Letters from Poets: The Reader’s Shelf | April 1, 2013

Once a poet, always a poet—no matter in what literary form they may choose to write. Celebrate National Poetry Month with these distinctive collections of letters in which acclaimed poets weave vivid accounts of their daily lives with forays into their literary worlds.

Selected by editor Emily Fragos, LETTERS: EMILY DICKINSON (Everyman’s Library. 2011. ISBN 9780307597045. $13.50) offers significant glimpses into the poet’s engagement with the natural world. Arranged by topic and then chronological order, the slim volume (part of the “Pocket Poets” series) traces Dickinson’s occupations and time line. These lyrically written, sometimes elliptical letters to her family and friends are vividly descriptive, include snippets of poetry, and depict Dickinson’s innermost thoughts and feelings. The collection serves as a basic introduction to Dickinson’s life from her school days in 1845 to the last four words sent to her cousins just before her death in May 1886.

Elizabeth Bishop’s tenure with The New Yorker, as contributor of both poems and narrative pieces from 1933 until her death in 1997, is vividly brought to life through Joelle Biele’s informative, highly readable ELIZABETH BISHOP AND THE NEW YORKER: THE COMPLETE CORRESPONDENCE (Farrar. 2011. ISBN 9780374281380. $35). The letters provide an in-depth understanding of the magazine’s internal operations, Bishop’s relationships with her editors, and the editorial process. Everyday tidbits about her life and travels to such exotic places as Brazil are interspersed with the mundane realities of being a writer. A fascinating insider’s look.

Editor Christopher Reid has expertly selected approximately 300 letters out of several thousand for publication in LETTERS OF TED HUGHES (Farrar. 2008. ISBN 9780374185305. $45). These evocative, intimate, and poignant literary gems chronicle Hughes’s life from 1947, when he was 17, to his death in 1998. Written to family, friends, and literary colleagues, the letters detail his writing career, literary life, relationships with Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill, and Carol Orchard, his role as a father, and his love of nature. They give the reader a true sense of the poet’s inner being as well as the trials and tribulations of his daily existence.

In addition to being a Nobel Prize-winning poet, T.S. Eliot was also a playwright, essayist, and prolific letter writer. Edited by Valerie Eliot, his second wife, and Hugh Haughton, THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT. Vol. 2: 1923–1925 (Yale Univ. 2011. ISBN 9780300176865. $50; ebk. ISBN 9780300178197) provides astute insight into the professional struggles that Eliot encountered as he transitioned from a banking career to becoming a publisher and writer as well as his personal trials when faced with illness and financial difficulties. This expansive work of 1,400 engaging, readable letters, complete with detailed footnotes, paints a vivid portrait of the early years of the famous literary figure who wrote the celebrated poems “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

In 1926, two young Russian poets—Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) and Marina Tsvetayeva (1892–1941)—began an extraordinary correspondence with their poetic idol, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). The letters exchanged among this unique threesome are collected in LETTERS: SUMMER 1926; BORIS PASTERNAK, MARINA TSVETAYEVA, RAINER MARIA RILKE (New York Review. 2001. ISBN 9780940322714. pap. $19.95). Their poetic aspirations and melodic writing styles transcended the routine act of writing letters. Set against the backdrop of a tumultuous year (Tsvetayeva was living in exile in Paris, Pasternak was in Moscow coping with the new Bolshevik regime, and in Switzerland Rilke was dying), these epistles evocatively, eloquently, and lyrically explore philosophy, the writing process, and the higher being of a poet’s life.

Bill Morgan and David Stanford explore the deep friendship between two literary giants in JACK KEROUAC AND ALLEN GINSBERG: THE LETTERS (Penguin. 2011. ISBN 9780143119548. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781101437131). The two literary figures who became synonymous with the Beat Generation, wrote to each other frequently from 1941 to 1961. As their captivating missives reveal, their exchanges helped each writer excel at his art. This poignant collection offers great insight into the world of two innovative thinkers and provides an engaging look at their friendship, literary relationship, philosophical and religious musings, and tidbits of their daily lives.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net