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This article is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

Catchwords 25 Iain Bamforth
Babbles and Doodles

Which writer hasn’t doodled in the margins of a notebook as he or she waited for thought and feeling to coalesce? Doodling has a deep relationship to babbling, that noising into language that ‘can accumulate articulations never found within a single language or even group of languages: multi-­articulated, palatalised and rounded consonants, sibilants, affricates, clicks, complex vowels, diphthongs, and so on’, in the words of Roman Jakobson. Acquiring a language means a faltering and final falling away of this ability as the infant masters the phonemes that will define his mother tongue. A language emerges from the retreat of sounds, and all that remains of the original pluripotentiality is the interjection of onomatopoeia when a language speaker tries to give voice to what is not human.

Stendhal turned scrawled annotations into a kind of rhetorical shorthand, allowing him to make rapid topographies of scenes and buildings so that he could move on to the (for him) more important business of delineating thoughts and emotions. Those angular, expressionistic doodles left by Kafka in his jotters are well known, especially the geo­metrical clerk with his hands on his head and head on his desk, which has even found its way on to the cover of some of his books. (Nabokov, in his copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, couldn’t help himself and corrected the translation as well as doodling an entomologist’s posterior and lateral views of how the bug might look based on Kafka’s specifications.)

Another writer who liked to have insects crawling in the margins of the fluid line of his cursive was Marcel Proust. In L’oeil de Proust, Philippe Sollers presents a selection of the larval sketches Proust made between and beside his monstrously sprawling text, the fluid inky script interrupted by a stain or blotch, an entire menagerie of ‘griffonages et gribouillages’. ‘Maculage’, I discovered, is the technical term for when ink runs and smudges: Proust was good at transforming presumably accidental maculages into wee beasties.

While Proust was no great draughtsman, unlike a good number of nineteenth-century writers, there is something hieroglyphic about his Caran d’Ache appreciations of his contemporaries. You can see how pitiless his eye was, owl-like as he said himself: it swivels from the Jardin des Plantes to the Boulevard St Germain where a salon or boutique might well turn into a slaughterhouse, at least of reputations. As Sollers says, his appreciation was ‘moitié mondaine, moitié zoologique’. These drawings share something with the deformed language Proust used in his letters to his former lover and friend Reynaldo Hahn, his ‘poney’, of whom he once said ‘Everything I have ever done has always been thanks to Reynaldo’. They called this kind of baby talk, with its phonetic literalisms and code words, their ‘lansgage’. Proust often wrote to Hahn about his trouble making progress on A la recherche du temps perdu, and added to the letter the kind of sketches found on his manuscripts. He was feeling ‘thad’ (‘tristch’) and drew a boat buffeted by the elements. The famous façade of the Cathedral of Amiens (which became even more famous after being painted thirty times by Claude Monet between 1892 and 1894) is sketched in skeleton, and a strange but just recognisable caption added: ‘Abziens (Kasthedralch) Façadch wwwouest’. There are ink metamorphoses of snakes, angels, sun-chariots (with a nod to Baudelaire), Phèdre, skiers, race horses, a minimalist lineal peacock, and a ‘femme-fleur’ together with an ‘homme renversé’. The book is sealed with a sketch of Whistler’s famously gloomy portrait of Carlyle, except that Proust whistles it as ‘Karlilch par Wisthlerch’.

Auditory Ecology

Kafka’s stay with his sister Ottla in her house at Zürau in the Bohemian countryside for eight months in the last year of the Great War was one of the happiest times of his life. There were more animals around than people, and he wrote that the village was ‘a zoo organized according to new principles’.

He must have meant territorial principles, among which he was the interloper. For these were not urban animals, which are so acquainted with living in proximity to humans that their sudden quietness actually marks the sound of a human closing in on them. What Kafka was hearing was uninhibited noise-making, and the weakness of his spasmodic coughing and irrepressible bodily sounds in relation to it.

The urban zoo is organised not on the braying and honking of farm animals or even the dawn chorus of birds in competition, but on the regular communicating drone, hum and buzz of insect life. In Zürau Kafka had to untune his ear first from the devoted restless murmur of the urban anthill.

