Poets of genius can write miserable novels, great novelists perfectly childish verse; yet poets and novelists have both proven masters of the letter, a genre now nearly extinct. Critics since the 1920s have bitten their nails over the death of the novel, but in the last decade or two the letter has almost vanished. For most writers, email offers no more depth than a greeting card, and future editors of a poet’s emails might prefer to build the Colossus of Rhodes out of toenail clippings. The internet didn’t kill letters—what killed them were cheap phone calls. The internet just mopped up the remains.

Reading letters is always an exercise in forensic pathology.

The reflexive monument raised to a dead writer, meanwhile, is still a fat book of letters. Reading letters is always an exercise in...


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