An essay by Karl Young (originally published in Open Letter, Spring, 1984) discusses “how poetry was read in three cultural contexts removed from ours in culture and time” (Mexico, 1500; China, 810; and England, 1620) and goes on to “describe some forms of notation in contemporary poetry and how they can be read.” I’m sure scholars specializing in each of those cultures would shoot down some of his details, but I like this kind of wide-ranging essay, bringing together things one wouldn’t have thought to connect and drawing interesting conclusions. Here’s a portion of what he has to say about Jacobean England:

For Shakespeare and Donne and most of their contemporaries a written word was not confined to a single orthographic form: it could change according to the writer’s intuitive sense of how it should look or sound, showing shades of emphasis, intonation, color, perhaps even pitch in his own pronunciation. Written language maintained the fluidity, even volatility, of speech: a phrase or line was something a poet created with his mouth, not an arrangement of fixed parts that could be precisely interchanged. A written poem was essentially a record of spoken verse and a score that could enable a reader to recreate it. The elaborate and inconsistent abbreviations and symbols current in script and print also underscore the oral orientation of writing. When a text is just a form of notation, “&” (a symbol that is still with us) could easily stand for “and,” and “ye” could be an acceptable abbreviation for “the” (the “y” stood for “th” as in “thorn,” not “y” as in “year” as some people now pronounce it in an attempt to sound old fashioned). Punctuation of this period often seems illogical to us for the same reason: we punctuate according to fixed notions of sentence construction, whereas the Jacobean poet punctuated by ear: his punctuation was a form of notation, often indicating a pause where the normal construction of a sentence would not suggest one. A number of conventions, create ambiguities somewhat similar to those in Chinese verse. The use of the apostrophe in possessives had not come into standard usage, and when Donne used a word like “worlds” he may have primarily meant “world’s,” but wished to leave a sense of secondary meaning: multiple worlds (he was probably familiar with Giordano Bruno’s notion of infinite worlds). Letters like “I” and “J” or “U” and “V” were at that time more or less interchangeable, creating further ambiguities and keeping the reader at a speed approximating serious speech.

And here he applies those thoughts to the present (well, the early ’80s):

One of the most positive things contemporary poets have going for them is the total lack of standardization at all levels of notation. In writing about Donne, I pointed out that standardized spelling reduced the sense of fluidity and magic in language. Many poets of the last two centuries have reacted to this on a gut level by simply not learning to spell “correctly”—William Morris, W.B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound have been among their company. More recently, poets like bill bissett have completely rejected standardized orthography and have spelled by intuition and their sense of how the words sound, look, and feel. When bissett writes “seek / sum priva see its wintr fr reel now sins ystrday,” notions of correct spelling are completely irrelevant. Though people inured to inflexible orthography cringe at this sort of thing, feeling that some immutable law of the universe has been violated, intuitive spelling returns poetry to its oral base: readers must work out the sounds of words to be able to read the poem at all.

I love it when poets meditate on history. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Malcolm Parkes discusses the vagaries of Renaissance (and other historical) punctuation in Pause and Effect; there was a subtle distinction between semantic and rhetorical punctuation, it seems. (I was surprised to read Robert Greene’s Menaphon, written in the late 1580s, which begins with a 150-word ‘sentence’ with NO finite verb. (Once you take the full-stop as a comma, the verb appears in the next ‘sentence’).
    That having been said, I think Young is pushing it a little–a wistful-eyed modernist, rosing up the past. I don’t know the first thing about non-Western poetry, but Renaissance poets didn’t really play around with orthography that much (bear in mind that English spelling was only fully standardised in the 17th century, on which see R. F. Jones). There was always the delight in textual ambiguity, of the sort celebrated by Empson. One might as well argue that the Romans celebrated orthographical ambiguity by not leaving spaces between words. (The Bruno reference seems a little ‘token’ for a Modernist, too.) As for folks like “bissett”, some of us cringe at this not from any sense of a universal law of orthography, but because it’s juvenile gimmickry. Only Joyce could do this well.
    On a related note, see my post on how 18th-century critics tried to recreate the music of speech on the page here.

  2. I can take any of that much better than I can take long, long, long paragraphs. They hurt my eyes, I think; some of Young’s grafs are over the top, though not as much so as, say, Darwin’s.

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