Paisley Rekdal–The Epistolary Poem

Rapid Response Pedagogy ResourcesAs many universities are creating contingency plans in the face of COVID-19, Assay is collecting lesson plans and best practices to help our colleagues make the shift from face-to-face to online teaching as the need arises. While this compiling of resources is in response to COVID-19, there are many reasons why face-to-face classes might need to move online on short notice––hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, etc. These resources might be more broadly useful in online teaching, but we are currently working to support our colleagues who might be working to rethink their pedagogy and methods on very short notice.

The epistolary poem, also called an epistle, is a poem written as a letter, addressed either to a public or private person, but never sent. “Epistle” comes from the Latin, epistula, which means (you guessed it) “letter.” As you might guess from its etymology, the epistolary poem is one of our oldest forms of poetry, and famous epistles include letters from Horace and Ovid. Ovid’s most famous epistles include a series of fantastic poems called Heroides, which are a collection of letters “written” by famous (and famously aggrieved) women from mythology, such as Penelope, Dido, Briseis, and Ariadne. The letters are addressed to their lovers, basically calling them out for the ways they were treated in love. What’s amazing about this is that very few classical authors at the time wrote monologues from the perspective of women: Ovid’s Heroides was quite ahead of its time, as were Ovid’s formal experiments in his Metamorphoses, which not only includes almost all the poetic genres and forms you can imagine (mini-epics, history writing, love lyrics, science and philosophy) but also includes the first passage of indirect discourse in western literature.

But I digress.

Epistles can be colloquial or formal, intimate or philosophical. The trick of the form is understanding it is both a very public and private form of address, so tone is important to manage. Is the epistle actually meant for the person you are writing to? Is it meant for a larger audience? Is the epistle a self-portrait of the author or a portrait of a relationship? Is the epistle actually a persona poem? How do we tell a larger narrative of someone’s life via one short letter? Consider these questions as you read the short packet of poems I’ve attached here.

I may be wrong, but I assume that the epistle form may be unusual for your generation, as letters have (in general) been dying out. So I’d like to take advantage of this period of social distancing and bring back this completely analogue form of communication, and also use it as an opportunity for us to connect via poetry.

For our exercise, I’d like you to write an epistle to a member of our class. You can write about what you’ve been doing in the past few days, or write about something you miss about the class in general, or you can write in the voice of a famous real/unreal person. The attached poems are some good examples to look at. I’ve also included a mini “lecture” about one of my favorite poems, “Epistle to Miss Blount,” by Alexander Pope.

Try to write and send your epistle (via email!) to your assigned classmate within a week. This is just an exercise for fun, and a way for us to check in with each other, connect, and also keep writing.

Letter to a Friend, Unsent


I haven’t written        in a while

because I don’t want to talk

about anything

I’ve been unable to stop

thinking about: the knotted thread

of bad capillaries on my retinae,

money, or that my morning was ruined

by the unusual tightness

of jeans around my thighs,

like the obligations

of having a body

so ill-fitting, oppressively snug

around an obstinate will.

And while       I don’t want

to be distracted

from this Duchamp thing

I’ve been working on—     I am

itched out of reverie

over and over again

by this feeling I don’t deserve

my raptures anymore.

So I’m sorry. I don’t want to

bring you down. It’s unfair

to have to hear about needles

and envelopes and flies

when you might just have been

enjoying an iced tea outside

and when I would prefer to tell you,


there’s a family of pheasant living

in the massive cottonwood

we call the Tree of Life.

The male’s red, green, gold plumage

makes him look

like a Christmas present

I would want to give you.

So except “I hope you’re well,”

that’s all.


Dear Gaybashers


The night we got bashed we told Rusty how

they drove up, yelled QUEER, threw a hot dog, sped off.

Rusty: Now, is that gaybashing? Or

are they just calling you queer? Good point.

Josey pitied the fools: who buys a perfectly good pack of wieners

and drives around San Francisco chucking them at gays?

And who speeds off? Missing the point, the pleasure of the bash?

Dear bashers, you should have seen the hot dog hit my neck,

the scarf Josey sewed from antique silk kimonos: so gay. You

missed laughing at us, us confused, your raw hot dog on the ground.

Josey and Rusty and Bob make fun of the gaybashers, and I

wash my scarf in the sink. I use Woolite. We worry

about insurance, interest rates. Not hot dogs thrown from F-150s,

homophobic freaks. After the bashing, we used the ATM

in the sex shop next to Annie’s Social Club, smiled at the kind

owner, his handlebar mustache. Astrud Gilberto sang tall and tan

and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema… and the dildos

gleamed from the walls, a hundred cheerful colors. In San Francisco

it rains hot dogs, pity-the-fool. Ass-sized penguins, cock after cock in

azure acrylic, butterscotch glass, anyone’s flesh-tone, chrome.