What Letters Mean

Umberto Eco wrote a few years ago in the New York Times about the lost art of handwriting, in which he reminisced that when he attended elementary school in the Piedmont the first months were given over entirely to learning how to form letters correctly, an exercise in the biomechanics of rounded handwriting – ‘a mind-and-matter cofunction’ as Nabokov once called it – which is now perceived as a repressive imposition in many parts of the English-speaking world. Eco could still remember inkwells, something for which the ancient wooden desks at my school had a recess, although by my time they were no longer in use. Handwriting began to decline, in Eco’s opinion, with the advent of the ballpoint pen, which produced a handwriting that ‘no longer had soul, style or personality’.

Philip Hensher caused quite a stir recently with his book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why it Still Matters, which devoted some pages to the fact that we can now know somebody quite well, and yet have no inkling of how they put pen to paper. For centuries the contours of an ink trace left by a hand moving on paper would have seemed the key to a register of existence; now complex writing apparatuses can do the writing for us while we yell angry oral messages into those sleek mobile phones pressed against our cheeks. Such writing as we do read has been mechanically and uniformly produced, and the skill of producing it is not ours. We no longer have a sensuous and immediate relationship with our markings.

In fact, handwriting is still taught, and even with fountain pens, at school in France, where great store is set on the notion of job application letters written longhand. You can produce your CV with your computer, but your application is likely to be discarded if you forget to write the ‘lettre de motivation’ in your usual cursive. Firms employ graphologists who will scrutinise your handwriting for the telltale signs of non-team-playing personality traits, even though graphology is considered a pseudo-science in most parts of the world. In this, as in many other areas, France is conservative; and graphology melds with the prestige accorded, rightly or wrongly, to psychology in general. In the 1930s, there was even a movement called graphotherapy (Charles-Louis Julliot in France and Milton N. Bunker in the USA) whose practitioners believed personality could be modified by changing a person’s handwriting – in other words, they believed that handwriting was not only expressive but operative. ‘You can change your character by changing your writing’ was the motto of the Chicago-based International Graphoanalysis Society.

Letter-writing itself has been in decline for some time, and not because of the advent of ballpoint pens. Recently I acquired a sumptuous French book, available in English as Illustrated Letters: Artists and Writers Correspond, which shows that our ancestors could not only write in beautiful copperplate but draw too. In addition to his literary abilities, Victor Hugo was a master-draughtsman, sending letter after letter to his wife Adèle complete with caricatures, architectural sketches and wash- and line-studies of places he had visited. Turgenev writes to commiserate with Flaubert on the death of George Sand and along with a description of his ‘hermitage’ at Spasskoye provides him with a sketch of the building too. Rimbaud’s childhood friend Ernest Delahaye proves to be a gifted cartoonist, as were most of the poets he knew, including Rimbaud himself. Apollinaire’s famous calligrammes evolved from a form of expression he developed in letters to his friends, notably Picasso: he originally dubbed them ‘lyric ideograms’. And Claude Lévi-Strauss, who grew up in an artistic family, was sufficiently impressed with an illustrated letter he received from the Belgian painter Paul Delvaux, thanking him for a dedicated copy of L’Homme nu, that he had it framed.

Among my own correspondents, the only person who sends me letters in any way comparable to those exhibited in Illustrated Letters is Gerald Mangan, a Scottish writer, musician and artist living on the outskirts of Paris who has, almost unnoticed, compiled an entire comic gallery of twentieth-century Scottish writers (see previous page). Gerald, born 1951, writes in the beautiful copy-book slanted hand that was taught in Scottish elementary schools until the 1960s, after which it became a relic of the past. As much as any photograph, the flow of his handwriting conveys to me immediately his essential character, and puts me into a kind of proximity with him. As Nietzsche anticipated, ‘the style and spirit of letters will always be the true “sign of the times”’. Letters are a humanism.

Not a Discipline

John Gross, in his all too prescient The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: A Study of the Idiosyncratic and the Humane in Modern Letters (1969), discusses the difference between the academic mind and the spirit of literature. ‘Literature can be strenuous or difficult or deeply disturbing; it can be a hundred things – but a discipline is not one of them. Discipline means compulsion, and an interest in literature thrives on spontaneity, eager curiosity, the anticipation of pleasure…’

The redoubtable Stanislaw Lem takes a swing at this ‘spirit’ from an unexpected vantage point, in the introduction to his short but memorable autobiography Highcastle: ‘The so-called man of letters – that is, an adult engaged in one of the least serious and most embarrassing professions.’

