YOU KNOW A GREAT LOVE letter when you get one. It's the one that still makes you feel weak in the knees when you read it for the hundredth time.
Recognizing a great love letter isn't hard. Writing one is, because it doesn't have anything to do with the right paper or the proper grammar or complete sentences.
David Lowenherz, who edited The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time, says he doesn't have a clue what stationery the love letters in his book were written on. "It's the phrasing that matters, the deep sense of caring, the belief in the other person."
If you want to know what a great love letter sounds like, the following qualifies, although it's not in Lowenherz's book. (Excerpts from the book can be found at the end of the story.)
"And that night was wonderfullest of all. The light and the shadow and quietness and the rain and the wood. And you. You are so beautiful and wonderful that I daren't write to you ... And kinder than God.
"Your arms and lips and hair and shoulders and voice -- you."
It's part of a letter Rupert Brooke wrote to Noel Olivier in 1911. Of course, he had the advantage of being a poet; she rejected him and he died of septic pneumonia from an infected mosquito bite four years later. But it's still a great love letter.
A century later, in an era of cell phones and computers, you might think that the writing of a love letter is a dying art. Not so, says Robert Schreur of Towson, who has written love letters with pens and pencils, on lined and unlined paper, typed them on paper and on a computer, e-mailed them and faxed them. He still sends love letters to his wife after 11 years of marriage.
"I like how I sound often better than I sound in person," he says. "I can get at more intimate things and not stumble."
The couple met through a personal ad in the City Paper. "In a sense, through a love letter, before match.com."
Sometimes his letter is just a note with a few lines, says his wife, Laura Coleson-Schreur. "But a lot of thought has been put into it. It's about someone knowing who you are and being able to speak to it."
For their tenth anniversary she created scrapbook pages from his letters and photographs, and sent him on a scavenger hunt with an empty scrapbook. The clues led to places that were important in their relationship, ending with the sculpture garden at the Baltimore Museum of Art where they had gotten engaged. Friends waited at each stop to hand him a page. She waited in the sculpture garden.
If she has any advice about love letters, it's "keep them."
"They're written to be overheard by future selves," he says.
About the recipient
It's easier to write a love letter if you love to write, as Schreur does, but it's not a prerequisite. Babbette Hines, author of Love Letters, Lost, started collecting love letters at flea markets and estate sales. She was inspired by her grandparents' love letters. They had exchanged a hundred or so in the three years they were courting, even though they lived only a mile and a half apart.
Some of the letters she's collected are articulate, some are sweet but barely literate.
"Each of them has a level of intimacy implied or hoped for," she says. "All are touching. The reaching out is amazing."
The love letter most likely to achieve its objective, she believes, is about its subject, not so much about the person writing it.
"Each letter is a secret language between the writer and the recipient. It conveys intimacy without revealing intimate details." (See Rupert Brooke's letter above.)
She admits she's written only one love letter to her husband, although they've been married 10 years; but she thinks more people ought to try it.
"No one on the planet isn't excited these days if they even receive just a postcard," she says. "If people would pony up and spend 10 minutes out of their lives writing a love letter, there would be a payoff."
It's 'very brave'
Easier said than done, counters Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, who writes about culture and gender. "As a woman who's been swayed by a lovely letter before," she says with a laugh, she feels qualified to speak.
"Love is one of the hardest things to do," she says. "Kids in their 20s will have sex before they'll say I love you. Romantic love is too scary. A letter gives them a little bit of safety, but making that approach is very frightening, and very brave. It's putting yourself out there on paper."
For those who are both frightened and inarticulate, there are professional love letter writers for hire, just as you can find term papers over the Internet. Or you can download love letter templates.