Pen Pal Poetry


Let’s address the misnomer first and foremost. To exchange poems via post is charmingly retro to the extreme, but if you find a willing poet and want to give it a go, by all means! More likely, this post should be called “E-Mail Poetry” but, like most things technological, it lacks the charm, don’t you agree?

I can up the ante in the charm department, too. The example I’m going to use, pen pals Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison, exchanged poems on the backs of simple postcards. Thus, every mailman (or woman) along the way was welcome to partake of the poetry feast. Can you imagine the postman on his daily rounds pausing at a gate to peruse a poem by two of America’s wilier wordsmiths? It restores one’s shaken faith in the nation.

The postcard poetry exchange occurred some 20 years ago, in the late 90s when Kooser was recovering from surgery for cancer. He captured it in a little book called Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

Correction: He captured half of it, as the poems in the book are all Kooser’s, none of Harrison’s. How much richer the book would have been if it contained both! Still, that’s not the point. The point is the idea–a daily exchange with some like-minded writer as your morning constitution.

Too ambitious? Too difficult? Nah. Kooser’s poems are not world wonder sonnets or anything. Snippets, some more complete than others. The type thing that might land in a journal, but instead alights on a postcard with a stamp. Example:

november 14

My wife and I walk the cold road
in silence, asking for thirty more years.

There’s a pink and blue sunrise
with an accent of red:
a hunter’s cap burns like a coal
in the yellow-gray eye of the woods.

And done! Example #2:

november 28

There was a time
when my long gray cashmere topcoat
was cigarette smoke,
and my snappy felt homborg
was alcohol,
and the paisley silk scarf at my neck,
with its fringed end
tossed carelessly over my shoulder,
was laughter rich with irony.
Look at me now.

What’s more, not every day is postal poem day. Just most of them. Still, you have to admit, it’s a nice old-school idea, and it had to make the daily act of pulling open the mailbox door a lot more enjoyable. I mean, who wants three bills every day when you could pluck a poem instead? (Unless, of course, the utilities and health care/insurance robbers start scaring us by billing in iambic pentameter.)




  1. There are dangers with this kind of exchange (and publication.) One of my favorite poets, Marvin Bell, did a long-term exchange of poems with William Stafford, and a book of these poems was published. The striking thing was how Staffordian Bell’s poems were: inconsequential, formless, and careless.
    As Cheeto Benito would say, sad. Be careful what you wish for.


  2. Ken, I don’t understand your comment. Are you calling one’s critical faculties police?

    The police, if any, would have been the policeman in Bell’s own head, the one who helped him create the powerful and original poems of collections like “Stars Which See, Stars Which Don’t See.” Unfortunately, he dismissed that copper and indulged himself in publishing inane messages to his poetic pal. Properly trained, a poetry flatfoot can protect and serve


  3. Yes, jokingly I meant his own better judgment. An idea like that (and like Ted’s and Jim’s) in some respects business vs. arts. Therefore, if Bell’s artistic abilities were compromised by this idea, it may have been the temptation of a good selling idea. Does that clarify matters?


  4. Please don’t anybody be discouraged at doing this both ways: by USPS (United States Postal Service) and IPS (Internet Protocol Service).e-mail if you can. It adds up to quite a number even if they are only one liners.


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