Infinite or Infinitesimal

Where Spinoza refused to regard humankind in Nature as ‘a kingdom within a kingdom’, Leibniz takes the view that ‘every substance whatsoever is a kingdom within a kingdom’. God alone is Substance for Spinoza, the one thing that is explained within itself, so to speak, and whose nature it is to exist, humans being mere modes or wrinkles of this infinitely extended Substance that is coextensive with the universe. Leibniz on the other hand opens up the tantalising and contrary prospect of there being an infinite number of non-extended substances. These are his famous monads.

The one philosopher widens the remit maximally, the other contracts to metaphysical seedlets, each containing all the predicates that will ever be true of it.

Poets and Managers

It was that fecund poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote: ‘Already scientific language is in deep disagreement with the poets’ language. It is an unbearable state for things to be in.’

Then came the ‘two cultures’ debate in 1959, with the publication of C.P. Snow’s book, in which he warned that ‘advanced Western society’ was divided into two hostile groups at loggerheads across ‘a gulf of mutual incomprehension’. The debate must have struck a chord, since many people still remember Snow’s role in this controversy (as if he had written nothing else), and the poet W.H. Auden was moved to reveal in his notes to The Poet & The City that when he found himself in the company of scientists, he felt ‘like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes’. Not all writers have such an internalised sense of guilt about scientific language. As a leading lepidopterist, Nabokov was entitled to feel that he had all the attributes of a man able to move in both worlds (and then some): ‘I would have compared myself to a Colossus of Rhodes bestriding the gulf between the thermodynamics of Snow and the Laurentomania of Leavis, had that gulf not been a mere dimple of a ditch that a small frog could straddle.’

In the early nineteenth century, the age of Goethe (who wrote on comparative anatomy, meteorology, geology, botany and morphology in addition to writing Faust, his tremendous dramatic fable about a man obsessed with knowing and doing), there was no gulf between literature and science, since neither existed in the form in which we know them today. It was a part of polite society to attend scientific experiments, with their marvels and mishaps. Literature, for Dr Johnson, was ‘learning; skill in letters’, a broader field than today, and on the other side, there was no such thing as a ‘scientist’. A science stood for any organised corpus of knowledge, such as chemistry or theology, whereas medicine and engineering were arts. Sir Humphry Davy’s lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution in 1802 were a sensation at the time, and leading poets didn’t think twice about attending them: Coleridge and Wordsworth were both in the auditorium.

It would seem as if the real debate is not between science and poetry, for both make similar demands on the imagination, which is no respecter of social roles and the status quo, but between a culture open to imaginative endeavour in both spheres, and one in which all aspects of society are run on pseudo-scientific principles by people called managers, most of whose concepts stem from an obscure offshoot of cybernetics called systems theory. The mathematicians and social scientists attending the famous Macy Conferences in the 1940s and who devised systems theory thought it would liberate humanity; it now seems a peculiarly unthinking contemporary compulsion – the shackled extension of a subjectless mythology of method. The key text here is probably Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1950), whose title is unabashed about its ambition.


Béla Balázs called it ‘the power of the scissors’. What he was referring to was the process of cinematic editing or montage, although he could just as well have been referring to collage in Cubism and some of the Dada poems which emerged at the end of the Great War. Tristan Tzara issued a list of instructions in 1920 on how ‘To make a Dadaist Poem’, which involved taking scissors to a page of newspaper, cutting out all the words of an article of the desired length, shaking them in a bag and then making a poem from the cuttings – ‘conscientiously following the order in which they left the bag’. Editing cuts to hours of celluloid rushes made Eisenstein’s films memorable, and allowed Berlin to emerge as the city whose traffic sounded a symphony (in Walther Ruttmann’s remarkable experimental documentary film of 1927 Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt). The technique of montage allowed films to be shot in different places, on different days, and yet the whole thing could be rearranged and spliced, and it all made cinematic sense.

And Henri Matisse radically renewed his art – ‘une seconde vie’ – in the last, wheelchair-bound phase of his life with his gouaches découpés, large paper collages, which are among his most admired works (and are currently on show at the Tate in London). Matisse called this activity ‘painting with scissors’: it involved cutting through large sheets of coloured paper and pinning the creations on the wall of the studio with the help of his assistant Lydia until he was completely satisfied with the composition, when it would be attached to a canvas. His cut-outs are both lush and rigorous in form and colour, and he recognised that this apparently childish activity, which had been imposed upon him by his illness, was also a retun to his family background among the silk-weavers and pattern-makers of Bohain-en-Vermandois. Matisse took his scissors and dreamed up new masterpieces for a marina of algae, fronds, seaweed, and coral. Colour had become both form and content. Scissoring, he said, was ‘the graphic, linear equivalent of the sensation of flight’.

