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Category Archives: writing

Blogging and the history of writing

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At some point in time, probably a very long time ago indeed, something quite extraordinary happened: someone (or a group of people) decided to transfer spoken language into symbols. We can only surmise what the implements were – a finger in the sand perhaps? Burnt embers on stone? – and what the purpose of their communication was. And how the moment unfolded can likewise only be left to supposition. Was it a brilliant flash of genius followed by much metaphorical popping of champagne corks? Or was it an unruffled affair of simple necessity owing to the natural vicissitudes of mankind? Whenever and however it happened, it marked one of the most significant shifts in the history of mankind – the move to written/visual communication.

Of course this visual communication could not be called writing in itself. Rather, historians refer to it as proto-writing, literally a proto-type. (For those interested, Andrew Robinson has written several books on writing and scripts.) Really, proto-writing was a form of drawing, which is why its individual elements are called pictograms. Technically speaking, therefore, if you could draw, you could (proto) write. Although the width of your readership probably left much to be desired.

Proto-writing developed into more complex pictograms. Most of the earliest examples of these were inscribed into clay tablets, and whose existence today, by the way, we owe to the fact that they were baked and hardened in the fires of incinerated communities. These emerged around 3300 BC, and interestingly their purpose seems to be predominantly mathematical – ancient Excel spreadsheets recording and balancing transactions.

The pictograms became ever more complex and therefore esoteric, Egyptian hieroglyphic script being an excellent example. Clay tablets gave way to papyrus and other forms of parchment. And so nations, it appeared, began writing their stories and histories, not just their financial transactions. Then alphabets appeared, the Phoenician in 1000 BC, the Greek in 730 BC, just in time for Homer’s poetry. Interestingly, though, Homer is believed to have lived closer to 850 BC, and therefore his poetry was transmitted only orally for at least a century, if not two (depending on which scholar you believe). If you could write back then, that was probably your job; you were a scribe. But as Homer’s example evinces, it wasn’t so much about readership as “listenership”.

The codification of alphabets (and therefore language) and the spread of “education” no doubt accelerated the art and practice of writing. Readership now relied on literacy and wealth. Your own manuscript would cost you an arm and a leg.

Then another monumental shift in the history of writing occurred, this time during the boom of the European Renaissance: the invention of “movable type”. In other words, the printing press. To say it revolutionized the way writing was produced and disseminated is practically an understatement. Suddenly books could be made en masse. Partner this with ever exploding trading routes and you could have your own copy of, say – Dante’s Divine Comedy (with illustrations), printed in Florence and over to you in London in a month or two. OK not quite as expeditious as Amazon’s standard free 3-5 business day shipping, but not a million miles away either, and not bad for the fifteenth century, you’d have to agree.

Next up was your very own printing press of sorts – the typewriter, invented in 1867. I have my own, a Smith-Corona Skyriter (salvaged from Value Village for the ransom of $30). It is an object of unparalleled mechanical beauty. And then of course, much like Bob Dylan’s music, writing went electric. From pictograms to telegrams. The 1980s saw the first ever electronic word processor, and the 1990s heralded the invention of the irrepressible and now ubiquitous monolith – the World Wide Web. Still, though, if you wanted anyone to read what you had written you pretty much had to get published.

Enter blogging stage left. Hardly a grande entrance. More of a discreet shuffle out from the wings. Even the word evoked suspicion. “Blog?” we all thought. It sounded too frumpy, too guttural. Somewhere between a blob and a log. Not the most alluring of literary enterprises. Like I said, we all thought. And now where are we? – hundreds of millions of blogs, and the vocation of scribe has become the vocation of blogger.

You know already the point I’m going to make about readership; it’s roll-your-eye-balls obvious, but nonetheless remarkable: write a blog piece and post it, and virtually anyone in the world with an internet connection (an estimated 2 billion+ people) can read what you’ve written. We’ve all got used to this idea, I know. But from the perspective of history’s timeline of writing the shift is jaw-dropping! There’s been a heretofore unwitnessed explosion. We are living on the mushrooming cloud of a fusillade of new and accessible writing.

I’ll admit, I used to feel mild disdain towards bloggers – What because everything you  have to say is so desperately important? Well actually, in a way, yes it is. I’ve come to accept that what we have to say is important. What you have to share is valuable. Not everyone’s going to be interested (a lot of people won’t even care), and what you post is not always going to be brilliant or “right”. But when it comes from a place of truth within yourself – and interests and creativity are an inseparable part of that truth – then it matters. And that’s why it should be shared. And that, readers, is what blogging is all about.

