• Collected
  • Article

Iceboxes, Rollerballs and Tweets

The shaping media of poetry

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Long before Marshall McLuhan made the idea famous in the 1960s, ‘the medium’ was shaping poetry’s ‘message’. You need only think of William Blake painting and etching his texts, Emily Dickinson shaping her hymn-sized ‘fascicles’ or John Milton being led by his own voice as he dictated to his daughter.

Modern poets have been no less affected by the tools, media and other means available to them. William Carlos Williams, who was a practising GP in New Jersey, would jot down his poems on prescription pads as he was out on call. These were drafts, of course, but it can’t be a coincidence that the poems are predominantly short and narrow. A later American, A.R. Ammons, would run with the idea by putting a roll of adding-machine paper into his typewriter and tapping out:

                           today I
                           decided to write
                           a long

Some two hundred pages later, ‘Tape for the Turn of the Year’ concludes with a characteristically witty:

                           so long:

Ammons’s project was a self-imposed aesthetic choice, but Dr Williams was merely reaching for what was available. Had he decided to write his famous ‘This is Just to Say’ in the available magnetic letters on the outside of an icebox (the one that contained the delicious plums), one of the world’s favourite poems might have turned out differently.

On this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the poet Edmund Blunden was still dipping a steel nib into a pot of ink and producing perfect iambs that could have been written by Edmund Spenser four centuries earlier. He continued writing in this old-fashioned way even as the 1960s loomed. Did he fear that a ballpoint might lead him to the no man’s land of free verse?

Blunden was one of many poets who served on the Western Front, where writers had to make do with what they found. Paper was at a premium, especially among those (like Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney) who were not officers. This surely affected the way they wrote, adding pressure to be intense, to load every rift with ore. What if the custom had been to write satirical verses on the cases of shells or tattoo them on their arms? British war poets might then have mastered the haiku. Kipling came close with his pithy phrases of remembrance, such as ‘Known Unto God’. A gravestone has its own necessities.

The history of poetic style is a mixture of chance and choice. As a child, Vicki Feaver chose to write poems on toilet paper. As a mature poet she discovered Sharon Olds — poems that, she says, have a ‘molten lyricism that owes nothing to existing forms… They don’t just cover the paper.’ But she never forgot the earliest influence, even printing the title of her ground-breaking collection, The Handless Maiden, ‘in black ink on the brown cover of a notebook made in China that I loved because its thin pages reminded me of the Jeyes toilet paper. ’ Derek Mahon in his poem ‘The Drawing Board’ gives the board a voice in which it stakes its claim in his poetry: ‘it is I alone who let you sing/Wood music; hitherto shadowy and dumb,/I speak to you now as your indispensable medium’.

For James Merrill, the word ‘medium’ takes on its other meaning. Chance led him to the ouija board, which in turn led to The Changing Light at Sandover. That the material from which this enormous verse trilogy grew had to be jotted down with a free hand while the other was being swirled over a board laid out with letters and numbers, prescribes the manner of its composition. Sections begin with an ‘A,’ a ‘B,’ a ‘C,’ a ‘YES’ or a ‘NO.’ Voices from ‘the dead’ are all in capitals. Poets often find such a liberating tension between what is drafted and what is typed, between what is in print and what is handwritten. Many like to type out their drafts and then annotate by hand. In the case of ‘The Waste Land,’ one cannot imagine any other way of collaborating than Pound’s scribbles over Eliot’s typeface.

There can also be an obsessive loyalty to certain tools. In 1996, Don Paterson confessed that ‘Most poets are fetishistic about paper and pens, and at the moment I can’t write on anything but grey Daler A5 sketchbooks with a Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V5 extra-fine rollerball.’ And there are plenty of examples of contemporary poets apparently shaping their work according to the medium they employ. Philip Larkin showed (in a rare appearance on television, a medium he generally shunned) how he had worked steadily line by line, stanza by stanza, page by page through each of his notebooks in writing ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. By contrast, in composing his phantasmagorical tapestries, Peter Redgrove, according to his biographer, had ‘germs’ of poems scattered throughout different books which he allowed to ‘incubate’. His method involved much use of literal cutting and pasting. The styles of both these writers reflect these methods.

