“In Praise of the Postcard,” by Stephen Kessler

(Bushwhack Books, the little publishing enterprise created by Michael Perkins and myself, has produced its second set of Poetry Postcards. Talk about double obscurity. Who even sends postcards anymore in this age of tweets? Stephen Kessler, for one, a true man of letters from the Bay Area who, in addition to his long career at alternative newspapers, has published many collections of poetry and translations of Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, and other prominent Spanish language authors. For his first essay collection, Moving Targets: On Poets, Poetry & Translation, Lawrence Ferlinghetti called Stephen “certainly the best poetry critic in sight.” His second, The Tolstoy of the Zulus: On Culture, Arts & Letters, left me eager to delve further into the work of a few figures whom he especially reveres: Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Thelonius Monk, and Saul Bellow. But I equally enjoyed his appreciations of people who never became marquee names, at least not beyond Santa Cruz. After living for so long under New York City’s literary dominance, I’ve found this book a refreshing change. Who knows? If I hadn’t been so damned eager to fly home from California after college graduation to try out my fantasies of being a struggling writer in Manhattan, I might have led a cultural life not unlike Stephen Kessler’s. His charming piece reprinted from 1999, “In Praise of the Postcard,” inspires me to mail out Poetry Postcards. One features two short metaphorical poems about pottery by Sherry Kearns, “Vessels” and “The Blue Vase,” while the other offers “Deadlines,” by Joshua Coben, who apparently has never met a deadline in his life. If you’d like to receive one, please send me your snail mail at will@willnixon.com. Let’s support the Slow Communications movement.)

In Praise of the Postcard

By Stephen Kessler

As one who has successfully avoided or ignored most of the recent technological advances in communications, I come to sing the praises of the humble postcard. Contentedly disconnected from the World Wide Web and the commercial plague of rampant dot-communism, I still like to maintain ties with far-flung friends, and so make frequent use of the US Postal Service. Writing a letter is like making love or engaging in a leisurely conversation, and these activities take a certain commitment and sufficient time to savor the exchange—time that, curiously, the electronic lifestyle seems to have eroded rather than enhanced. Even those of us who remain unplugged suffer from the general epidemic of being rushed. That’s why the postcard is the perfect antidote to virtual hyperactivity: with a few strokes of the pen you can slow down time and make concrete contact with a faraway or nearby correspondent, offering the gift of a unique document whose other, graphic side is also an expressive image.

Like the haiku, the sonnet and other short verse forms, the art of the postcard demands concision and a certain lucid simplicity. When I was a student traveling in Europe my first summer abroad, I remember cramming elaborate accounts of my adventures in tiny script on the backs of picture postcards of the places I was visiting, amazing my parents with the amount of detail I managed to compress into so small a space. Now that I’m older and more domesticated, my postcards tend to be more succinct but hopefully just as pungent, responding pithily to a correspondent’s note or reporting on some personal event. Unlike email, which is famously quick and efficient but also sort of sterile and impersonally promiscuous in the ease with which one can zap out multiple messages, the postcard is an intimate medium, each one singular and original, the visual image on the other side specifically selected to speak to its intended recipient.

Every postcarder has favorite sources for the kinds of cards he or she enjoys sending—museum shops, drugstore racks, flea markets, stationary stores, not to mention the occasional collectors’ show. I look for postcards at rummage sales, junk stores, yard sales, art shows, wherever serendipity might present them. There’s a shop in SoHo in New York City called Untitled, which has bins of art and photography postcards organized by artist or category—a visit to this store requires at least a couple of hours for leisurely browsing. But my favorite postcard venue is a little paper-goods shop in the Bay Area (whose name and exact location I can’t reveal) where, in the back corner, racks and racks of staggeringly various postcards are set up in no particular order, at a price of four for a dollar, for the exploratory pleasure of the investigative postcard hunter. Photos of wild animals or exotic landscapes; Ansel Adams or Walker Evans prints; kitschy touristic images and silly jokes; portraits of legendary movie stars, authors, musicians, artists and athletes; reproductions of modern paintings, Japanese prints, European masterpieces, Persian miniatures or details of Chinese scrolls; antique travel or advertising posters; paperback book or magazine covers; historic photographs of urban architecture or international landmarks—these are just some of the irresistible images I’ve discovered in that wondrous corner—each of them to be savored as an art object and eventually destined for a particular individual on the occasion of some brief communique.

Selecting the card with the recipient in mind, spontaneously composing the economical message, affixing the stamp and sending it off via butterfly mail—that deliciously slow and delicate journey which, on arrival, may set off storms of psychic delight or simple gratitude for information conveyed or thoughtfully expressed—this old-fashioned, timeless, intimate process, a seemingly small gesture in the flux of high-speed distraction to which we’re all subjected, is a corrective to all the little everyday alienations: the junk mail, recorded messages, have-a-nice-days, telemarketing harassments, press-the-keypad options, ads of all kinds, Internet spam and generic crap bombarding us nonstop. Someone has taken time to inscribe a personal note on the back of a picture that carries its own esthetic or emotional kick, and the day is somehow made more real by this infusion of actual reality. To receive the postcard is to feel physically—in the texture of the ink, the shape of the script, the wit of the image selected—the presence and personality of the person who sent it. That feeling of connection, for me, is far more profound and soulfully satisfying than digitized bits of information zinging their way through fiber-optic cables to appear on a screen or be spit from a printer.

A birthday or holiday greeting, a taste of tourism, a gentle reminder, a pointed retort, a light flirtation, a long-time-no-see note, a definitive kiss-off, a friendly inquiry, a bulletin of personal news, a note of condolence, an invitation, a confirmation of plans, a thank-you note, a conversational afterthought, an image sent for the sake of its own eloquence—the postcard is a remarkably versatile means of getting one’s message across. Next to the letter itself, that voluptuous yet tragically endangered medium, the postcard endures as the classic low-tech way of staying in touch.

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