Literacy for Poets

There are times, as when I read the news coming out of Gaza or Ferguson or Iraq, when I would like to be a little less literate. What is literacy? It’s knowing how to read written language, but it’s also knowing how to read the world according to the way it was put together by other literate people. Being rational, in the Western world, is closely tied with literacy and the way reading and writing facilitate linear thinking. “Be rational!” someone might say to you when you are anxious or paranoid. They may as well say, “Read!”

But for poets, who want to be able to respond not just to the world’s organization, but to the incomprehensible and uncontainable aspects of human life, or Rilke’s wonkier physics of “life…now bounded, now immeasurable,” to be rational, or to absorb the world rationally, is not always what we want. In fact, literacy – or hyperliteracy, suggesting a society entirely founded on the organization of a standardized writing system– would seem to oppose that. “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time,” said John Cage’s friend Sister Corita Kent. But poets, famously, also work in words, many of us by writing them down. What to do with that?

Marshall McLuhan, in his classic work Understanding Media (which celebrates its 50 year anniversary this year) described the alphabet as the technology that democratized, organized, and standardized thought – and the technology that, by allowing the wide dissemination of information, limited the ways people participate in the creation of that information. Instead of going to a speech in the town square where you might instantly be able to argue, you read a book, where you can only argue in the margins. (Until you next see the author on his way to sell his cow – then you can kill him.) This view of the alphabet is amplified in the history of printing.

But somewhere in the history of literate societies, the alphabet became not just an organizational system, but an aesthetic object, too. The letters I have read over and over again – the Roman letters that comprise written English, the Hebrew letters that were part of my Jewish education – are intensely aesthetic to me. I prefer not to read in certain fonts. I like to think of what objects letters resemble, although strictly they are symbols, not representations. My mother and I made endless “name insects” by writing our names in cursive in mirror images and then adding eyes, antennae, feet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in highly literate societies, learning one’s letters is often a somewhat mystical, multi-modal process. (If you’ve ever listened to a child learning how to read, you know that it’s also an undeniably physical process, eye to larynx to tongue.) Teachers lean on stories, songs, and exaggerated movement to help students learn the letters’ shapes and sounds, the motions of making them, their particular voices. My first grade teacher had alphabet cards hanging in the classroom illustrated not with objects whose names began with the letters on the cards, but with an image from a story meant to emphasize the sound of the phoneme. A picture of a girl with a pink ice cream cone hung above M: “’Mmmm,’ said Emily, “ice cream.” Mmmm, we repeated from our desks.

McLuhan was thinking about the alphabet as a well-oiled machine, as factory-made typography. But his teacher, I.A. Richards, in his book Science and Poetry, was thinking of it as a body part, familiar but variable. Richards, outlining what happens when one reads a poem, wrote the following, using Wordsworth’s “Westminster Bridge” as an example:

The first things to occur are the sound of the words ‘in the mind’s ear’ and the feel of the words imaginarily spoken. Those together give the full body as it were, to the words, and it is with the full bodies of words that the poet works, not with the printed sign. But many people lose nearly everything in poetry through these indispensable parts escaping them.

If the poet works with the full bodies of words, then the reader, if he experiences them fully, feels what the poet felt. On the page, the poem seems to be primarily a visual thing, an arrangement of space. When we sound the letters out, the poem reenters the world of sound. McLuhan, in his characteristic citation-free way, describes a prince from an “oral” society who realized that the books in the house of his Western friend contained “trapped sound.” To be able to read was to be able to free this sound, as one lets a gas out of a bottle. (To be able to make the sounds of the words without reading them, too, is to observe their “unfettered” state).

The “full body” of the word, then, is produced by a cycle of sounding and transcribing and resounding (again I think: “bounded then immeasurable”), something the poet does imperfectly each time he does it; but to do it perfectly would mean deferring to “the printed sign” – to the word on the page without its correlate in the air. The story of poetry performance and print in the United States, about which I’ve written recently, is testament to the difficulty poets have in deciding where the aural ends and the visual begins, or vice versa. But why decide? Some of the difficulty has to do with the pressure for poets, because we are also called writers, to be literate – that is, rational. To treat the alphabet, which we love so because it looks and sounds like bridges and eagle’s beaks and campfires and the moon, like the efficient, top-down technology it is in our schools, in what’s left of our newspapers, on our street signs, in our voting booths. Richards’s “full bodied” words seem to be made of the alphabet imbued with our mythologies, histories, ice cream stories, and sloppy signatures, and thus he seems to have defined the alphabet as a technology for poets. But not just for us, of course: all over the Internet, as McLuhan would have recognized, the printed word that quieted participation in its infancy has come full circle to allow it again, for better or for worse. The medium may be (and change) the message, as McLuhan wrote, but the medium is also (happily) a mess.

In a recent New York Times article about the decline of handwriting in schools, a psychologists notes, “When a kid produces a messy letter, that might help him learn [to write] it.” Because of the inherent error in creating something from scratch without a fixed template, the kid is forced to do it again and again until he sees the pattern, how the movements to make his shaky s’s match – roughly – the movements the teacher uses to make hers. I recall second-grade assignments of endless e’s and loopy F’s. But to make my cursive letters match the ones drawn as examples in dotted lines on my worksheet was not my goal; it was to be able to scribble a barely legible signature as I had seen my father do, the F in Falk a jagged cut across and down, the flourish of the l leaving the k all but forgotten. Handmade letters contained a spirit different than printed ones, and still do; I detect, like many writers, a more solid foundation, a continuous hum beneath the poems I begin by hand than those backlit from birth by my computer monitor.

A shape so hard-won can sometimes more easily yield its sound, its other half. Denise Levertov reminded poets that their lines were a musical blueprint, not just garden paths, or a fencepost on which to hang their thinking. Someone, she warned in her essay “On the Function of the Line,” could always pick the poem up and play, so keep it well-tuned.

Allowing the word to take up space, unblocking the passage between the visual and the aural – even when we are critics, even when we are teachers, I’d like this to be our literacy. There is some power, and politics, in the full body, in the word that is not forced to shed its parts. When we feel tempted to bind it, let it become immeasurable.


First/ featured image courtesy of Rhoda Kellogg Child Art Collection, an incredible archive of early childhood graphic expression.

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