Rilke’s Palaeophone

The Gramophone was patented in 1887 by Emil Berliner, and it made use of the sideways movement of a cutting stylus over a zinc plate coated with a solution of beeswax in benzene; once treated with chromic acid, the tracing could be immortalised. These flat matrices were to prove cheaper and more durable than Edison’s phonograph cylinders. A decade earlier, Charles Gros, a contemporary French poet and inventor, had described an acid-etch method for reproducing recorded sounds with a stylus riding in a ridged groove. He called his invention a ‘paléophone’, suggesting that his sounds were already archives – voices from the past.

The invention of the telephone was almost simultaneous with the invention of recorded sound. It fascinated by its ability to preserve the individuality of the user, including the sounds of his body and breathing: the self was a channel for a polyphonic experience. New auditory techniques were disintegrating and reconfiguring space. Player pianos, loudspeakers, radios were in the offing. And they had been around for a generation when Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his somewhat Poe-like essay ‘Urgeräusch’ (Primal Sound), which opens with a reminiscence about science classes at his school, when the teacher encouraged his pupils to make their own primitive phonographs with candle wax, greaseproof paper as the vibrating membrane, a bristle (from a coarse-haired clothes brush) and a cardboard funnel. The boys recorded a song and then hushed to hear it played back. ‘We were confronting as it were a new and infinitely delicate point in the texture of reality, from which something far greater than ourselves, yet indescribably immature, seemed to be appealing to us as if for help.’ Rilke must have been struck by the novelty of a system in which the same technical device is able to record and reproduce.

Rilke had less time for the technical aspects of sound (which would have been anything but high fidelity) than the wavy markings on the cylinder. They came to mind years later when he became obsessed with the coronal suture of a human skull while studying anatomy at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. ‘What if one changed the needle and directed it on its return journey along a tracing which was not derived from the graphic translation of sound, but existed of itself naturally’ – in other words, what if the needle were allowed to run along the saddle-seam of bony plates that constituted the coronal suture? The notion is fanciful, but you can see what Rilke was getting at. Like Kurt Schwitters in his Dada manifesto ‘Ursonate’, Rilke wanted to tap into the primordium, and hear the raw immanent sounds of the cosmos. He would be listening in with ‘incredulity, timidity, fear, awe’ – he wasn’t quite sure which feeling would be appropriate.

Why stop at the coronal suture? Similar kinds of sutures can be found in a map of the earth’s tectonic plates, with its slips, faults and shear lines: the barbs and spicules of our dynamically shifting planet are more active than the fused sutures of an adult skull. Just as a linguistic metaphor draws power from overstepping ordinary conceptual boundaries, Rilke sensed that the new media coming into being derived their force from disregarding the usual boundaries between the senses, delivering the recorded voice in another form, such as the saccadic script of a phonograph drum (and he saw a further resemblance between the lathed sound of a rotogravure drum and a poem in Arabic). After all, engraving into wax and then perennialising the cutting was an extension of the act of ploughing (and the ancient Greeks understood reading by analogy with this ancient movement across the surface of the earth).

We know now, as Edwin Morgan once wrote, that there is ‘nothing not giving messages’. The entire universe is an uproar of expressiveness, not to say an unceasing storm of gossip, from the ionised particle storms of the aurora borealis to the infrasound of volcanoes. There are so many messages from all sides that radio telescopes have to cope with the concept of noise as a parasite. Many other natural phenomena generate infrasound, from icebergs to avalanches. Reality is talkative. A few years ago the Austrian artist Bartholomäus Traubeck initiated a project called Years, in which he converted a turntable stylus to a lens, entirely in the spirit of Rilke’s attempt to turn the senses into one bold synaesthetic venture, so that it could read the patterns of tree rings as musical notes. And why stop there? Even in their growth (a process called cavitation, in which fluids bubble through the xylem), trees and plants produce detectable sonorities.

This far surpasses what the theosophists used to call ‘aura’. And there is another difference between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first. Rilke was living in an analogue world; ours is digital too, and we have the ability to transform all kinds of mediated experience into other forms: text into image, archive into video, numbers into patterns. Everything is convertible. The world is an emergent technology.

And somewhere behind this marvellous new understanding of our ecology is an ancient animistic warning: when matter or even the dead speak in other voices, the traditional Orphic role of the poet has, for good or bad, been decisively usurped.

This article is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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