• Collected
  • Article

The Stylophile

A poet’s life in fountain pens


It began with a Parker. At the age of ten, in Fawley Primary School in Hampshire, I had to use a dip pen in a china inkwell set into the corner of the desk. That was 1969 — long after the patenting of the ballpoint by László Bíró in the early 1940s. We were grimly schooled in the older writing implement, with all its messiness, to improve our spidery cursive.

And then an uncle gave me a Parker. It was an advanced instrument. You filled it out of a bottle. It was black, with a gold cap. I was impressed when I saw, imprinted on the cap in tiny capitals, ‘1/10 12CT R. GOLD’. The pen’s nib was ‘hooded’ — so only the nib point showed. It looked vaguely raptorish, or like the nose cone of Concorde. (A hunter; a mode of human flight.) I filled it with Parker Quink ‘Turquoise’— airy blue, redolent of exotic islands. A far cry from those smudgy inkwells in the desk corners.

I later discovered it was a design classic, the Parker ‘51’. This ‘pen from another planet’ was first launched in 1939, the 51st year of the Parker Pen Company (hence the name). A poll once voted the ‘51’ ‘the fourth best industrial design of the 20th century.’

I write poetry, or what others sometimes tell me is poetry. To me – I wonder if this is especially true of poets – a pen is a form of the marvellous. A metaphor wand. An unlocker of worlds. A tool for excavating a personal archaeology. ‘Between my finger and my thumb/’ wrote that master delver, Seamus Heaney, ‘the squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.’

In my case it has to be a fountain pen — even the word ‘fountain’ conjures something joyful and artfully constructed. I’m not alone among poets in this fascination. The American poet Philip Levine owned hundreds of fountain pens, some of which he gave away. Heaney’s late poem, ‘The Conway Stewart’, details his first experience of the classic pen of that name, a gift from his parents, its nib treated to ‘its first deep snorkel’ in the ink bottle. The Belfast poet and pen collector, Ciaran Carson, wrote a novel called The Pen Friend: its central character, Gabriel Conway, is obsessed with vintage fountain pens.

The ‘vintage’ part is important. Contemporary fountain pens have fine qualities, but pens made before 1960 or so are more intriguing. I didn’t realise how different they can be from a contemporary pen until I stumbled upon a pen stall in Piccadilly market one spring day in 1998. In neat rows were dozens of fountain pens of various shapes, sizes, colours, designs. Many were plain black, or other single colours. Others were marbled or rippled in blue, or red, or had a woodgrain finish. There they sat, some uncapped, their gold nibs gleaming in the April light.

They seemed to offer a kind of paradise, like the turquoise ink of my childhood: some glimpse of achieved happiness. I stood in front of the stall and gazed at them for a long time. Finally – I had had a few beers with a friend, and was more confident than I usually was, then – I asked the stall-owner if I could try some out. Ninety minutes later I left with a dark brown, beat-up old pen — probably from the early 1930s. It was a ‘Blackbird’, a budget-line model made by Mabie Todd, an American and, later, British pen company. It was hardly classy, but it was called after a bird – always a bonus to ornithological me – and the nib, when I tried it, had astonished me. You felt it had a mind of its own, and wanted to write. It glided over the paper like a spirit guide. It cost me £35.00.

Robert Graves described an Arabic concept he called ‘baraka’. This is the quality, possessed by some older objects, of having been long used and loved. Vintage pens have this quality abundantly.

The heart of any pen is the nib. Most contemporary pens have stiff nibs designed for generations raised on the functional hardness of a biro. Vintage pens are different. Most of their nibs are made in 14 carat gold, which tends to be softer. Aficionadoes talk about the ‘flexible nib’ which, according to the pressure exerted by the writer, can give beautiful line variations. This can make even average script flamboyant and characterful. The extreme version is the legendary ‘wet noodle’, a nib so flexible it splays at the slightest pressure and is highly prized by calligraphers. Specialist terms abound in the arcana of the vintage pen world. ‘Railroading’, for instance, happens when a writer using such a ‘superflex’ nib exerts pressure too great for the pen’s ink supply to keep up. Only the tines of the nib, separated, lay down ink in twin parallel tracks, like that of a railway line.

