,
“I often think about you, Maureen, because you’ve had such a terrible life.”
(She was talking about you losing first, your daughter, my little sister,
Then your husband,
Then your own Mum).
And you rounded on her and said, “NO!
“I’m actually having a wonderful life, and some terrible things have happened.”
If I could only ever inherit one thing from you, Mum,
It would be that attitude,
Right there.

I’ll be fifty-five years old in a couple of months
And yet, just a few weeks ago,
When I got horribly sick with a mystery illness they are still investigating,
You took care of me in your home for twenty-three days,
Willingly and selflessly.
I honestly don’t know what I would have done without you.

And sharing your home for all that time
Helped me see things much more clearly.

I see that your massive and unwavering financial support
Over the last decade or so
Has significantly reduced your resources and your freedom.
It’s meant that you’re now living in a house
That is deteriorating around you,
And that’s on me.

I see that the stress my precarious situation has undoubtedly caused you over the years
Must be at least partially responsible for the onset of the breast cancer.
That’s on me, too.

I see that, in you,
I have a best friend.
I couldn’t ask for more.

I see that, when you say you’ve “done nothing some days, that’s not true.
You spread joy, constantly.
As I sat there recovering, I would hear you on the phone
Several times a day
With friends, neighbours, Tricia and Sam,
And there was always laughter.

I know it embarrasses you when at least one of your neighbours (a church-goer)
Calls you (a humanist, if anything!) a saint.
It shouldn’t.
Don’t worry - I’ll never offer to polish your halo!
But going back to your huge and selfless financial support over the years
There must have been hundreds, maybe thousands of opportunities
For the occasional dig;
A snide remark here, a snarky comment there;
And yet you’ve never once come anywhere close.
Even when I stayed with you, we didn’t argue, not even once!
Your generosity of spirit comes through to me
With overwhelming grace and love,
Entirely unpolluted by any form of negativity
Even as it reduces your own living standards,
Your own freedoms.
You don’t see that as saintly behaviour
But you must at least admit it’s pretty bloody unique!

I planned, several times in recent weeks,
To say all this to you in person,
But I shied away every time, knowing
That I’d not get through more than a couple of sentences
Without crying.
It was no coincidence, then,
That the opportunity to write to you in this way
Has arisen this very month.

I love you, Mum -
Everything you are,
Everything you’ve done,
Everything you stand for.

Robert Best