On Correspondence

 

"Letter from Dave," Boulder, 2015

 
The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.
— Frank O'Hara

The above is an excerpt from Frank O'Hara's “Personism: A Manifesto," first published in Yugen  #7, 1961. While The Lune does not aspire to the tenets of personism (which do not properly exist, unless of course you want them to) it holds the above thought in high regard. O'Hara has given us a jewel center for lunar poetics: an unflinchingly contemporary way to read the polysemantic correspondence between entities in a system.

What seems true today is that many people are not sure how to approach contemporary poetry, and this uncertainty makes for a ready resistance. Surely academic discourse is vital for the health and development of the practice, but not everyone wants to know poetry as scholars do, nor should they have to. “Lunar personism"—the discussion of poetry as correspondence—gives us a way to observe poetry's sociocultural relevance without entrenching the discussion in literary terms. We shall (eventually) talk about letters: what they have looked like and what they look like now.

Poetry between “two pages" is poetry that sees the book as its basis in reality. A book is a luminous object that—especially in today's age of information everywhere—is easily bogged down by the idea of itself. What's the big idea? is the question a book inherently asks, and we as readers respond by taking for granted the suggestion that a book has a big idea. Another way of framing the big idea is by calling it “plot." Because a book looks like a single big idea it dims a little when compared to the shiny pixel-infused boxes at which we stare so often and which multiply and scatter and generally act like money.

(That the shiny boxes are also traumatized by “plot" is another story: we remain convinced that they give us freedom when in truth they simply proliferate and rely on the allure of quantity. “Big" as quantity is a distraction from “big" as significant.)

The ever-expanding vocabularies of technology and science have exploded the traditional mechanics for understanding the world in which we live. Almost 100 years ago James Joyce gave us Ulysses, an epic with eighteen distinct methods for the advancement of “plot." According to Stuart Gilbert—for whom Joyce composed a schema of the novel's fundamental structure—it is by the diversity of characters “as they must be" that we wind up with “a coherent and integral interpretation of life." In other words, Joyce's sophisticated network of connections—journey? mind? galaxy?—shapes the whole from within rather than presiding from without.

Poetry between “two persons" adheres to the idea that each is responsible for the destiny of all. O'Hara's expression gives us agency in determining that which concerns poetry and that which doesn't. Instead of trying to fit poetry into a neat structure we are asked to understand that “everything is in the poems" and from there the relationship to poetry is emergent. So:

The amalgamation of quotation and analysis to follow is not intended as some sort of letter-obsessed manifesto (third-personism, anyone?) but rather as an act of communion: the intimately joined perspectives of some wonderful writers on the affect and effect of sharing letters the “old fashioned" way.

We begin with Belgian-global author Amélie Nothomb, who writes:

The nature of the epistolary genre was revealed to me: a form of writing devoted to another person. Novels, poems, and so on, were texts into which others were free to enter, or not. Letters, on the other hand, did not exist without the other person, and their very mission, their significance, was the epiphany of the recipient.

Nothomb has said that (her) memories “reach a degree of reality which is incandescent" once written, not before. She suggests that the act of externalizing a thought sheds light on the thought's internal basis. “A point of view appears," she says, and “then it feels part of me." She describes the dialogic root system of human consciousness, the fact that talking is also listening (re: Gertrude Stein) and that reality is fundamentally shared.

In composition which has at its heart “the epiphany of the recipient" we discover the common ground of language and love: compassion, a mutual suffering (and the willingness to move beyond and within it). The spirituality of letters is at this point an undertone. So we go from Nothomb to Virginia Woolf, who writes:

Let us consider letters—how they come at breakfast, and at night, with their yellow stamps and their green stamps, immortalized by the postmark—for to see one’s own envelope on another’s table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien. Then at last the power of the mind to quit the body is manifest, and perhaps we fear or hate or wish annihilated this phantom of ourselves, lying on the table. Still, there are letters that merely say how dinner’s at seven; others ordering coal; making appointments. The hand in them is scarcely perceptible, let alone the voice or the scowl. Ah, but when the post knocks and the letter comes always the miracle seems repeated—speech attempted. Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost.

The statement “immortalized by the postmark" bears a remarkable similarity to the mythological premise of astrology: that the time and place of one's birth is significant (because we are part of a system in which time and space functions). Or we might consider the law of conservation of energy, which states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant (implying that energy can neither be created nor destroyed but physically or chemically changed).

Woolf was not being careless in using the terms “immortalized," “manifest," “miracle," “repeated," “venerable," and “infinitely" (and all the others, too). By looking at letters she speaks clearly to death and the systems of belief that develop in its presence/wake. A letter gives us the opportunity to hold impermanence while knowing that life continues, like Joseph Campbell's hero journey, which brings us to J. K. Rowling's quintessential (contemporary genius) Harry Potter:

Harry picked it up and stared at it, his heart twanging like a giant elastic band. No one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him. Who would? He had no friends, no other relatives — he didn’t belong to the library, so he’d never even got rude notes asking for books back. Yet here it was, a letter, addressed so plainly there could be no mistake...

We approach the dynamism of doubtlessness, how grounded in fact it can be while simultaneously having no reasonable basis. What does it mean when a poet hears voices and writes an epic? What does it mean when someone knows something that cannot be explained?

