The Lost Art of Letter Writing by David Stone

While the crowds are searching online and in the big box stores for the thinnest, fastest electronic devices with the most power and memory, I will be leisurely selecting traditional stationery and pens for novel gifts. I believe letter writing helps family and friends to slow down and reconnect.

My mother stopped writing me this past summer after thirty-one years of faithful correspondence. We have communicated through letters since I went away to a boarding high school when I was fourteen. Weekly she had sent me at least two news filled sheets with a healthy portion of motherly advice, always closed with “Love, Mom.” Through high school and college and again when I was in graduate school, her letters almost always included a check—money I knew she had literally earned on her hands and knees, scrubbing someone else’s floor as a housekeeper. Her letters were truly gifts of love.

Headlines from Beijing to Boston have heralded letter writing as a lost art. Not including greeting cards or invitations, the US Postal Service reported in 2011 that a typical home received a personal letter every seven weeks, more than three times less frequently than in 1987 when it was once every two weeks. According to the numbers of the 2014 Postal Facts report, first-class single piece mail volume declined an additional 3.2 billion pieces or 12% in the past two years, down more than fifty percent in the last decade.

In 1922 Emily Post wrote, “the art of general letter writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a postcard.” What would she say about digital communication? Texts, tweets, and Instagrams have virtually replaced that art; indeed, we live in an era of digital fragments. That’s why traditional letter writing gifts stand out.

Compared to the 140 characters of a tweet, receiving a letter is like getting a full-sized car rather than a matchbox; compared to an email, a handwritten letter is like a hand-sewn patchwork quilt rather than a Walmart blanket. The quality comes from the unique combination of stationary, writing instrument, and manuscript form or font.

In other words, letter writing is an art form, a product of a complex craft. Letters are creations, appreciated for their beauty and emotional power. You might find buried in your desk, closet or attic, a letter or two that deserves to be framed and fittingly displayed in your home along side family photos.

Most importantly, letters connect us in a way other communications do not. A friend of mine recently discovered a letter by her grandfather who died when she was only three months old. The letter was written to her grandmother on the day after she and her grandfather got engaged. “My darling little Lily,” he began. His letter connects her to the grandfather she never met.

Letters are relational from the salutation to the closing—two elements absent in tweets, texts, and even in many emails that read more like memos. The slow process of writing the body of a letter therapeutically brings us deeper insight to our lives as we organize our personal experiences and construct the self we choose to share through our words.

A number of recently published books would make excellent gifts for those wishing to hone their letter writing skills or learn more about letter writing. Nina Sankovitch’s new book “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” begins with her discovery of letters in an old steamer trunk written by a college student over a hundred years earlier. Sankovitch shares the insights she learns as she attempts to pass on her love for letter writing to her own son who is headed to Harvard.

Simon Garfield’s “To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing” just came out in paperback. In over 400 pages, this best-selling writer retells the history of letters and provides practical how-to instruction with numerous examples.

To see a colorful and creative collection of letters, read Ivan Cash’s “Snail My E-mail: Handwritten Letters in a Digital World.” Cash shares some of the most creative letters of the more than 10,000 he and other volunteers created when they set out to handwrite and mail letters for others for free.

For a practical guide to personal letter writing that focuses on its social qualities, consider Margaret Shepherd’s “The Art of the Personal Letter: A Guide to Connecting through the Written Word.”

After three months of disappointingly walking to the mailbox, I found a fat envelope late this September addressed to me in my mother’s cursive that I had worked so hard to imitate as a child, preparing for a forgery I don’t remember ever actually committing. Stuffed in the envelope were six sheets. Multiple unfinished pages and a full letter beginning, “Maybe (someday) you will get an email from me. I now have a book titled ‘Computers for Dummies.’”

I’m sending her some stationary. I’m praying she misplaces her book.

David Stone is a poet who teaches English at Loma Linda Academy.

Poetry Called Present by David Stone

I stammer taking roll call the first day of a new school year. My multicultural classroom comes with a roster with names like those of the United Nations. After more than a decade at the same school, I have the advantage of having practiced a fair number of surnames, but the first name of a sibling can often leave me stuttering its first letter in a stall to determine which syllable to accent.

Jason McCall’s “Roll Call for Michael Brown,” published by Rattle on August 17, brought new meaning to roll call anxiety for me. His poem evoked my feelings of the inevitability of “honest mistakes ” but then led me to the “groans” of grief and the weight of responsibility as I came to identify my connection to the death of a young man who lived halfway across the country.

Attempting to make personal sense of Michael Brown’s death and the ensuing demonstrations and violence in Ferguson, Missouri, I found more in McCall’s poem than many of the news articles I read. I am convinced that America needs more poets to answer the roll call and write in response to events in the news. In the wake of advertisement revenues dispersing to an ever broadening array of media outlets, our nation’s newspapers falter. The number of reporters pounding the news beats of America dwindles. No wonder we turn to the archetypes of town criers, jesters, and troubadours.

I do not wish for a further demise of our nation’s longstanding fourth estate, the newspapers of traditional print journalism; however, I am grateful for our contemporary criers, the newer Internet news agencies, and our jesters, the comedic news shows that fill the expanding gap left by the thinning of America’s newspapers. I wish for more venues for troubadours, more poets to sing the songs of our evolving history.

Rattle’s new weekly “Poets Respond,” an online project that presents one poem about an event that occurred in the past week, joins New Verse News in what I believe is a small number of current-events poetry publications. James Penha has edited New Verse News since founding it in early 2005.

On Sunday, August 31, the Los Angeles Times ran a page of “opinionated poetry” for a second time as a result of the more than 1,500 poets who responded to last year’s call for current-events poems.

Southern Californians interested in poetry, music, and art promoting peace will find current-events poetry live at numerous venues on Saturday, September 27. Search the Internet for 100 Thousand Poets for Change to locate the nearest venue. Since 2013 the grassroots organization 100 Thousand Poets for Change annually organizes an international day of events.

Newspapers should seriously consider the regular inclusion of current-events poems. People still buy papers for the comics. I bet some would buy them for poems.

The poet and political activist Denise Levertov wrote for a 1967 symposium, “Good poets write bad political poems only if they let themselves write deliberate, opinionated rhetoric, misusing their art as propaganda.”

As much as current events are too important to be left to the bare recitation of facts or the fulminations of politicos and pundits, current-events poetry needs to be more than mere propaganda.

Levertov questioned whether the role of a poet should be “observer” or “participant.” I would argue we need both in our newspapers. Contemporary war poetry shows the power of both perspectives. Citizens need to read poems from soldier poets like Collin Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter and spouses like Elyse Fenton’s Clamor.

Well-written poems provide more than a sound bite.

No doubt, we need more poetry called present.

David Stone is a poet who teaches English at Loma Linda Academy.