Such examples, admittedly, are from the remoter destinations of pen fetishism. Around ten years ago, I took a friend, Marcia Menter, to visit the Fountain Pen Hospital in New York. (Another NY friend’s daughter, passing the shop, had once asked her mother, ‘Why do fountain pens need a hospital?’) Marcia and I picked out half a dozen vintage samples to try. After writing with several, she announced, in her not easily impressed New Yorker accent: ‘This is like being introduced to personalities.’

Many a vintage pen nib has its own character through being written with over many decades. (It’s a myth that letting someone else briefly write with your fountain pen will ruin the nib for your own writing style. It would take rather more than a few lines to do that.) The ‘personality’ of a nib may affect how one responds to it as a writer. Some nibs can be almost too characterful. Like a loud extrovert at a party, they refuse to be ignored. I would not, most likely, choose such a nib for writing poems — though they can be great fun for letters. For poems or essays you want a quieter nib that doesn’t shout, at every stroke, ‘Hey, look at me! Look at this extravagant line! Such expressive Ds! What a broad downstroke on the ‘f’!’

The words that may have flowed through a pen, and who may have owned it, add great interest as well as some sadness. One corollary of these beautiful tools, which people tend to pass down or sell on rather than throw away, is that in all likelihood they will outlast their owner. Who, for example, was ‘HELEN FREE’ of ‘VICTORIA HOUSE WINDSOR 1927’? These details are inscribed on the gold band around the cap of an old Waterman, with an expressive fine nib, I bought at an antique stall. A Google search is inconclusive.

I am not really a collector. I like to use all my pens. But I love associations — connections that increase the significance of a pen, even if only for me. Poetry is, after all, partly the art of seeing connections — the root of metaphor. One of my pens, a woodgrain-finish Onoto, was made in 1930. I bought it partly because in that year my mother was born. Another pen I bought in America, after giving a talk there on Richard Wilbur — who had been sitting, unexpectedly, in the audience. That pen had been made in 1947: the year Wilbur’s first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes, was published. Some years ago I was writing an essay about an acutely psychological poem of Robert Frost’s, ‘The Exposed Nest’. I was drafting the essay with a 1910 Waterman ‘eyedropper’ — so called because you fill its barrel with ink from an eyedropper. I realised with a start that the pen had been made not long before Frost’s poem was written.

Such seemingly insignificant connections are a source of considerable satisfaction if you spend much of your life, as I do, head-down in the wordy thickets. As a vocation, poetry is perhaps unusually liable to obscurity, ignominy and penury. Anything a poet can do to make the hands-on, messy element of writing more entertaining, colourful and, well, personal, is a gift.

Ted Hughes was a great advocate of using a pen. In a letter to Nick Gammage on 11 May 1998, he wrote: ‘handwriting is basically drawing of images’, that brings to bear ‘the whole record of your psychological history’. For Hughes, typing stripped out the ‘psychological, subjectively-naked quality’ by which the best writing lived. Contemporary neurological research indicates that writing by hand produces enriching brain connections that tapping at a keyboard does not.

Not that this matters to the pen person. You are interested for the love of it; because these vintage tools are precision examples of engineering, and often beautiful as objects. Such pens, with their inks and paper, too, are a form of magic. Not the tacky magic trickery of the showman, but the old, original, magical act of putting wet marks on paper and making, out of memory and imagination, a new and, hopefully, a marvellous thing.

Gerry Cambridge’s most recent book of poems is Notes for Lighting a Fire (HappenStance Press, 2012). His The Dark Horse: the making of a little magazine, about the poetry journal he has edited since 1995, is published in July 2016.

You might also like:

Dominica Passport by Mehranvary, Wikicommons
Collected Article

The Musings of a Dominican, Yorkshire Lass

My work as a children’s book writer and playwright has definitely been influenced by my Caribbean roots and Yorkshire background.…

Author Wioletta Greg and the cover of her 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel, Swallowing Mercur
RLF News Article

Wioletta Greg reflects on her life and RLF grant experience

A Polish author previously longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Wioletta now lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

RLF News Article

The Life and Times of Reverend David Williams

As we get ready to celebrate our 234th anniversary on 18 May, a recent RLF grant beneficiary takes a deep…

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