Web Essays

The Swift Completion

Why letters matter

By A. E. Stallings | August 24, 2020
Vetatur Fumare (Flickr/vetaturfumare)
Vetatur Fumare (Flickr/vetaturfumare)

Dear Reader,

I still write letters sometimes, and, living in Greece, I often mail things back to the United States—cards, gifts, checks, books. The Greek postal system can be a bureaucratic nightmare, but I have always trusted that once things reach American soil, they will arrive safely and with dispatch. Our era’s relentless barrage of electronic communications makes it seem magical, miraculous even, that you can put a physical envelope in a box on one side of the world and have it appear in a box on the other side of the world. There is something wonderful too in recognizing someone’s “hand,” the charm of the canceled stamp, the heft that suggests the weightiness (or not) of its contents. The miniature roadside-billboard candor of the postcard. The enfolded intimacy of the love letter.

As such, I have been sick at heart to read about the attacks on the United States Postal Service, a unifying public good that surely should be cherished by all. Consider this from the U.S. Code:

The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.

Fine words here—and I get a thrill reading “literary” correspondence. Yes, literary magazines, and even letters perhaps. Where would we poets be without the letters, say, of John Keats?

I have been thinking too of the fine-sounding phrase of the U.S. Postal Service’s unofficial motto-cum-creed:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

The cadences of this run toward a natural iambic pentameter:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night
Stays these couriers from the swift completion
Of their appointed rounds …

“Gloom of night” is an evocative expansion after the monosyllables “snow,” “rain,” and “heat.” “Stays” has an epic poise, especially after the “nor’s”; “these couriers” has indicative weight; “swift completion” hastens nimbly over its syllables; and the motto resolves in the alto vowel music of “appointed rounds.” The nobility of the diction and sentiment suits the noble service of delivering public and private correspondence.

That it is a quotation from somewhere isn’t surprising, but it might be a surprise to learn where it comes from. When the architect William Mitchell Kendall was working on the New York General Post Office, which opened in 1914, he wanted a motto to chisel over its entrance. Son of a classics scholar, he hit upon a passage out of Herodotus’s history of the Persian invasion of Greece, in a translation (slightly adjusted to its repurposing) by Harvard professor George Herbert Palmer, himself the student of the great Greek scholar Evangelinos Apostolides Sophocles. Closer to the Greek, but without the same sonority, A. D. Godley’s 1920 Loeb Classical Library translation runs: “These are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”

The phrase comes from Book 8.98 of the Histories, where Herodotus is describing the astounding efficiency of the “pony express” courier system of the Persian Empire under Xerxes. Ironically, perhaps, the description of this admirable organization of the empire appears here in the context of Xerxes’s catastrophic defeat by Greek forces at the naval battle of Salamis, a battle often seen as a turning point for democracy. In September, Greece is celebrating the 2500th anniversary of this battle.


I have been thinking of letters, and the mail, so often this year. As the pandemic broke out, I was sorting through a cache of old family papers, many of them letters from my great uncle John, who was serving in France in 1918, back home to Smith’s Grove, Kentucky, asking after the family amidst the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. I am typing out many of these family correspondences, because I find that my children struggle to read cursive, especially cursive as it is met with in the wild. The ability to read these century-old family papers could be lost within a generation, I realize. I understand now how quickly an entire system of writing—such as Linear-B in Mycenean Greece—could vanish into a Dark Age.

As a young poet, in another place and another era, I would send out new poems, damp and fragile from their chrysalis, to prominent magazines, in envelopes with self-addressed stamped envelopes inside them. Every day, going to the mailbox was an agony of anticipation. Seeing my own handwriting on the envelope would send me into wild swings of hope and despair. There was absolutely nothing more thrilling than an envelope with an acceptance and a contract, nothing more deflating than my own typescript sent home in disgrace.

Poems themselves have often been written in the form of letters, and letters written in verse. It is an ancient genre. The classical example that leaps to mind is Ovid’s Heroides, letters written in the voices of various women from mythology to their absent husbands or lovers—Penelope to Odysseus, for example. Or Horace’s Epistles. Or consider Catullus’s Cenabis bene, a tongue-in-cheek dinner invitation issued in hendecasyllabics. While not verse per se, there is poetry and cadence in Paul’s Epistles, such as the oft-quoted-at-marriages sentence from his First Letter to the Corinthians, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

I think of Emily Dickinson’s poem “This is the letter to the world / That did not write to me,” an assertion, perhaps, that all written poetry is in essence epistolary. More modern epistolary poems include Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y.,” W. H. Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” (and N. S. Thompson’s “Letter to Auden”), Auden and Louis MacNeice’s “Letters from Iceland,” and Langston Hughes’s “Letter.” Contemporary examples abound and multiply. To name just a few, there is Mary Jo Salter’s sparkling crown of sonnets “The Surveyors,” framed as an email, or Solmaz Sharif’s erasure poems as redacted letters from Guantanamo, or Matthew Olzmann’s prophetic “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now,” or Dick Davis’s “A Letter to Omar,” or Major Jackson’s “Letter to Brooks: Spring Garden,” sent by “clairvoyant post.”

Yet, as I was thinking of epistolary poems, I found myself drawn to a poem about the nature of a letter, of written correspondence itself, the possibility it contains: William Meredith’s extraordinary sonnet “The Illiterate,” from his 1997 collection, Efforts at Speech: New and Collected Poems. The sonnet begins, “Touching your goodness, I am like a man / Who turns a letter over in his hand” and goes on, in the octave, to describe the bewilderment of a man who has never had a letter written to him, and who cannot read, and so both possesses a valuable document, but cannot possess its information without outside assistance. In the sestet, he ponders all the possible meanings and consequences the letter might hold in store for him.

The Illiterate

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.
His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

Copyright © 1997 by William Meredith. Published 1997 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. 

What do I love about this poem? Well, that it is an extended simile, for one. (Similes I find more interesting, or at any rate more complex, than metaphors.) And I admire the repetitions as rhymes, a neat trick that also somehow underscores the floundering for words, the limitations of illiteracy, or of words themselves to express the inexpressible. “Word” rhymes, helplessly, with “words.” I love the whole life conjured up here—its hopes and fears. And the perfectly chosen word, “letter-proud”—proud to have a letter, too proud to admit to being “unlettered.” The ending explodes with wonder, grief, bewilderment, tenderness. The sonnet, itself a kind of cunning envelope, contains the negative capability here of a yet-to-be-opened letter.

Yours,

A. E. Stallings

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