In memoriam: succeeding death with words

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For a girl I know March will always be the hardest month of the year to live through. In this same month is her late brother’s birthday, shortly followed by the anniversary of the day he took his own life.

Already the urge to stop writing and recede into reticence envelops me. For to try to fill the limitless silence between the opening paragraph and this, to speak into that burgeoning emptiness, seems almost ridiculous. Impossible. That a single word of mine on a blog like this could be added, that it might in some inconceivable way affect, change, or heal a truth so devastating, so immovable, so irreversible.

In my last post I said that to write poetry, for me, means to wrestle with words. It is the same with letters and messages of condolence. For the most part such messages, I sense, are a rarity. Not because we are lazy nor because our compassion doesn’t encompass someone else’s grief, but because words come awkwardly – or don’t come at all. We fear platitudes.

Yet eulogies and epitaphs are common place. Common place, but mainly unnoticed, and seldom spoken of. We skip over them in newspapers. We pass them by in graveyards – those tablets of stone on which is written one commandment only: live. They are hardly inconspicuous, but their existence is almost clandestine.

We seem to have a peculiar relationship between words and death. There is certainly discomfort, naturally. But I wonder if there is also neglect. Not an active, irreverent neglect, but a neglect of passivity born out of the discomfort we feel. We are coerced into silence. I don’t think it should be like this. I am painfully sensitive to clichés, but I don’t think death has to have the last word. We do. We who are still alive.

Shakespeare hit the nail on the head square on when in his closing rhyming couplet of Sonnet XVIII he wrote,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

We must continue to succeed death with words. Be it an epitaph or a letter of condolence, we must continue to write. And we must continue to read. When we don’t, we neglect the sorrow and we forget the memory. More than this, we fail to participate in an experience of truth. Because truly, I don’t know what else can begin to heal the pain of death and the loneliness of grief except truth. Lies won’t, and neither will denial.

One of the hard things I know for the girl who lost her brother was the lack of acknowledgment she received after he died. It’s no one’s fault; she doesn’t blame anyone. Words don’t come easy. But in the silence that has been left is a sense in her that his death has been forgotten, or that it is somehow taboo. It is not taboo. It did happen. So just to acknowledge it, just to begin to fill that void of loneliness with words, is something. We must continue to succeed death with words.

Today is the second anniversary of her brother’s death. And so today I am writing to remember this, to acknowledge the sorrow, to remember the memory.

M.C.C. 03.05.1969 – 03.22.2010

How to be a poet

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For the most part, I want my blog posts to be my own words – my own thoughts and ideas. But every now and then, as happens, you come across something written by someone else, and in the overwhelming, satiated silence that follows you think, What else is there to say? Wendell Berry’s poem ‘How to be a Poet’ is one such piece of writing. So I’m going to make an exception and have his poem – his own brilliant words – be the predominant feature in this month’s blog post.

I will add only two things. Firstly, I have thought at length about this poem. I have read it, re-read it, and read it again. I hope you will, too. It’s worth doing. Secondly, if I could share one other thought about how to be a poet (yes, in all my vast wisdom), I would say, Learn how to wrestle. To write poetry, for me, means to wrestle with words, to wrestle with the truth, to wrestle with laziness, to wrestle with failure, and to wrestle with the fear that everyone will think what you’re writing is laughable and pathetic. Those are my two cents. Here are Wendell’s:

How to be a Poet
By Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

i.
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Italy: an exercise in co-writing (and co-translating) poetry

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“And where’s your Fiscal Code?” the lady at the bank barked at me irately in Italian. Fiscal Code? What the Dickens is a Fiscal Code? I thought. Embarrassed, I sheepishly replied,  ”Sorry madam, a Fiscal Code?” I pulled out my passport hoping that it would help. “No, no,” she waved it back to me, dismissing the document altogether. Incredulous, “You don’t have a Fiscal Code?” I don’t. “Sorry. Next!” And repeatedly, in such a manner, my first couple months as a year abroad student in Italy unfolded: tumultuous question after tumultuous question, fired at me with rifle speed. Questions I could barely understand, my mind working overtime to translate, desperately trying to glean any significance I could. Disoriented and dejected, I would return to my residence of six weeks – the youth hostel, go to my room, which I shared with a carousel of always under or over-deodorized travellers, sit on my bed and start asking some pretty serious questions myself: What are you actually doing here? When are you going to get out of this greivous and malodorant youth hostel? Why did you even bother choosing Italian in the first place?