By Langston Hughes

Dear Mama,
    Time I pay rent and get my food
and laundry I don’t have much left
but here is five dollars for you
to show you I still appreciates you.
My girl-friend send her love and say 
she hopes to lay eyes on you sometime in life.
Mama, it has been raining cats and dogs up
here. Well, that is all so I will close.
    Your son baby
        Respectably as ever,

Another Night at Sea Level

Meg Day

On the third day, I wrote to you

about the sky, its elastic way

of stretching so ocean-wide

that the only way to name it

was to compare it to Montana’s.

Lately, the sky is a ceiling

I wake to: broad & blank

& stubborn, stiff at the edges

like a fever cloth wrung out

& gone cold in the night, damp

with the wicking of latent ache.

But tonight I was walking

home along the coastline

& caught the huge moon

in my throat. There’s a man

somewhere on the planet

who has been to that moon,

who has stepped out of that sky,

& will never sleep the same

because of it. Will always be

sad or feel small, or wonder

how it is a person can be

a person, if being a person

is worrying about things;

whose eyes cannot see

what things are, but only

the slightness of them.

I think of writing to you

in this way—welcoming

the adventure of it—

& of being wrecked

proper, of being ruined.

Epistle to Miss Blount, On Her Leaving the Town, After the Coronation


As some fond virgin, whom her mother’s care

Drags from the town to wholesome country air,

Just when she learns to roll a melting eye,

And hear a spark, yet think no danger nigh;

From the dear man unwillingly she must sever,

Yet takes one kiss before she parts for ever:

Thus from the world fair Zephalinda flew,

Saw others happy, and with sighs withdrew;

Not that their pleasures caused her discontent,

She sighed not that They stayed, but that She went.

She went, to plain-work, and to purling brooks,

Old-fashioned halls, dull aunts, and croaking rooks,

She went from Opera, park, assembly, play,

To morning walks, and prayers three hours a day;

To pass her time ‘twixt reading and Bohea,

To muse, and spill her solitary tea,

Or o’er cold coffee trifle with the spoon,

Count the slow clock, and dine exact at noon;

Divert her eyes with pictures in the fire,

Hum half a tune, tell stories to the squire;

Up to her godly garret after seven,

There starve and pray, for that’s the way to heaven.

Some Squire, perhaps, you take a delight to rack;

Whose game is Whisk, whose treat a toast in sack,

Who visits with a gun, presents you birds,

Then gives a smacking buss, and cries – No words!

Or with his hound comes hollowing from the stable,

Makes love with nods, and knees beneath a table;

Whose laughs are hearty, tho’ his jests are coarse,

And loves you best of all things – but his horse.

In some fair evening, on your elbow laid,

Your dream of triumphs in the rural shade;

In pensive thought recall the fancied scene,

See Coronations rise on every green;

Before you pass th’ imaginary sights

Of Lords, and Earls, and Dukes, and gartered Knights;

While the spread fan o’ershades your closing eyes;

Then give one flirt, and all the vision flies.

Thus vanish scepters, coronets, and balls,

And leave you in lone woods, or empty walls.

So when your slave, at some dear, idle time,

(Not plagued with headaches, or the want of rhyme)

Stands in the streets, abstracted from the crew,

And while he seems to study, thinks of you:

Just when his fancy points your sprightly eyes,

Or sees the blush of soft Parthenia rise,

Gay pats my shoulder, and you vanish quite;

Streets, chairs, and coxcombs rush upon my sight;

Vexed to be still in town, I knit my brow,

Look sour, and hum a tune – as you may now.

A Mini-Lecture on “Epistle to Miss Blount”                             Paisley Rekdal

“Charming” may not be a word you associate with the poetry of Alexander Pope, but “Epistle to Miss Blount” (pronounced “Blunt”) may be one of the most charming poems I know.

Pope, famous for “The Rape of the Lock” and his exhaustively didactic “Essay on Man”–a work many of you likely slogged through and which continues to elicit groans of dismay in classrooms across America—delights with this epistolary poem—brief by Popian standards—full of wit and life. Like all his poems, it displays a beautiful facility with rhyme and meter (Pope was a master of the heroic couplet), and a real sense of compassion for the young woman to whom it is addressed.

