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Lorine Niedecker, "October 1935", in Sulfur 41


An addendum to the previous post: When composing it I had in mind a sort of poem I'd seen somewhere, but couldn't figure out where seen. At some point I thought to thumb through the first volume of the American Poetry series put out by the Library of America. That volume prints a selection of the earliest poetry written here by colonists and other interlocutors, including a poem of sorts by one Benjamin Harris, who according to David S. Shields, compiler and editor of that volume, had published The New England Primer (c. 1690), which, he notes, "became the standard textbook for New England children for generations". That belated discovery might have provided an opportunity to supply an image from Harris's Primer -- exposing yet another angle on the letter Q. But it's also enabled me to mention that while looking for what eventuated as the Harris poem I at first vaguely remembered a poem by Lorine Niedecker that Clayton Eshleman had published in Sulfur 41 (1997), composed in a format similar to the Harris primer (as I said, my memory was vague). The Neidecker piece wasn't as I remembered, not exactly anyway, but was instead a set of poemed calendar sheets which Niedecker sent to Louis Zukovsky at "Xmas 1934" [sic]. The calendar was later found among Zukovsky's papers by Jenny Penberthy (who reprints the calendar entire, in Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works). The Letter Q was not featured there, but I've plowed ahead and reproduced a page from the Niedecker sequence, scanned from my copy of Sulfur 41 -- sidetracking the Harris "poem", at least for now.


Here I want to share something from John Jay Chapman, whose 1897 essay on Emerson is quoted by Christopher Benfey in a recent issue of New York Review of Books:


What difference does it make whether a man who can talk like this is following an argument or not?...People are not in general influenced by long books or discourses, but by odd fragments of observation which they overhear, sentences or head-lines which they read while turning over a book at random or while waiting for dinner to be announced. These are the oracles and orphic words that get lodged in the mind and bend a man's most stubborn will. Emerson called them the Police of the Universe. His works are a treasury of such things.


Helpful context can be found in First We Read Then We Write, Robert D. Richardson's expert gathering of Emerson's thoughts on the writing process. "I expect a man to be a great reader...or", Emerson adds, "there must be a serviceable equation at work within the writer: in proportion to the spontaneous power, should be the assimilating power." Richardson glosses this with some words from Goethe: "What is a genius...but the faculty of seizing and turning to account everything that strikes us?"


And so...as Kurt Vonnegut might say...it goes. I've plugged in Niedecker where Harris ostensibly was the better fit, stubbornly faithful to an early hunch that it was Niedecker, not Harris, I'd been looking for. With thanks... to RWE.


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Ghost Letter

The Letter Q, in Abecedarium by Peter Lamborn Wilson


There's a blank key on my typewriter, which I'm calling the ghost key. Manually flicking it against the platen I discovered that the striker carries the letter Q, but note that this key is in the position on the keyboard where the numeral 1 appears in the QWERTY keyboard configuration. I've noticed that some typewriters, perhaps especially the portable models, have a blank key in this position -- a key that doesn't strike. But other typewriter keyboards – I think the standard models in particular -- feature a key in this position marked with the numeral 1, and interestingly, the exclamation mark occupies the upper case position. My typewriter lacks a key bearing the exclamation mark; instead, I strike upper case 8 to type the apostrophe, then backspace one space to type a period beneath that mark. For readers, it can be difficult to distinguish this laboriously produced exclamation mark from a colon! (Keeping in mind, however, that the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual of Style advises that this mark "should be used sparingly to be effective"). But why was my keyboard set up that way? The key is physically present on my typewriter, is blank, doesn't strike, and harbors a ghostly form, the letter Q! It occurs to me that irrespective of whether I can make a good argument for or against the ghost key convention, I've been provided an opportunity to engage in some doodling.


In "What is a letter?", the opening essay of her book, What Is: Nine Epistemological Essays, Joanna Drucker writes,


When the letters became familiars of the nursery and schoolroom, their capacity to carry lessons within their forms was exploited. Pictorial images and small vignettes elaborated the precepts of good behavior. Moral tales and instruments of training, as well as the inculcation into that symbolic order which is language and law (ideological training of the young) letters served multiple purposes as they were introduced to the lisping tongues and clumsy fingers of the young.


Okay, perhaps this would make a nice riposte of a sort, to illustrate the demystification of letterforms in service to the education of the young. But there is the other view, with individual letters assigned a cosmological value. Drucker notes that,


Sacred origins and occult traditions have long posited the alphabet as a set of cosmic elements, comprising the full sum of the components of the universe.


