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Dear Poet

April 2015

For National Poetry Month in America, one of the Academy of American Poets features on its website was "Dear Poet." It is a multimedia education project that invited young people to write letters in response to poems written and read by some of the poets who serve on their Board of Chancellors. So, we asked Poets Online followers to join in.

Epistles, or epistolary poems (from the Latin “epistula” for “letter") is what we call these poems that read as letters. As poems of direct address, they can be intimate and colloquial or formal and measured.

We included two of the poems and poets from Dear Poets. One is Naomi Shihab Nye's "How Do I Know When A Poem Is Finished?" which itself is addressed to someone - perhaps a student who has asked the poet that question, though all poets ask that question to themselves.

The second example and video is for Edward Hirsch's poem "Cotton Candy" which looks back to the candy and a grandfather.

What would you write to Nye or Hirsch about their poems?

Our prompt is much wider. You can choose any poem on the Academy site or any poem at all. The only requirement is that you address the poet by name and that you include the title of the poem you are responding to in the poem.

Your poem might be titled "Dear Elizabeth" for a poem to Elizabeth Bishop, whose own epistle "Letter to N.Y." begins:

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl

I might write to W. B. Yeats during this Easter week 2015 about his poem "Easter 1916" to let him know that this year:

I am sitting at the start of day
looking out the window
at my desk at a sky gray
above twenty-first century homes
that I have passed on my way,
like you, nodding and saying
polite meaningless words...

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


No cackle squad here, but puppy-
moans, squeals, screams –
one pup got his head stuck in wire fence
as he tried to escape confinement.
Is it angels rapping at their tiny brains,
instructing them to sprout freedom-wings
and rejoice?
Under our slatted porch roof,
safe from visitation of owls, our pups –
like you, John Ashbery –
bathe themselves in moonshine.
It doesn’t make them happy;
but it fills me with midnight dread
for a puppy I call Skyblue Sailor; if he
could find a gap in safety-wire,
he’d walk the high
retaining-wall above abyss.
He knows there’s a way to do this,
and live – if not in his present puppy life,
somewhere under a waxing moon,

(on John Ashbery’s “Honestly”)
Taylor Graham


In our hands, you said, we hold
the shadow of our hands. I know
the cold absence of the marbles,
olives sprouting from the cracks.

The coffee grinder turns
slowly, gently. The moon
still kind, bathes our wrinkled
hearts in light. In silver. In sorrow.

Old souls sitting by the river
listening to the boat engine
starting, coughing, spitting,
dying. Starting again.

(to Yiannis Ritsos, in response to his poem “Absence”)
Stella Pierides

Dear Professor Booth

I read your poem "Lines From an Orchard Once Surveyed By Thoreau"
and I'm still a bit confused.
You said that there was "no word that the bees haven't given"
and I'm thinking it has something to do with the past season apples on the ground
attracting bees. But what words?
I do like so much your feet pressing cider back into the roots.
That's a sweet, amber thought.
I sat with your poem this afternoon in the sunlight
a bit like a naked monk
and trying to smell the orchard with you
I'm struggling with the allusion to Thoreau.
Nature? Walden? A sign on the orchard entrance?
Still, I love that title. That's why I chose this poem.
And my favorite line is the last:
"Were I to open
to any more fullness, I think I'd
turn into a woman "
because I think that could happen to me too.
Except that I'd turn into a man.

(inspired by a poem by Phillip Booth)
Lianna Wright


Dear Ms Millay? They didn't have such address in your day...
did they? I think not, although time and you are not related
in my mind. You are - at least to me - free as a soul is free
of such dubious calculation. Beyond clock and calendar
you prick in me a jubilation... which ends up being
slightly odd - almost comic - as the poem
that riveted your genius in my cerebrum
was called - is called - Spring... from Second April.
Even before Shakespeare was etched
in the indellible library I carry beneath my skull,
even before he lashed out about idiots telling tales,
you spoke to me of maggots and death
and how flimsy the affirmation of April is.
I love you Ms. Millay, and can hardly say the word ferry
without thinking of apples and pears and subway fares.
...a flight of uncarpeted stairs? Yes that's what this all is,
yet I am immeasurably grateful to have known
the solacing gift that is your poetry.

PS. I still have the first skinny green volume and I turn
the brown-edged pages tenderly so that they don't crumble.



Dear Naomi Nye,
your kindness touched me
in the deep dark cave of sorrow,
where the chill of loneliness
was hard to fight;
where echoes from the past
rebounded on damp uncaring walls,
assaulting my ears with recriminations,
hollow regrets.
Your kindness gently took my hand,
lifted me up through empathy
into the light.
Painful as a slap, gentle as a caress,
blinking and shivering,
gasping and stammering,
back into a world where kindness is now a friend.

Linda Kurowski

Dear Dr. Williams,

About your poem “The Red
Wheelbarrow”, with the white
chickens in it, you know
when I was a kid, my folks used
to buy us little yellow chicks every
Eastertime. We kept them in a big
cardboard box that we saved specially
for them, with a strong light bulb shin-
ing on them all day and night cause Dad
said they’d need the heat. After a couple
weeks he would give them to this man
down the block who raised chickens and sold
their eggs, we called him the Egg Man (though
nowadays it’s against the law to keep farm ani-
mals in our town but it wasn’t then). Once Dad
took me there when I begged to visit our chicks,
it was a few weeks after, and the Egg Man was old
and didn’t speak so good, and he led us to his garage
and there inside were his chickens, all white ones, and
he pointed to one and said that was ours but they all looked
the same, much bigger than the chicks and they all looked so
skinny and miserable penned in the dark garage and I told Dad
I never wanted to go there again but could we maybe take
ours back home, but he said no in a funny way.

But anyways you wrote “so much depends upon a red wheel-
barrow” and I just wanted to ask you: what depends on a red
wheelbarrow? You know, when I was a kid, I used to say
“wheelbarrel” instead of wheelbarrow, isn’t that funny?

R. Bremner