The letter that arrives for Harry Potter—who no one truly knows and for whom nobody seems to care—ignites a controversy and reveals the fact (which many people feel like ignoring) that every person matters. In the context of the narrative (up to this point) Harry is decidedly and overtly unimportant. This is a better-than-perfect example of Nothomb's “epiphany of the reader" because Harry not only experiences the epiphany that is “a sudden realization"—he matters—but the epiphany that is “a manifestation of a divine being"—Harry is the reason and salvation of the whole story. 

In talking about letters we are learning about heros and salvation and mythos and destiny. There is no single way to express the significance of letters. So we circle back around to the compassion which engenders love. Here's Charles Shultz and Charlie Brown, who said:

There must be millions of people all over the world who never get any love letters... I could be their leader.

This is such a sad and humorous and profound statement of sympathy for all humankind. And how could a statement of sympathy for all humankind be anything but sad and humorous and profound? The comic book child Charlie Brown envisions the suffering of the world by holding it up against the (implied) beauty of receiving a love letter. Why is a love letter such a powerful expression in favor of the fact that each of us matters?

There is no answer to the question why. There is only a closer look at the letter itself. Which starts to get a little absurd, maybe even relentless and obsessive and impossible. Fernando Pessoa and his myriad prolific authorial selves (see: Heteronym) gives us a good way to hold the multitude close for a moment:

All letters of love are
Ridiculous. 
They wouldn’t be love letters if they were not
Ridiculous.

Pessoa uses “love" and “letters" interchangeably (which says something about the function of both) and then associates the compound with an essentially laughable definition. We cannot take the idea of ridiculousness too seriously here. Another astrological analogy becomes apparent: that of the inconjunction or quincunx, a 150° aspect between planets.

The inconjunction—archetypically speaking—stands for just that, a lack of correspondence between players on the metaphorical ball of life. Since the zodiac is constructed of fixed 30° intervals (which take their names from constellations but do not presume to limit the range of actual stellar configuration) an aspect of 150° places both parties in mismatching symbolic regions: different elements, different initiatives, different energies.

The wonderful thing about the inconjunction is that it is designated at all: it memorializes the absence of correspondence, thus giving life to this idea of ridiculousness (which occurs to us but cannot be communicated exactly). Perhaps we can afford to be a little more direct for a moment. We turn to Thích Nhất Hạnh, who writes:

A real love letter is made of insight, understanding, and compassion. Otherwise it’s not a love letter. A true love letter can produce a transformation in the other person, and therefore in the world. But before it produces a transformation in the other person, it has to produce a transformation within us. Some letters may take the whole of our lifetime to write.

There is an old adage: “Always write angry letters, never send them" and/or “never write a letter while you are angry." Anger produces in us the thought to forcibly change something else. It seems that Thích Nhất Hạnh is suggesting something similar but more subtle: true correspondence is the work of a lifetime. There is the oft quoted saying of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world." What Hạnh is saying is that this is not a short-term commitment.

Sitting down to write a letter takes more time than text messaging or even standard emailing, and in this way the letter communicates that “transformation within us." Lorine Niedecker writes: “What would they say if they knew | I sit for two months on six lines | of poetry?" H.D. writes: “O do not weep, she says, | for ages past I was | and I endure." The idea that meaning takes time to accumulate is not so much about patience as it is about knowing that time is a part of everything.

Jean-Dominique Bauby was a well-known actor, author, and editor who suffered a massive stroke at the age of 43. The stroke produced in Bauby what is known as locked-in syndrome—in spite of being able to think like normal the only physical movement he could make was to blink his left eyelid. With the help of blinking, the alphabet, and a friend, Bauby composed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an autobiographical account of life during and before his paralysis. From the book:

Other letters simply relate the small events that punctuate the passage of time: roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep. Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, these small gusts of happiness, move me more deeply than all the rest. A couple of lines or eight pages, a Middle Eastern stamp or a suburban postmark . . . I hoard all these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship. 

It will keep the vultures at bay.

Bauby's compositional circumstance is commentary enough. With his help we move immediately to a poem by Emily Dickinson, to understand it in the context of being a witness to one's own life:

A Letter is a joy of Earth—
It is denied the Gods—

It reads reads at first like a more or less obvious parable about the difference between earthly and godly affairs. But Dickinson intends the joy, gives it to us by removing it from the Gods. She does not uphold the notion that external powers preside over human lives. She tells us that we have agency in any dialogue, which is something that Lewis Carroll celebrated. We might do well to finally consider the fact that a letter is, by definition, both “a character representing one or more of the sounds used in speech" and “a written, printed, or typed communication." Sure, one leads to the next. But it is worth a second thought:

The very slight mark and the full communication are called the same thing. Are they not the same thing? Or is it that they possess similar values? Is all humanity greater than one human? From Stein: “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence." Let's see what Carroll says:

I’m beginning to think that the proper definition of ‘Man’ is an animal who writes letters.

Letters are literally an act of description, a marking out or drawing. Description is another way of stating definition, to account for someone or something by “including all the relevant qualities, characteristics, or events." So the proper definition is definition.

How beautifully we all sail ‘round the sun.