The Letter by Joan I. Siegel
All day it is with her like a song
even as she slices a breakfast orange,
brushes her hair,
shuts a window.
She is listening to it
when company calls
and she talks about yesterday's news,
says good-bye at the door.
Then, alone with it finally
in late afternoon,
she puts it on the desk,
as though she were putting flowers in a vase.
Then she slips it into the envelope,
seals it with her tongue.
A critical essay on Joan I. Siegel´s poem. Formalist approach
As formalists focus on the text, the first step will be to analyze the poem and look for formal principles, paying attention to images and patterns. The subject of the poem, as the title denotes, is a letter. It is a modern poem written in third person. The perspective of the narrator is one of an invisible witness. The tone of the voice is smooth.
“The Letter” is a short poem of 16 lines or stanzas. It does not follow a rhyme pattern but it has a rhythm when reading it because of the use of the verbs. They are short verbs, the longest is “arranges”, but the rest has no more than five: “is”, “slices”, “brushes”, “shuts”, “calls”, “talks”, “pours”, “says”, “puts”, “slips”, “seals”.
“The Letter” is divided into two parts: The first one from “All day...” to “the door”: the second one from “Then...” to “tongue”. “All day”, “breakfast”, “yesterday”, “then” (twice), “finally”, “afternoon” are time markers. The poem, although it is divided into time sequences, it is all in present. A long present, a never ending present.
This suggests the narrator is waiting for someone to come back. But there is a reversal in the two final stanzas. One can realize that the letter in question is not one she received but one she is going to send. All day she has been listening to her interior voice, to what was she was going to write in that letter. The letter is a motif. The letter is all day with her like a song. She listens to it - She wants to think about it as a way of escaping reality: “company calls” (bills to pay), “talks about yesterday´s news”-.
The first part of the poem is more active, the second one is more concrete. As regards the formal properties of the text, in the first part there are words related to sound: “song”, “shut”, “listening”, “calls”, “talks”, “says”. There is a nice choice of words: “a breakfast orange” suggests a light breakfast for a woman who is waiting for someone who is about to come back soon. There is alliteration first of the br sound with “breakfast” and “brushes”, and then of the sh sound with “brushes” and “shuts”. The use of the pronoun it combined with she throughout the poem is worth to mention: There are six “She” and seven “it”.
The time span of the poem is from morning till evening and it is clearly shown by the words “all day”, “breakfast”, “afternoon”. There is a comparison in the second part “as though she were putting flowers in a vase”. Such a detail near the end of the poem gives it strength in its feminine aspect. It shows the narrator´s intention. As regards the ending of the poem, the last sentence is very powerful in imagery. The words “alone with it, finally” suggest the narrator was waiting for this moment. The naming of actions makes more evident the state of solitude of the character in the poem. Domestic activities in an everyday setting (having breakfast, brushing her hair, shutting a window, answering the phone, poring tea, etc) are contrasted with one material but emotional thing: a letter. The poem is like a soap opera in a four well-designed sentences.
Correspondence or letter writing seems to be very important for the narrator of this poem. It describes how a letter may keep accompanied a person, especially a woman.
The urge of having something to say is expressed in this poem. The private realm of a woman is explored here. One could assume the letter is a love one, but the poem does not transmit a romantic view. Moreover, it has a very real surrounding. The routine can be broken only if we have something else to do, someone else to care for.
Intertextual criticism approach
I came across “The letter” (a poem written by Joan I. Siegel) in the March 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, where this poem and a print by Mary Cassatt occupy half a page.
When dealing with the Formal Criticism School I chose Siegel´s poem and thought only about analyzing the poem and not the print as it was a formal approach. Now I come back to this poem, but this time with an intertextual perspective. I am going to analyze the poem “The Letter” by Joan I. Siegel in relation with the print “The Letter” by Mary Cassatt.
Did the print inspire Joan I. Siegel to write this poem? Yes, it did. If I think of the relationship between the image of the print and the images that the poem evokes, the only “match” I can find is in the last stanza: “Then she slips it into the envelope, seals it with the tongue.” But then, the order is different. Although it is hard to establish time order in a print, we could say that what comes first is the image of a woman sealing a letter. In the poem, this image comes last.
Through the entire poem we find action, shown by verbs. In the first stanza, they are mechanical actions: “she slices a breakfast orange, brushes her hair, shuts a window.” We see her alone. In the second stanza, we find again mechanical actions, but actions that should not be mechanical, as now she is relating to other people: “She is listening to it/when company calls/and she talks about yesterday´s news/pours tea,/ says good-bye at the door.” In the third stanza we find intended actions. She arranges the letter as though she were putting flowers in a vase. In the fourth stanza we see a concrete action: it is here when the poem and the print coincide. The print may enrich or limit our perception of the poem as we see the print as another text.
“The letter” is a “snapshot” of a subject and a moment in time. There is a Japanese woman who looks young, around her twenties. She is sitting in a desk with a letter in her hands but at the same time she is sealing that paper with her tongue. The wallpaper design matches her costume design: This woman “fits” her domesticity. She is an everyday life person. She doesn´t have any ring or jewelry. She looks like a simple but interesting person. Cassatt created in “The letter” a sense of closeness by compressing the space she depicted. The setting of her work is usually an interior room with women doing some sort of domestic chore or duty. She rarely used models, instead choosing to paint those people who were close to her.
The way this Japanese woman concentrates in what she is doing... Her look... The contrast of the very white paper with the rest of the elements in the print... a collision of Background patterns... All these factors contribute to make the print more powerful. It is not what we can see on it but what the print suggests.
Why is the name Mary Cassatt written so big and “by Joan I. Siegel” so small? This suggests the poet wanted to place more importance on the painter´s name rather than herself as a writer. (But The Atlantic is a magazine for poetry, not for painters...) Here is when the poem comes into play. Joan I. Siegel made an intertextual work. The word “letter” takes importance in the poem by its omission. In the print the first element we notice is the letter. In the poem, since the beginning “the letter” is replaced by “it”: “All day it is with her like...” “listening to it...”, “alone with it...”, “she puts it...”, “arranges it...”, “slips it...”, “seals it...”. This intertextual approach gives the poem a unique richness.
The print depicts a reflective moment of a woman´s life which demands the observer contemplative thought. The poem adds meaning to the image we see.
The image is familiar because it is universal: We have all sealed a letter. It is a hand-made process we generally enjoy: She “arranges it/as though she were putting flowers in a vase”. It is not an e-mail, it is not a call. It is not something automatic. It is like a ceremony. We can “see” that idea in both: the print and the poem. In an intertextual context, “any work must be understood by analogy with other works that employ similar conventions”.
Regarding the formal characteristics of “The Letter”, we find a short poem composed by 4 stanzas. There is no pattern for rhyme. The use of vocabulary is simple. There is a comparison at the beginning of the poem: “...it is with her like a song” and a metaphor at the end: ... “as though she were putting flowers in a vase”...
Intertextual criticism “directs our attention away from reality and places the work instead in the context of literature as a whole, it stresses the artifice or conventionality of all literature”. As I said, I saw the print and the poem at the same time. Even if I wanted to pay more attention to one or the other, both were there. I “read” both and I know I built the meaning with the print and the poem. One contributed to the other and vice versa. A meaning is not a single meaning signified only by a text, but instead, by two texts. We understand the poem by “reading” another work of art. We find the answer in art: both literature and painting are a mean to achieve a purpose: express feelings, tell a story...