Thursday, March 20, 2014

We Could Send Letters

What came through my letterbox yesterday? A selection of leaflets advertising carry-out pizzas and other foods, two envelopes containing junk mail, a package with a book inside sent by a publisher for possible review in Magma, and a business letter. I can't remember the last time someone actually wrote a letter to me that wasn't to do with work or was carrying out some form of transaction. I can't remember when I last wrote such a letter either.

A few months ago, I wrote a fairly long article on a book published by Bloodaxe, Airmail: the Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer, an article which was commissioned and published by The Dark Horse magazine, issue 31 (which I would thoroughly recommend, whether my article interests you or not). The letters were written between 1964 and 1990 and they make for fascinating reading. They cover historical upheavals from the Vietnam War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, matters of religion and spirituality, the art of writing, translation, the pretensions and strengths of literary ‘scenes’, and they chart the growth of a close friendship. The two poets translate one another’s work and arrange reading tours. They are also peppered with sharp humour and quotable asides. It’s a brilliant book.

What strikes me about it though, something I didn’t mention in my article, is that such a book will be impossible in years to come. We don’t write letters any more. Of course, people still communicate through email and social networks, but it’s not the same. Anyone trying to chart connections between poets in decades to come by analysing Facebook activity will have a soul-destroying task. FB’s archive system is hopeless and I’m told the walls of the dead are often torn down, which will no doubt come as a relief to most people in that position.

Email isn’t really any better. It’s great for communicating events, meetings, transactions and for organising things quickly. It’s great for business and for any activity that thrives on getting things done fast. Theoretically, an email has as much scope for interesting exchanges as a letter. You write, the recipient writes back. But in practice, the dynamic is very different. I was once told that I ought to reply to emails within two days at the most and that any delay was bad form. This was in connection with work-related email but the sheer speed and immediacy of email communication creates demands and expectations that extend beyond the world of work.

If I was to try to write ‘a letter in an email’ full of news, thoughts, ideas etc, the sort of thing people used to set down into six pages of handwritten A5 paper and pack into an envelope, I am doing two things. I am writing in expectation of a reply. I also sense an awkwardness of imposing that on the recipient. I wouldn't want to make anyone feel that they must reply with speed but at the same time, if a reply doesn’t come within a few days, I’d be wondering what had happened. I’d know too that an email correspondence like that is almost impossible to maintain. It’s too fast, too much of an imposition. An old-fashioned letter to a penfriend, sent second-class or airmail, took days or even weeks to arrive. There was no sense of expecting an immediate reply by return post. You could post several letters in a week or none for a month. You could send off a quick paragraph or a 12-page tome. To keep the correspondence going did entail a degree of commitment, of course, but it was possible, a relatively laid-back activity. I think email is kidding us on that such things are still possible but it is a medium hostile to the kind of exchange Bly and Transtromer maintained over four decades. Can you imagine a book in twenty years time being published with the title, 'Email: the Communications of X and Y' (insert names of interesting poets), a selection of electronic transmissions between them over the last 40 years? I can't...

I was listening to Aztec Camera's classic Postcard single b-side, 'We Could Send Letters' on YouTube and noticed that someone had commented along the lines of "If Roddy wrote this now,would it be 'We Could Send Text Messages'?" The comment is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it made me think all the same. The reality is that such a song is unimaginable today. Texts, emails etc may keep people in touch but they are not letters. I'm not meaning to be hopelessly romantic or nostalgic about this, but I do think we have lost something vital with the demise of postal correspondence and I don’t think current forms of communication are anywhere near replacing that gap. While it’s unlikely that anyone will want to publish correspondence between most writers (no bad thing, I guess!), the ferment of ideas, inspiration and practical activity generated by the Transtromer/Bly letters is enough to convince me that we are missing something important.

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