Between Two Listeners: A Question of Addresser-Addressee Relationship in Epistolary Poetry

Epistolary poetry reconsiders the addresser-addressee dynamic. When the poet dedicates a poem to a specific person, does that constitute a breach of privacy? The poem is meant for public consumption, so a transgression of personal space could not possibly take place in poetic format. I think privacy can be breached in poetic correspondence, just as it is breached in reading private letters; however, like the letters of the early modern English court, epistolary poems, and other poems, are meant to be seen beyond the recipient.

Frank O’Hara’s manifesto “Personism” relates to the epistolary quality of poetry that Bishop and Lowell write.  O’Hara refers to the poem (in a cheeky fashion) as a “Lucky Pierre” situated between the writer and the reader. The poem, especially the epistolary kind, is then an entrance into the privacy of others. O’Hara points out the simplicity of writing a poem in this style: “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears)” (633).When he first realized the concept, he also realized that “if [he] wanted to [he] could use the telephone instead of writing a poem” (634). The poem, like the letter, has a gap between writing and reading––and responding–– that allows the poem to be its own entity, existing between the writer and reader. The epistolary poems of Bishop and Lowell function in a similar fashion to O’Hara’s personism.

While “The Armadillo” and “Skunk Hour” show a direct intercourse between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (because both are addressed in the beginning), the two poems also allow for interpretation of the connections between the two poets or poems. Each poem has reached a level of poetry, like Lucky Pierre, where they exist on their own between two readers. Two of those readers are of course, Lowell and Bishop, but they are also the reader and the poet abstract. The poem, or letter, becomes a space on which ideas exist between times, standing alone without added context.

The epistolary poem is the re-envisioned court letter. It exists as a form of correspondence to the individual but also functions as an address to the crowd. It allows for the private understanding of a few, and broader interpretations of others. From Horace’s epistolary revolution to O’Hara’s personism the question of addresser-addressee reaches a level of synergy where the letter-poem has now become the poem-letter.


O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994. 633-4. Print.


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