It's a pity, then, that brilliant letters are about as likely to be written by young poets today as odes to Psyche. This isn't the fault of the poets. The letter has always been an awkwardly balanced genre -- part practical necessity, part literary performance, part cowardly way to break up with your girlfriend -- and advances in technology have made the letter's modern incarnations smaller, faster, flatter and more ephemeral. These qualities enhance the functional side of letter writing at the expense of the casual, cloudlike accumulations of thought that often lead to the most incandescent poetic observations. And let's face it, the modern letter equivalent makes for a lousy read. Consider, for example, a text message version of Keats's famous explanation of ''negative capability'' (as originally set forth in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, it's a kind of artistic disinterest):(Orr goes on to review the new Selected Letters of James Wright, which sounds like it's worth reading.)
JKEATS1: Iz tryN 2 dev mor neg cap
G&TKEATS: watz dat?
JKEATS1: dats bn N uncertainties -- misteries -- doubts w/o NE irritable reachN aftr fact & reasN : -)
There's nothing wrong with text messages -- they're terrifically useful and often very funny -- but they 8nt Xactly gud 2 look @. Even e-mail messages, which bear some resemblance to letters, are probably too short (not to mention too easily disposable) to maintain the letter's literary position.So we're likely down to our last few poet correspondents.
Anyway, that got me started thinking ... I wonder if blogs are, to some extent, taking the place of letters? True, they aren't addressed to a singular "you" so they lack a certain level of intimacy. But they do often have the pecular mix of formality & informality one finds in letters, and to some extent they are often addressed primarily to a known group of readers, even though they're accessible to a much wider audience. Certainly I've read a goodly number of individual posts that were well-written and substantial enough to hold a reader's interest outside the ephemeral confines of the "blogosphere" -- and I can imagine, somewhere down the road, somebody publishing selections from same. At least I think I can imagine that -- though I'm not entirely sure I like the idea. I know that a lot (though not all) of my email correspondence is dashed off hastily and has the "flattened" quality Orr refers to, while blog posts tend to be more ruminative, more detailed, more composed of actual complete sentences.
It's probably too early to say, really; blogging is a relatively new art form (if I may be so bold as to elevate it to that level), and I don't think it's exactly going to replace the centuries-old art of letter writing just yet. But in terms of the literary function of poets' letters, something Orr discusses ("poets often have used letters to arrive at new ways of thinking about poems," he says), blogs just might be primed and ready to jump in.