The way of the monitor and the way of the stylus

According to Christopher Busta-Peck’s blog about the history of Cleveland, this photograph 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 screens. There it is read by default in screen mode, the mode of prose: transparently, offering access to language’s content while making only the necessary minimum of contact with language’s form.

Mr. Busta-Peck’s Georgia-accented prose about the flood is to be accessed at http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html, in a post dated December 26, 2009. But even before the flood of 1913, Ernest Fenollosa had begun insuring language against prose damage with his essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” Writing from the flood plain of English, Fenollosa recommended that a flood policy ought to be written flood-style, in “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”

To Ezra Pound, who completed this unfinished essay after Fenollosa’s death, this meant writing poetry in a specifically poetic language. 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 two hard hits on the spacebar after every word. But at exactly the moment Pound was rolling paper into the platen for the purpose of discipline in mediation, some nameless scribes employed by the Bain News Service were composing their own “vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature” directly upon records inscribed 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 poets do, of course: with a typewriter or a stenographer’s notebook. But they didn’t. Instead, they laid mediating hands directly upon the negative that just a moment earlier had been flooded by reality, and in its soft gelatin emulsion, writing backwards, 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 subject to the silent, wordless grammar of musculature failing to overcome the nature of things.

The verb above, for instance, is swept away. Its lingua franca is the language of deluge, and it is inscribed in a font that could have been named Debris. You are reading it within the liquid crystal display of a monitor, but the instrument that carved it into that lightbox of yours was a stylus scratching letters onto a 5-by-7 inch glass plate named Negative. Think of a Chinese connoisseur writing a poem on a picture. He sows words and makes the picture into an image from which words grow.

Or 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 mud the story of Gilgamesh.

Sources:

“Bridge being swept away by flood — Cleveland.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005011625/. Photoshopped.

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.