Miss Theresa Blount—called here alternately “Zephalinda,” a pet nickname Pope had given her, and “Parthenia” (more on that later)—is, at the very height of her popularity, being dragged from London’s social Bohemia (“Bohea”)  by her mother to the countryside to be “morally improved,” and wooed by the local mouth-breathers.  What’s remarkable is the sympathy Pope displays for the boredoms and indignities Miss Blount suffers: the endless “dull aunts” and “solitary tea(s),” the soul-grinding hours spent at church and prayer, even the coarse attempts at love-making by the local squire who appears dubiously enamored of his pets.

Pope’s imagination of these events becomes the backdrop for his portrait of Miss Blount as a young woman with dreams and ambitions of her own: a woman who is just beginning to understand her own sexual power, and may herself be a touch too enamored of the superficial charms of London life.  Still, the poem doesn’t lecture her on her youthful choice of amusements: clearly, Miss Blount is getting enough of that at home. Though she “dream(s) of triumphs” which Pope knows would be primarily romantic, and though these dozing visions of court life threaten to vanish in “one flirt” of her waking, Pope remains her champion. He satirizes her situation, but gently.

Notice how the poem begins by referring to Miss Blount in the third person but, by the middle of the poem, becomes explicitly addressed to her in the second person. As Pope imagines Miss Blount’s life through his capacities as a poet, it appears he grows closer to her as a friend until, by the end, both Pope and Miss Blount—though separated by situation and distance—make the same frustrated gesture at their separation.

In terms of poetic genre, “Epistle to Miss Blount” also changes from verse-portrait to epistle to elegy as, by the end of the poem, Miss Blount too becomes a vision for Pope, similar to the ones Miss Blount has of court life in London.  She moves from the fanciful “Zephalinda” to something more mysterious, abstracted, even divine: “Parthenia,” which is the Greek word for “maiden,” and an explicit reference to the goddess Athena. “Parthenia,” interestingly, is also the pet name Pope used for Theresa Blount’s sister, Martha, with whom he had a lifelong intimate friendship—one that exceeded his with Theresa, with whom he reportedly quarreled later in life. By the time Pope’s friend and fellow poet Jon Gay claps Pope on the back to awaken him from his reverie, the young woman he imagines or mistakes for his friend (or her sister) has vanished, as the real Miss Blount—through her inevitable maturation and marriage in the world outside this poem–will likely disappear from his life as well.

Part of the poem’s charm lies in the fact that, though romantic in its feeling for Miss Blount, it is not a traditional love poem. As you can tell, Pope and Miss Blount were of different ages when the poem was written. And while this fact wouldn’t have precluded a relationship, the fact that “Zephalinda” becomes “Parthenia” (and thus the identity of “Miss Blount” blurs even as Pope remains specific in his imagination of her yearnings) suggest that Pope is truly romanticizing the moments any “Miss Blount’ comes of age.

Even the frame of the poem, in which Miss Blount is physically removed from London to the countryside, is meant to resonate metaphorically with her change from young adolescence to womanhood. That’s the story Pope seems enamored with, and if the poem’s ending has a touch of Maurice Chevalier crooning “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” to it, I think the tone may be complicated by Pope’s biography. Sickly as a child, height dramatically stunted by illness, Pope was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family in Binfield, Berkshire, kept from public school due to his family’s religion. He was able to satirize so precisely the zealotry that comprised country life because he’d lived it, too: in fact, Theresa and Martha Blount were his neighbors.

In the end, perhaps these physical and social handicaps helped Pope better imagine Miss Blount’s own mounting frustrations. In his poem, Miss Blount is subject to the whims of all sorts of people and institutions: mother, aunts, the church, the squire.  His understanding of the limitations of her agency might stem from his own experience of being trapped in a body whose deformation socially neutered or invalidated him as a man.  Perhaps that’s another reason why he refers to Miss Blount’s status as a maiden twice in the poem: it not only emphasizes the fact she’s coming of age but that, unlike him, her body itself is still (in a patriarchal sense) “intact.”

Lastly, I’d like to note the intensely dream-like quality to this poem. There are so many daydreams and visions enclosed inside “Epistle”: Pope’s speculative musings on Miss Blount, her daydreams of court and London, Pope’s reverie of himself envisioning her back in London that, by the end of the poem, I’m almost lost inside its spell. Like Pope, I’m regretfully startled awake from this enchanting picture of Miss Blount, and want to return immediately to the poem’s beginning: to relive once more the few, evanescent moments in which Miss Blount is again young, willful and alive, a product both of Pope’s attentive admiration, and mine.

Paisley Rekdal is the author of several books, most recently Nightingale (Copper Canyon, 2019) and the forthcoming book on cultural appropriation and creative writing, Appropriate: A Provocation (Norton, 2021).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s