Helen Dunmore credits her word-processor (and its metaphorical cut-and-paste) with being ‘the closest thing I can imagine to the sensation of being inside one’s own brain’, moving the process of writing ‘beyond the mechanical into something as meltingly lateral as thought itself’. Chance has a hand (literally) in this: she was forced at school to abjure her left-handedness and has found the physical act of writing awkward ever since.

Meanwhile, just as in the past a dodgy typewriter may have led a poet to avoid certain combinations of letters, today’s older poets may find their computer likes to insert capitals where they didn’t think they wanted them, or that it has rearranged what they wrote because they are not sure how to change the grammar and spelling settings. Seamus Heaney was not alone in discovering late the creative possibilities in predictive text.

Such developments – even passing ones – have always attracted poets. A century and a half after Arthur Hugh Clough’s response to the penny post in Amours de Voyages, Gwyneth Lewis was modelling poems on the fax; another two decades and Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities grow from the very language and layout of social media. His poems reflect the medium in which they may be consumed, too: I for one have them on my Kindle.

There have been entire books of verse written as tweets. George Szirtes has used the limited charactery to post long poems stanza by stanza, and has started working with the UK’s ‘Canal Laureate’, Jo Bell, in extending Twitter’s possibilities through audacious spacing and line layout into a kind of lyrical ‘concrete poetry’. Bell and Karen McCarthy Woolf, the poet in residence at the National Maritime Museum, have initiated a ‘Twitter renga’ (#mymigration) in which members of the public can participate. On Facebook, too, the slightly less frenetic but ceaselessly interactive nature of ‘posting’ and ‘liking’ encourages a different kind of writing. Poets set each other challenges, collaborate, amend and judge.

Recently, Penelope Shuttle and I collaborated on a book-length sequence of poems about Hounslow Heath for Nine Arches Press. As Penny lives in Cornwall and I am in Cambridgeshire, this would have been impossible, or a very different proposition, without email. We alternated contributions and even amended each other’s work, sometimes producing several poems a day. There was one poem entirely co-written. But for me the real revelation was use of the iPad. Being able to research as I wrote, without delaying the burst of energy (the poems came with unwonted speed), demonstrably affected my style.

The free-wheeling nature of the Heath poems, with their range of obscure local history details (each one twenty years ago would have required an afternoon in a reference library), is very much a product of the tool I was using. The only equivalent experience was when I acquired my very first word-processor, an Amstrad, in the late 1980s. I have always redrafted many times, and not having to use carbon paper, not having to force myself to retype whole pages, was wonderful. But the most radical effect of seeing my words on the screen was to make me experiment for the first time with a very long line. Thus, Lord Sugar was at least partly responsible for inspiring me to write the 32 Huntingdonshire Eclogues and their sequels.

And yet – something that tends to astonish people – all my poems are still first drafted in pencil. There have been entire histories written about this humble tool, and (even leaving aside its etymology) there is something unavoidably Freudian about it. But I am in thrall to the slowing effect of the graphite, the need to regularly sharpen, the fleeting appearance of the marks it leaves, the way it is closer to drawing, hence perhaps to childhood. When I fly to Seattle next month, I shall pack several along with my iPad and will hope to come back with a box of those lovely yellow American HBs. I’ll give you my pencil when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.

John Greening is a poet, critic and editor. His edition of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War appeared from OUP in summer 2015.

You might also like:

Colin Grant What We Leave We Carry. Image credit: Missohio Studios.
RLF News Article

What We Leave We Carry

WritersMosaic, a division of the Royal Literary Fund, is launching a new podcast series, What We Leave We Carry, to…

New RLF Fellows clap at the 2024 Induction event. Photo by Adam Laycock.
RLF News Article

Welcome to our new RLF Fellows

At the end of last month, we welcomed 44 new Fellows to the RLF with our yearly induction event at…

An image of the 'end' button on a keyboard. Photo by csy302, CanvaPro.
Collected Article

The Finishing Line

So – what now? RLF Fellow Mary Colson on what it’s like to actually finish a book.

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack