Friday, December 03, 2004

Writing in Sand


Ron Silliman’s recent blog for 2 December is inspiring. Ron explains, among other things and interesting anecdotes (such as being bitten by a student over a writing assignment), how writing tools—quill*, pen, typewriter, computer—have affected the writing of poetry over the years, including his own, though his experience doesn’t include the quill as some of you pranksters might think.

Of all the writing tools, say, from quill to pen to machine, it is always fascinating to “see” how the screen has changed and altered the ultimate composition of poems on a page. Beyond the ills and cures of writer’s block, now more than ever we also find that the cure can in many cases be worse than the disease or result in new viral variations such as Writer’s Dyarrhea. That poems can be drafted or written in paper to be later transcribed to the computer screen to be shaped and twisted, perhaps tortured, can also result in a false sense of the malleability of poetic form. Sort of like the cross-examiner who asks the proverbial one question too many. The ease with which form can be altered on a page has been a great advance, but it may ultimately lead to the conclusion that the poem’s visual impact is to be as important as its meaning or inseparable from it. And such may be the case, but I wonder how many poems could be saved by that “Undue” editing button on Word ®. Kinda beats that old eraser on the typewriter or writing in the sand.

Can the poet over-edit his work as a result of the ease with which changes can be made on a computer? This is of particular concern to the Muse. She hardly edits and can’t stand Microsoft ®. An old fashioned but nevertheless Shakespearean interpretation.

* A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word “pen” is derived from the Latin name for “feather”—“penna.” Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems and sometimes revolution. Quills were the writing instruments of choice between 500 A.D. and 1850 A.D. Michael J. Cummings.


  • This is a very thoughtful and provocative exposition, Alberto. It got me thinking again about spaces and tools, here, for writing, as had Ron's post earlier in the day, but also as these form relations in general. Really, I think it must go to the semiotic, something akin to Bachelard and de Certeau. Thanks for this.

    chris murray

    By Blogger chris, at 6:30 AM  

  • This is truly food for thought, Chris, and why I turn to some of Ron’s explanations in his blog (it’s like listening to a pleasant conversation) on linguistics and semiotics. Aren’t those scary words? But on a very simple level it is fascinating to consider how the “tools” affect the writer’s “product”. Superficially, for instance, note how Blogger affects my writing here in this blog; how you are affected: e.g., aided visually in some respects by the existence of graphics and yet restricted and constrained by the limitations of the medium. (Frustration in not being able to do what we want by our control limit over the medium.) The tool affects our product and may be no different on a theoretical context to how hammer and chisel affected communications centuries ago. Time will tell. Contemporary poets may not realize the extent to which they are controlled by the tools of their choice. And, needless to say, as it has always been, the reader’s “participation” in the final act of “production”: “The activity of reading has all the characteristics of a silent production.” M. de Certeau.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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