These Self-Same Keys

Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the early 1980s I went to the Third Annual Conference on Computers and Writing. A well-known computer guru—can his name really have been Chip?—was the keynote speaker. Against expectation, he told us that across town they were holding the fifty-third annual conference on ballpoint pens and writing. He was wittily warning us, a roomful of writing instructors who were mostly enthusiasts for computers, against exaggerating the difference that “the computer” might make to writing.

And yet it has. Why not? Even the ballpoint pen made a difference, at least to this writer, who remembers the messy process of filling a fountain pen with ink from a bottle on her schoolroom desk—a desk that had a groove for pencil or pen and a vestigial brass flap that opened to a hole where previous generations had kept their ink, dipped nibs into it, and wiped them with penwipers. And had blotters! Even with a fountain pen, I’d often be left with ink on my thumb and middle finger. With the ballpoint pen, goodbye to all that—to the blots and the laborious care, the difficulty for left-handers—the beginning, no doubt, of the era of instant gratification.

Would Jack Kerouac’s On the Road have been the same if he’d written it by hand instead of typing it? And didn’t the typewriter affect poetry? Were e.e. cummings’ typographical experiments composed on a typewriter? I don’t know. But I do believe that the way typewriting and computing present a poem has influenced poets’ sense of form—the aim to have a visual form and less attention to aural form.

As we write, the instruments with which we write are our immediate environment, our experience, and so they can influence our metaphors. In Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him to “whet [his] almost blunted purpose.” I’d read or heard this many times before it occurred to me, aha! that Shakespeare wrote with a quill pen, which would wear down and need to be sharpened.

I had such an aha! thought about a poem of Wallace Stevens’. I remembered it as beginning, “Just as my fingers on these self-same keys/Make music…” Aha! I thought. Stevens was sitting at a typewriter “making music”—“feeling, not sound” and obscured this by titling the poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” I made some attempts to find out whether Stevens typed his own poems or whether he hand-wrote them and turned them over to a typist. I think he probably did not do his own typing. Still, isn’t it pretty to think so?

Filed under: Arlene Weiner, Book Review, Prose