In my state, the current lieutenant governor spends one day a week working his other job as an emergency room physician. He also makes media appearances to discuss the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But because he promotes science and because he is a Jew, the congregants of a Christian chapel now picket his residence at night, flashing strobes and creating noisy disorder. In the comment stream of the local newspaper they also discuss health policy in language whose wordplay seems to show the influence of Ezra Pound. There, the words attributed to the lieutenant governor are a sheeny dialect from about 1908, the year that Pound left the United States and cut himself off from American language. Of course if you turn on the TV in 2022 you won’t hear the lieutenant governor speaking like that, but Pound was the poet who wrote for eternity, “Literature is news that STAYS news.”
The dictum must also be true for other ways of thinking in language, such as politics and religion. So would you yourself like to be cured of distress, reader? Then perhaps the time has come for you to open your mind to one or both of these ancient word-cures. Their strength is still unexpired.
Hear it. Open a window anywhere in America. The air that flows in will be filled with voices chanting, “Gimme that ol’ time,” and time will be mingled with them. Once more, time sings through the varied carols of America, and once again, as once in 1849, it writes this lyric prescription for healing. Take it now. You are no longer in the past, but the past will be to you a nutritional supplement.
And this second revelation, datable to an American childhood in the Eisenhower years, has turned out to be a text immune to time. In your old age it now teaches you, at last! that all you have ever needed is the happiness of feeling with your body a red hat, a red tie, and a gun for threatening with.
You may address your prayer to the fulfillment department.
According to Christopher Busta-Peck’s blog about the history of Cleveland, this dark image depicts the moment on March 25, 1913, when flood currents drove the ship William Henry Mack into the swing bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River at West Third Street, demolishing it.
Like the prose you’re now reading, Mr. Busta-Peck’s blog is set in the font called Georgia. According to the Wikipedia article “Georgia (typeface),” this font belongs very much to the history of the computer. Its date of origin is 1993, and it was originated specifically to fill a need for legibility on low-resolution monitors. There it is read by default in monitor mode, the mode of prose: transparently, offering access to language’s content (what freshmen call “the message”) while making only the necessary minimum of contact with language’s form.
Mr. Busta-Peck’s Georgia-inflected words about the flood are readable at http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html, in a post dated December 26, 2009. They manifest themselves onscreen in a monitor alphabet that was deliberately intended only to be looked through, not seen in itself. But to Ernest Fenollosa, a contemporary of the flood, it seemed desirable to write a story like flood’s not transparently but in flood’s own mud-opaque alphabet, as “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”
To Fenollosa, vivid shorthand meant specifically the ideographs of Chinese, where in principle a word is a thing. To Ezra Pound, who completed Fenollosa’s unfinished essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” after Fenollosa’s death, this meant writing poetry with a specifically poetic language technology. Pound’s preferred medium for that was the typewriter, and he famously subdued the apparatus to his poet’s will by means of James Whitcomb Riley dialect spellin’, the alienation effect of text incorporated from other languages, and the other alienation effect of isolating his verse’s signifying units from contact with one another by means of two hard hits on the spacebar after every word. But at almost exactly the moment Pound was making those small modifications in the machinery, some nameless scribes employed by the Bain News Service were composing their own “vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature” directly upon records transcribed by nature itself.
They had the records, thanks to the operation of certain photochemical processes. They needed to write their shorthand picture. They could have done that the way Pound did, with a typewriter slightly modified to emit the look of bardic chant. But they did something more radical. Laying hands directly upon the negative that just a moment earlier had been flooded by reality, they inscribed. If the inscription didn’t look quite like any other human alphabet, that was because its mediation into language was incomplete. Some of its form remained untranslated, still in the language of nature. The scribes weren’t fully in command of that language because some of it remained in the state of nature: the state of things — that is, scratches in gelatin — which still resisted their reduction to mere words. No matter how they were written, the photographers’ words about the flood remained partly flood, partly inarticulate.
Still, look at the verb above: swept away. Trying to articulate a language of deluge, it has inscribed itself in a font that could have been named Debris. The instrument that carved it there was a stylus scratching letters onto a 5-by-7 inch glass plate named Negative. Because the letters have to be scratched onto the sensitive side of the negative, they have to be scratched in reverse. That’s why they look that way. They are morphemes of a language newly emerging onto a flood plain and teaching itself to write itself.
Think of a Chinese connoisseur writing a poem on a picture. If he does it right, the words he has sown with his inkbrush will take root in the picture and make its nature blossom into verbal meaning. That’s how the process works on dry land. But think of somebody stepping for the first time onto the mud deposited by the subsidence of the Black Sea, picking up a handful, molding it into a tablet, picking up a twig, and beginning to write on the wet new surface in his hand the story of Gilgamesh.
Ernest Fenollosa, ed. Ezra Pound, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” 1918. Excerpted in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973. 13-35.
It’s a standard thing to point out in the introductory class: although Wordsworth was a nature poet, he also wrote a sonnet about London, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” whose first line is “Earth has not anything to show more fair.”
Much more typical for Wordsworth, however, is “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” whose lines overflow with a still yet ceaselessly moving
host of yellow daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
At the poem’s end, Wordsworth (or rather his sister, whose diary he raided for the description and the emotion) understands with his body what he has seen and what he is about to write down:
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
At about the time this picture was being taken, Ezra Pound, who had no respect for William Wordsworth, found himself in the Paris metro being overtaken by something like Dorothy Wordsworth’s sense of light flowing through earth and surfacing in blossom. Pound’s flowers, however, then and later, blossomed in the dark.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.