Not PC

January 5, 2012 § 4 Comments

Here’s a sobering admission.  When my computer bombed on Christmas Eve, any thoughts about the ensuing calm (after all, too much of my working life is spent shackled to the machine) were drowned out by the insistent feeling that what I’d hoped would be a spell of creativity depended on access to a keyboard.

Well, it wasn’t that bad.  I read a bit more: Mahon, Lorca, George Mackay Brown; The North; even got through a couple of things in the LRB…

But as to the job of writing poetry, it simply confirmed my suspicions: having written (and developed my writing) for several years on screen, I lack the ability to produce anything much at all on paper.

This seems at odds with the idea of the poet as maker – the notion that the physical production of language ‘drawn’ by hand onto a resistant surface is an integral part of the process.  Certainly, the mechanics of this has been for many  an important element in creating poetry – the rhythm of the hand, and the limitations on production, supporting the cadences of uttered language and encouraging an emphasis on process and deliberation.

Mechanics, however, is partly where I come unstuck.  Handwriting over the years, I have developed repetitive stress to the extent that, when writing, my forefinger forces itself up and away from my pen, leaving a barely legible clump of words and a pain in my elbow which keeps me awake at night.

This affects all aspects of the process: in inhibiting the physical action of writing (indeed, in making it painful), it also undermines the associated benefits of eliciting rhythm; and while it certainly allows for deliberation, it leads too often to frustration.  Revision and editing requires not only care and attention; it also depends on access to a ready way of replacing old marks with new ones.

For me, this is where the keyboard comes in.  There are inherent dangers.  The ability (improving every year) to produce clear, elegant script in Helvetica or Calibri is seductive; and simply organising words into lines of a certain length can produce something that looks like poetry.

This is when the importance of reading out loud – always key to creating poetry – becomes crucial.  Making poetry starts with sound, not on page or screen.  Whichever way we choose to write, we have to create first with the voice and the ear.

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§ 4 Responses to Not PC

  • Matt says:

    Rob,

    I seem to need both the handwritten page and the keyboard. I can’t compose directly onto keyboard: the technology does something to my brain. Oddly, though, I find I edit typed poems with more effectiveness than handwritten ones. So I go back and forth.

    One thing I worry about when composing straight onto the screen is being shifted too far from writing for the ear into writing for the eye – or how the eye responds to neat printed arrangements. Sometimes I wonder if much of current free-verse lineation is governed by how things appear on screen – and nothing to do with sound or stress etc.

    Matt

    • Rob Hindle says:

      Matt,

      I agree that the screen can impose a sense of organisation in which the visual appearance of a poem influences our choice of line-breaks; but is there a clear distinction between the screen and the page in this sense? My working method is one of constant editing based on repeated uttering of phrase, line, sentence, stanza, back and forth, with consequent deletion / substitution / addition / reversion and so on – a process which (certainly now) I can manage more effectively on screen – largely because I can type both quickly and slowly, whereas I can only hand write at a certain pace.

      Whichever way we work, it’s clear that we both recognise the centrality of the ear in all this – and I share your sense of the tendency in a lot of free-verse poetry not to concern itself with the aural quality of poetry.

      Rob

  • Brian Lewis says:

    The ear gives (or should give) the first sounding and the final check in the making of any poem. The processes in between might be subject to change (involving a greater dependency on the screen), but reader/listener and poet are still using the same criteria to evaluate whether or not the poem works. Perhaps something else is at risk, though; not the making of the poem, but its delivery to the reader / listener. I find the experience of reading a poem on-screen to almost always be more slight than when I encounter it in a book or in a pamphlet. On the page, my relationship with the poem deepens. The screen can broaden our contact with poetry, but the deepening of our engagement with it happens off-screen.

    It’s also worth considering the impact of screen-based processes of composition and revision on the literary archive. With less and less of the poem’s journey towards print (or, at least, electronic publication) being documented through manuscripts and typescripts, will today’s poets have anything tangible to leave to their literary executors? Some poets do print out and date their drafts and redrafts, of course, but I suspect most of it doesn’t make it off the screen. And if the hard drive crashes…

    • Rob Hindle says:

      Brian,

      I was only considering the effect on the writing process, not the reading experience. I share your assessment of the response to poetry on the page as opposed to on-screen reading. As a reader, I need to be able to reach for the physical, permanent object of a printed book.

      As for the archive, I recognise that something may be lost here: perhaps this gives the poetry magazine, publishing work which appears, reworked, later on, even more importance as poets (even those many, like Matt, who work across both page and screen) develop drafts on the screen. (And conversely, it might be more difficult for the Becketts among us to destroy everything: when my PC went down over Christmas, I could rest assured that anything I hadn’t backed up was likely to be sitting in the in-box of one friend or another.)

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