Sunday, July 23, 2017

Poetry and the Alphabet

Years ago, Ron Silliman wrote an essay called "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," where he claimed that popular fiction sought to make language disappear, putting words together so innocuously that they disappeared, letting a kind of movie play in the head of the viewer (his example for this, if I recall correctly, was a novelization of the movie Jaws).  There's something to this line of thinking, and I tried to push it a bit further in an essay on the use of letters (alphabetical letters, not epistolary ones) in poetry. It's called "Immigrants and Kings: The Letter in the Empire of Poetry." Here's how it starts:

The writing of letters is an art as old as any other, and came to us, if Berossus, Priest of Marduk in Babylon is to be believed, when Oannes, a great fish with the head and feet of a man emerged, speaking, from the Erythraean Sea. Oannes taught the ignorant people of Chaldea not only how to write, but how to build houses, found temples, compose laws, collect fruits, and distinguish between the seeds of many different plants.
As venerable as writing was in the tale told by Berossus, it is more venerable still as described in the pages of the Sefer Yetzirah, the first great work of Jewish esoterism. Reading this ancient work we find that God created nothing—not mankind, not the seraphim, neither the earth nor the heavens nor seas—until he first created the alphabet. “Twenty-two letters did he engrave and carve,” we read, “he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.” The letters, fixed on a wheel of 231 gateways, precede and give birth to all else in creation.
We don’t know exactly when poetry began, though we have, from a few surviving totems and similar relics, a sense of when symbolic thinking came about—some 70,000 years ago—and we can surmise that poetry, in the form of ritual incantations, funeral rites, and tales of tribal origins, emerged around the same time. Writing, even in its most primitive forms, came about many thousands of years later, after the agricultural revolution created a need for contracts and tally-sheets for merchants in grain and cattle. Only later still did writing become sophisticated enough to record poetry.
All of this is by way of saying that letters come late to the great and ancient kingdom of poetry, a kingdom that accepted them begrudgingly. 
The whole essay is in the Ilanot Review, and you can read it online here.