Sincerely Whose? or Poems in the form of letters

The other day I was reading a love poem a student was working on and came upon an ambiguous line. “You need to give your reader a little more information here,” I told her. “No I don’t,” she said, “the poem is to my boyfriend and he’ll know what I’m talking about.”“Whoa! Hold on.” I thumped the palm of my hand down on her desk. “You need to think bigger than that!” She looked up at me confused. Now what does this crazy poetry teacher want from me? her heavily mascara-ed eyes seemed to plead.“This poem could be published in a book! Think bestseller! Think Oprah!” I said.

Okay, so, as my students so often point out, I was getting carried away. But at the very least, within ten minutes she’d be reading the poem to the class and we wanted to know why tears were falling on the pillow in the second stanza.

Getting students to think about audience … that is the readers outside their own head, is crucial to making meaningful poems rather than just heartfelt journal entries. (Not that I have anything against heartfelt journal entries, mind you …  )

I’ve found that reading and writing poems in the form of letters is a great way to drive this lesson home. After all, you can’t write a letter if you don’t know who it’s addressed to. So for the past month I’ve been doing a unit on writing poems in the form of letters.

Here are some poems I’ve used in this month’s unit:

  • “This is My Letter to the World” by Emily Dickinson
  • “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project” by Pedro Pietri
  • “Undelivered Mail” by Rhina P. Espaillat  (You and your students will have a lot of fun with this one!)
  • “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes (Not exactly a letter, but it really drives home the idea of audience … and my students – teens whose reading levels ranged from 3rd grade and up – were extremely inspired by it … )
  • “For My Daughter” by David Ignatow (Not technically a letter, but it works)
  • “Dear Tia” by Caroline Hospital

Here are some poems I might add next time around:

  • “Letter to NY” by Elizabeth Bishop
  • “Letter from Buddy, Postmarked Heaven” by Lesléa Newman (STILL LIFE WITH BUDDY Pride Publications, 1997

If you have something to add to the list, let me know. I plan to repeat this unit at least once a year!

Cockroach Love

I tell my students we are going to write about cockroaches today. They look from one to the other, exchanging that now-familiar, “Is she crazy?” look.


Not only that, I tell them, we’re going to read a suicide note from a cockroach. Then we’re going to explore what the cockroach might be feeling. Then we’ll write love notes from cockroaches, or Dear John letters, or maybe letters seeking employment. Some giggles, then they exchange those, “She’s not really going to make us do this, is she?” looks. They’re teenagers after all; they have their pride.

We read excerpts from Pedro Pietri’s “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project.” (you can listen to the poem on Rhapsody! Choose selection #10 ) When we are done S. blurts out: “That cockroach has a lot in common with us!” Yes, that cockroach is “depress” (not depressed … my students, and Pietri, say “depress” as in “I’m depress today.”

“And he’s on welfare, too” another says.

“That’s what makes the poem so great,” I say, “the poet has stepped into the cockroach’s … well … not skin exactly, but you know what I mean.”


The poet has acted as ventriloquist, putting his feelings into the body of a roach. Whitman did it. He passed “death with the dying, and birth with the new-wash’d babe.” That’s the shimmering transcendence of art … the leap of imagination from my body into that of the lonely-looking woman I passed on the street – or even the bee that was caught in my hair as I stood outside waiting for the bus.

When it is time to write, I relent. I tell the class they don’t really have to write letters as if they were cockroaches. This elicits sighs of relief. “You can write from the point of view of an ant, a spider, a ladybug … any creepy crawly thing.” Oh well, by now they’re resigned.

Here are other suggestions I offered:

  • Include a salutation and a sign-off (it’s a letter, don’t forget).
  • Include two things the bug is doing, two things it’s feeling, two things it fears, two things it dreams of. (You can start each line with I am … I feel … I dream … etc. )
  • End with what the bug dreams … it pulls things together somehow!

My students’ poems, as usual, were dazzling. One had her cockroach write a love note that began: “I am the one you’ve been looking for …” How poignant is that!