Italy, everything –  it was a quandary of questions.

My fortunes changed when Paolo, a friend of a friend of an acquaintance, who I had hardly met, took pity on me. He was dorming in one of the university accommodations. He said his room-mate had never turned up and that I could come share with him, if I wanted. Well, I think that’s what he said. Anyway, I wanted. Very much so. Anything but this purgatory of a youth hostel where privacy, quite frankly, was non-existent. I moved in shortly afterward.

Paolo had quite the pensive disposition, and although he was studying economics, he was a very literary type; he loved to read novels, comics, and poetry. And having a room-mate who also enjoyed reading made life a lot less awkward, especially when at first, due predominantly to my linguistic ineptitude, we didn’t have much to say to each other. It meant the silences didn’t have to be so uncomfortable; we could just hang out and read, filling our minds – instead of our mouths – with words. After a while, though, and as my Italian improved, the parameters and shape of our friendship grew. We conversed more. I was able to answer his questions, and he mine. Then one evening, as I was coming to the end of a binge on American literature: Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, and finally Herman Melville, Paolo introduced me to another Paul, a Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. He quietly left the book on my bed, turned around and walked out the room. As he was half way out the door, he called back, “E’ interessante, vecchio.” It’s interesting, old friend. Curious I picked it up and read the front cover. Libro delle Domande. I translated: The Book of Questions.

Inside were seventy-odd short poems, each line a question. On one page was the original in Spanish, on the opposite page was the translation in Italian. Many were challenging to understand, but I dusted off my dictionary and worked diligently that evening to translate them. One of my favorites is still poem III:

Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal
the splendour of their roots?

Who hears the regrets
of the getaway car?

Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?

I quickly became enamoured with the book, and the poems became a source of frequent discussion between Paolo and I. And so it happened one evening that we decided to go out for a drink together. The bar was poorly lit and the beer cheap. Its walls and ceilings were completely plastered with prints of famous pieces of art, a modern-day Sistine Chapel of sorts (minus the religious reverence, plus some raucous revelry). At one point during a lull in our conversation Paolo jumped up and went to the bar, and instead of ordering another beer, asked for a pen a paper. He sat back down, wrote something and pushed it towards me. I read it:

Perché il marmo ha scelto lo stesso colore del latte?
E’ possible forse annegare nei suoi pavimenti?

“What does marmo mean?” I asked him. Marble. “And annegare?” To drown. I translated:

Why did marble choose to be the same colour as milk?
Is it possible, then, to drown in its tiles?

And thus began a little experiment in writing poetry together, Neruda style. He’d write a poem in Italian, I’d translate it into English, or vice versa:

What is it about the sea that makes me so sad?
Is it because in its vastness it still seems so alone?

And is the sand not tired of the indecisive tide:
Coming, going, stealing and giving back?

Cosa nel mare mi rende triste?
E’ perché nella sua vastità sembra ancora così solo?

E la sabbia non è ancora stanca dell’indecisione delle maree?
Di questo venire e andare, rubare e restituire?

Then sometimes he’d start a poem and I’d finish it. We’d put it together and translate accordingly:

E perché il vento fa tanta strada per venire a giocare
con un sacchetto di plastica davanti a me?

E da chi andrà dopo?
E con cosa giocherà?
E si sentirà solo dopo avermi lasciato?

And why does the wind blow through so many streets
just to come and play with a plastic bag in front of me?

And to whom will it go next?
And with what will it play?
And will it feel lonely when I walk away?

As far as writing goes, it was a very unique, creative experience. My memories of that period are bright and fond. I admired Paolo’s boldness. It’s not every day you’re sitting in a bar when your friend starts writing poetry for you. I also admired Paolo’s boldness in inviting me to share a dorm with him. In many ways, he saved my bacon.

When I arrived in Italy, I was harangued by the cacophony and headache of  numberless voices and their unintelligible questions, but I found an antidote in friendship and poetry – the euphony and balm of our very own unanswerable questions.

