Epistle Poetry Form: How to Write an Epistle

Epistle as a Form

Epistle (pronounced e-PISS-ul) is a poetic form that dates back to ancient Rome and to the Bible. It is a poem written in the form of a letter. The term epistle comes from the Latin word epistola, which means letter. Epistle was used to express love, philosophy, religion and morality. In many cases, the epistle would go on at great length. Many older epistles were thousands of words long.

Most people who think of epistles think of the Bible. Many of the books in the New Testament are epistles, especially the Epistles of St. Paul. The poet Robert Burns also frequently wrote epistles, as did Alexander Pope. There are contemporary poets who use this form, but it will always be associated with The Greeks, the Romans, and the Bible. Nonetheless, it is a fun and loose form to write in if you can get away from the ancients.

Your Poem as a Letter… or Tweet

EpistleOver the past hundred years, as the telephone took over for letter writing, letters became less personal and more formal or business related. The concept of writing letters to relatives, friends, colleagues and lovers went out of fashion. In the last few years, however, letter writing has had a rebirth of sorts as the Internet grew in prominence and people began to send e-mail to each other. Over time, this has grown to include tweets, Facebook posts, text messaging, and more. Today, a long letter is an unlikely gift of time and effort. An epistle is an even more unlikely gift.

Luckily, the epistle is a very adaptable form. If you want to write a poem as if it were a series of tweets or updates, that is still within the realm of epistle. I’m not sure if Burns or Pope would agree, but time passes for everything.

No Meter or Rhyme Needed

There are no meter or rhyme requirements for an epistle. Epistle is more a form of voice and persona. A poet can address their epistle to a real or imaginary person and express their views or take on the character of a different writer. The wonderful quality of an epistle is that it can be such a freeing form. The tone can be formal or use very personalized voices. The poems can be many pages long or as short as a post card.

Epistle Guidelines

Some things you should keep in mind when writing the epistle are:

  • Who is writing the letter?
  • Who is the letter being written to?
  • How you would address that person?
  • What would interest the writer and the recipient?
  • How formal or informal would the writer be when addressing that person?

Below is an epistle I wrote several years ago. I think it is a good example of how fun and flexible the form can be. An epistle doesn’t have to sound like a formal letter. This one takes the form of unsent notes.

 

Notes To Shelly

One

Anyone who would give me
A Winnie-the-Pooh book for Christmas
Deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Still, what will it be
To have you disappear?
Don’t make it forever.

Two

Got your postcard today.
Read all twenty-four words
Twelve times.

Three

Saw Rocky Horror again tonight.
And I thought about your first time
And your devirginization.
Afterwards I drove under
Every overpass I could find.

Four

First date since you left.
Took her to dinner
At the Mexican restaurant
You told me gave you food poisoning.
I never told you I’d wait.
But I didn’t want to take her
Anywhere I’d go with you.

Five

I had a feeling this morning
That I would find a letter from you
In my mailbox.
You know better than I
That it was empty.
That sounded bitter, didn’t it?
Sorry.

Six

Reading Marquez.
Love in the Time of Cholera.
Wanted to recite to you the passage
About the ship captain and the Manatees.
Instead I read it to the palo verde in the yard
Much to Mr. Parra’s consternation.
It is important to maintain my image.

Seven

Ran into Maria at the mall today.
We asked each other about you.
Must be fun to be so mysterious and everything.
Maria and I ate lunch together.
She told me she’s marrying Jimmy.
She took my address
So she can send me an invitation.

Eight

Happy Birthday.
On your behalf
I spray painted the walls
Of my living room black.
And splattered little specks of color all over
To make it look like space.
The effect was different than I expected.
I feel like I’m in one of the less exiting rides
At Disneyland.

Nine

The invitation arrived today.
John and guest.
There’s nobody to take though.
Dating really didn’t work out
After you left.
I expect I’ll send my regrets.

Ten

Went to the wedding after all
Because I thought somehow
You would make an appearance.
It would have been a good moment.
Like the mail though
The appearance didn’t come.
Instead I started talking to Tammy.
We started dancing together.
Drinking half the punch.
She’s getting over somebody.
She said I can call any time.
I won’t though.

Eleven

Called Tammy today.
We got even drunker than at the wedding.
We had to walk back to my house.
She took off her clothes
In the bathroom
And slept on the couch.

Twelve

Of course your postcard
Would arrive today.
From Arkansas of all places.
Your message simple.
Just wanted you to know I’m alive.
Don’t worry.
I know.

Fourteen

I didn’t answer the phone today.
I sat in the living room.
I watched the walls.
Late in the day I decided
It’s time for me to buy a TV again.