And further:


…when we posit the form of letters in terms of their origin, we are prone to imagine their shapes as an index of those bird tracks, constellations, or arrangements of natural elements from which they were supposed to be derived. Iconographic theories of origin suggest pictorial analogy, so that the 'A','B','C' of our Roman letters are somehow to be reconciled with the elements of Semitic tribal camps from which Hebrew letters took their visual form. Such contorted sets of association and formal comparison include all manner of anachronistic or improbable histories, but the mythic strength of such assertions keeps a tenacious hold on popular imagination. To this day the notion that the 'A' contains vestiges of the ox-head, a horned aleph, persists. Once fixed in mind, such associations seem so natural that displacing them with mere historical argument and archaeological information is difficult indeed.


Yes indeed! And not entirely desirable to dissociate them, I would add. The ghostly (or redundant) letter Q on my typewriter keyboard may have been an arbitrary decision on the part of some uber-compositor – I suspect that it had been, until otherwise enlightened – but I've had to wonder why it's there at all. Regarding that particular letter, however, Peter Lamborn Wilson suggests -- in Abecedarium, his engaging account of letters and their associations -- that in the Ancient Egyptian system of pictorial writing, the hieroglyph for the letter Q was symbolized by the figure of an ape. As it turns out, this is suggestive (and productive). As Wilson notes:


The dog-faced ape cynocephalus…endemic to Egyptian temples, was believed to keep time…Keeping time not only resembles writing but requires it, hence the baboon embodies Thoth or Hermes Trismegistus the inventor of writing. The cynocephalus is a scribe. Writing is monkey business – a million typewriters.


It's especially gratifying in this context that Wilson imbricates typewriters and writing. According to Philippe Derchain, writing in Yves Bonnefoy's monumental encyclopedia of world religions,


Thoth is the object of a specific offering, a writing case… Thoth is the model bureaucrat: he knows how to write and perform calculations, is invested with the highest functions in governing the world beside the sovereign Sun, and is conscious of his duties of justice and precision. Thus he regulates the course of the moon, checks the balance of the scale at the court of judgment of the dead, inscribes the name of the Pharoah on the fruits of the tree of history in the temple of Heliopolis, and surveys the precinct of projected temples, except in those cases in which he assigns those functions to one of his companions. For all of this, he must know how to write, like any scribe; and the palette, which holds the ink holders and the brushes and is also used for quick notes, is the instrument of his function.  


(By the way, who are Thoth's "companions"? Might they be each and all descended poets down through history to our time -- and beyond? I like to think so.)


Moving on from Ancient Egypt, this ghost letter of mine appears in the Archaic Greek alphabet, in a different but still unmistakable form, then is carried over into Etruscan and thence onward to the Romans -- and Latin. But having lasted so long the letter Q did not translate into Anglo-Saxon. According to Amalia E. Gnanadesikan in her book, The Writing Revolution,


…Old English or Anglo-Saxon had a different set of phonemes than Latin. (They themselves called their language Englisc, pronounced almost exactly as it is today, except that the first vowel was pronounced as spelled… They dropped and added letters as needed. Z was not considered necessary, as the [z] sound occurred only as a variant of [s] between voiced sounds. The redundancy of C, K, and Q was reduced to just C.


[Note: Englisc is not a typo – the [sc] sound in Anglo-Saxon was pronounced [sh] – as in scip!]


As Gnanadesikan explains,


Vernacular writing had begun sometime before, but it had not yet settled into standardized forms. As the Roman alphabet came to be used for its daughter languages, the letters had to do different work than they had done in Latin. Where Latin had originally pronounced C as [k], the descendant languages used [s], as in French cinque before the front vowels [e] and [i]. Latin [kw], however, had become [k], reintroducing that sound before front vowels. To spell it, the letter k was retrieved from the dustbin, passed on to the Germanic languages (hence English king, kid, and kitten), and then replaced in the Romance languages with QU under the conservative influence of the humanists (and hence French and Spanish qui, "who").


And what of Modern English? According to the OED,


In ordinary mod. Eng. words Q is employed only in the combination qu, whether this is initial…medial…or forming a final consonant…There is, however, a growing tendency among scholars to use Q by itself to transliterate the Semitic kōph, writing, e.g. Qaballa… 


With that I imagine that we may now turn -- by a commodious vicus of recirculation, as it were -- back to Wilson...









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