A poem by Elizabeth Bishop and some thoughts on why I miss writing letters

Reading “Letter to N Y” by Elizabeth Bishop, I was reminded of how I miss writing letters to people I care about. Bishop’s letter is what an intimate letter should be, a gift to the person it is sent to.

It is an act of sharing, in which the writer holds the other person in their imagination, building pictures of where they are going and what they are doing, evoking those places and those acts as a form of empathy and perhaps as a surrogate for physical companionship, demonstrating that they understand how those acts and those places make the person feel, yet still inviting them to respond and share their real experience in return.

There is love in a letter like this, affection wrapped in light humour and decorated with sparse, beautiful images that open up the mind of the writer to the reader.

Receiving a letter like this, you would feel that you were in the writer’s thoughts, that you were known in the writer’s heart and that they hungered to hear from you so they can keep you and your experiences fresh in their imaginations while you are apart.

Neither Snapchat nor FaceTime provides this kind of opportunity to share. Their immediacy and their emphasis on the visual act to suppress the imagination that creates a shared place for you to visit. They rob us of words, of reflection, of the ability to savour what was said and left unsaid, what was meant and what was learned.

When I was first in love with the woman who eventually agreed to marry me, we were often apart. There was no email and no mobile phones. We could only talk on landlines at pre-arranged times, using public telephone boxes that stank of smoke, damp phone directories, and disinfectant or the things disinfectant was there to remove. It was… inadequate.

So we wrote and we read and we wrote again.

Each time I wrote, I imagined her: what she was doing, where she was doing it, who she was with, what it would have been like if I could have been there with her. I would save up things to tell her about my life, describing them either vividly or humorously, seeking something that would take root in her imagination and let her hold me there.

Each time I got a letter, I would read it greedily. Every line, fast and focused. Then I would read it again, hearing her voice in my head, trying to see through her eyes, letting my imagination breath her in like a longed-for scent.

Now we see each other every day and talk all the time and I would not wish us apart. Yet I sometimes miss the sharing that the writing and reading those letter brought us.

One thought on “A poem by Elizabeth Bishop and some thoughts on why I miss writing letters

  1. Hi, Mike,

    I have a dear old friend (my high school music teacher, now 88) who tells me that my emails to him read like “real” letters and I do that fairly consistently with the friends i do email. He and I talked about that once and he observed that letter-writing was becoming a lost art. And that much is true. I do like email because I type a lot faster than I write, and a typed font is considerably neater than my handwriting, which can start off just about perfect and then deteriorates rapidly as I try to say everything I want to say before I forget all the things I want to say (And I do tend to go on…and on.) 😀 I have another friend, an even more longstanding friend — she and I go back 54 years), who still writes me paper letters, and I reciprocate. I do like letter-writing, but I admit giving in to laziness and falling back on email.

    But, Mike, you could still write a letter, or letters, to your wife. I absolutely guarantee you, 100%, that she would treasure every word you might write to her, even now, though you’re not apart. And if you’ll forgive getting a bit of unasked for advice from someone who knows only too well, what “apart” really means now, do it before another day passes.

    Rose 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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