Fifteen

I repainted the living room today.
My lease is up and I decided
That I didn’t want to stay here.
I’ve been sending out my resume
For a couple months now.
And I heard back from a company in Sacramento.
It seems everybody is leaving California.
Which makes it probably
The most appropriate place for me to go.

Sixteen

Tammy came over last night.
This time we didn’t go drinking.
This time she didn’t sleep on the couch.
This morning, just to be different
I asked her to come with me.
Just to be like you
She’s quitting her job
And jumping lease.
For the first time in a long time
I know I will see you again.
But then, I’ve been wrong before.

More Information

26 thoughts on “Epistle Poetry Form: How to Write an Epistle

  1. I found you through a web page, looking for different forms to try. I’ve gotten obsessive about it lately. Usually, I read about the form, glance at the poems, and go do my own. But I read yours, fully and totally. I found it fascinating and wonderful. I never thought of an epistle as a poem before. This is the first time in a long time I’ve been captivated by poem I found looking for forms, especially when I decided the form wasn’t for me. But then, after reading you epistle, I might try it closer to June. I’m attempting to write one a poem a week for the whole school year. I’m a third career teaching in a first year situation in an inner city. In a way you’ve encapsulated in one 15 part poem, what I’m trying to do for the school year, so maybe it’ll work as an end of year poem.

  2. I am working on a poetry project for school. This page helped me a lot because for the project, I need to find eight types of poems to write. So far, this is my favorite

  3. I just wanted to say what a beautiful poem this is. I love the bittersweet tone and the longing contained in it. We’ve all lost someone we love in one form or fashion at some point in our lives, and you tapped into that universal feeling. I, like some of the other people who have commented, was also just looking for a new form to try, and the article was very helpful with that as well.

  4. Thank you for the compliments Bakka and BG. I have reformatted the stanza titles and I hope that fixes the numbering issue.

  5. Dear God,
    I saw you at the mall today
    You didn’t notice me
    But then again neither did I
    Maybe it’s better that way.

    Dear God,
    I invited you to my birthday party
    We had cake and ice cream
    But you didn’t show up
    Please RSVP next time.

    Dear God,
    Um, I think you still have
    My first edition copy
    Of “The Dukes of Hazard”
    I’d like it back when you get a chance.

    Dear God,
    I wrote you a song today
    It’s named:
    “The Rat-bastard who stole my video”
    Just a friendly reminder.

    Dear God,
    I’d died today
    I sent you an invitation to the funeral
    But you didn’t show up.
    Maybe it’s better that way.

  6. I was just trying to figure out what exactly an Epistle is because I need to write one for my Advanced Comp class. It needs to be religious though. Thanks for the one you wrote. It is beautiful!

  7. I love the formatting. Of all the example peices, this one is the most interesting, and certianly the best.
    I wish they would add more formats – the site would have more visitors, I’m sure.

    Vana

  8. I love this poem :) I was hoping I could use it for an example of this type of poetry for my Writer’s Craft class, but I need to be able to say a few words about the poet. Do you think you could email me and tell me a bit about yourself?

  9. I found this very useful. I am writing a paper on an Epistle written by Alexander Pope. I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your poem. I usually never write on things like this, but I was very touched by your poem and wanted to tell you how great it is.

  10. Stumbled onto this poem and found myself reading it through it numerous times.

    It does capture simply and blithly the angst one endures at the end of a relationship.

    Found the line about reading the postcard, all 24 words, 12 times so simply stated and so deeply relateable.

    Having always been the “dumped” was surprised to find my Prince (who is NO TOAD!) and now write love poems with JOY but still write the river of pain (that comes with the territory of life) just the posionous element of rejection no longer is there.

  11. I loved your poem–bittersweet and longing. Regarding epistles, can any letter be called an epistle? If that is the case, then what makes it different from prose?

    1. An epistle is a poem that takes the form of a letter. It is a poem first and a letter second. Most letters are not in the least bit poetic.

  12. What a lovely letter. The message between the lines is quite romantic. I’ve haven’t been moved by a writer’s voice for some time now. Thank you for sharing it. And good luck to you. . .

  13. How awesome. I was just browsing the web for cool forms and I love the unique style and tone of this piece. Have to say, hadn’t ever heard of the Epistle form but will definately give it a go. I’m from a poetry site, it’s good fun, you should join :)

    Thanks for sharing this piece, I’ve been inspired.

    Take care!

  14. You do realize it goes from stanza twelve to fourteen right?
    I got that on my second time reading it.
    I was looking for forms of poetry I could use as an art componant for a school paper of mine and this form, mostly because of your poem, really hit me as something I could use to make a difference. Thanks for sharing this, and helping me out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>