Intertextuality

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare famously presented his Elizabethan audience with what at the time was a highly innovative motif: a play within a play.  In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s film, Inception, explored the perplexing possibility of a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream (within a dream?).  Intertextuality follows the same paradigm: it regards the concept of a text within a text.  What exactly defines an intertext is, to a large degree, quite nebulous.  However, an example of what an intertext is not would be if I wrote the following:

Such optimism and hope recall the words of T.S. Eliot, “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This is a quotation, a verbatim reference attributed to the author.  An intertext has similar roots but is somewhat more discreet; somewhat more wily.  Compare the example above to this – an excerpt from an e-mail written to me by someone very dear to my heart, the beauty of which almost knocked the wind out of me:

I remember, suddenly, sweetly, the peace and the sparkling air of your last night the FIRST time we met, sitting there on my porch swing, feeling warm next to you, feeling right next to you.  All shall be well, said the night sky.  And the frost said, All manner of thing shall be well.  And my heart echoed All shall be well and All shall be well.  And the Spirit said, All manner of thing shall be well.

This is an intertext.  And a brilliant one at that, if the reader will excuse my bias.

But why am I writing about intertextuality?  For one, because intertexts, especially when executed well, have a certain enchantment to their subtlety and hiddenness; there is something delightfully surreptitious in their creativity.  Perhaps more importantly, though, an inclusion of an intertext is, by its very nature, a recognition of what has gone before.  It is, in a way, a respectful acknowledgement of the literature from which it has come (although we are not to assume that an intertext is always respectful.  An intertext can also be employed as a form of parody).  This recognition of past literature is, in my view, essential for a full appreciation of both writing and reading.  As Wendell Berry wrote in his essay, The Responsibility of the Poet, “We can only write poetry because poetry has already been written.”  And it is, of course, the same for all forms of literature.  Just as you and I have come to this exact moment in time because of generations upon generations of marriages and births, so also has the literature of today (old or new) reached us only through the millennia of what has preceded it.  Intertextuality, then, affirms literary lineage.

Returning to the point I made in the opening paragraph, the reason why defining an intertext can be so problematic is precisely because of this lineage: in every book can be found traces of another book, if not multiple books.  An intertext, therefore, could be quite accidental.  But this is not problematic to the theory of intertextuality itself; indeed, it is the very premise of intertextuality.  And this is the point I want to make: intertextuality demands we recognize that a book is not a self-contained work, despite its definite beginning and final full stop, despite the fact it is bound, encased, opened, and closed.   It is, if you think about it, quite a striking and profound idea; to suddenly think that a book – so tangible, so set in stone, is in fact, metaphyiscally speaking, fluid.

Ars Poetica

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If you’ve ever studied poetry or creative writing, you’ve most likely come across the phrase Ars Poetica.  And if you’re anything like me, the very whiff of Latin, its archaism and stuffy classroom memories of monotonous rote learning (porto, portas, portat…), will have the tendency to impose one of the following effects on you: sleepiness, frustration, or disinterest all together.  But let us be brave and broach this subject – if only briefly.  Follow me, if you will.

Ars Poetica, strictly translated, could read as ‘the technique/method of the poet’, though is more widely understood and referred to as ‘the art of poetry’.  Coined back in the good old years (circa 20BC)  by folks like Horace et. al, and resurfacing with unalloyed obsession by Renaissance humanists, it came to be the subject matter: what is ‘good poetry’.  But of course, it didn’t end with the Renaissance; the dialogue continued with the Romantics and through the Victorian era, each with their own dos and don’ts, and pretty well stumbled, exhausted, into the 20th century, falling at the feet of the giant, Post-modernism.  If you want to see an excellent illustration of what Post-modernism did to the notion of Ars Poetica, watch the memorable scene from Dead Poets Society, when that delightful preface, ‘Understanding Poetry’, written by a certain Dr. J. Evans Pritchard (Ph.D.), gets blissfully torn to shreds.  I must say, I hold somewhat reserved sentiments towards the whole idea of Post-modernism (whatever it really is); however, that aside, one of the better things, I think, that Post-modernism has achieved (if we can even say that), is that there no longer exists a collective conscience that rigidly defines what is or isn’t a good poem, as the scene from Dead Poets Society so aptly proclaims.

And so now Ars Poetica has come to mean something quite different – and far more agreeable, too.  Owing to the fact that Horace’s Ars Poetica was a treatise concerning the nature of poetry, that is, a piece of writing about writing, it has come to categorize poetry written about poetry.  Rather like, in part, the poem from my previous blog entry.  And here is another example I penned a couple of years ago, entitled
‘Poetical Enlightenment’:

Gripped in winter’s restlessness
for onward passage,
impatient with anticipation,
like a lover
waiting for a train.

The relief of arrival;
the penning of a pending poem.

Writing Summer

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‘I’m not as happy
as you think I am
but I’m as happy
as I’ve ever been’
I begin to write,

as an adolescent summer
shuffles
through my window with so much
promise
and growth
and pain ahead.