Blessedly, we are speakers of languages not of our own invention, and as such none of us are cursed in only a private tongue. Words are our common property; it would be a brave iconoclast to write entirely in some Adamic dialect of her own invention, her dictionary locked away (though from the Voynich Manuscript to Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, some have tried). Almost every word you or I speak was first uttered by somebody else—the key is entirely in the rearrangement. Sublime to remember that every possible poem, every potential play, ever single novel that could ever be written is hidden within the Oxford English Dictionary. The answer to every single question too, for that matter. The French philosophers Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot enthuse in their 1660 Port-Royal Grammar that language is a “marvelous invention of composing out of 25 or 30 sounds that infinite variety of expressions which, whilst having in themselves no likeness to what is in our mind, allow us to… [make known] all the various stirrings of our soul.” Dictionaries are oracles. It’s simply an issue of putting those words in the correct order. Language is often spoken of in terms of inheritance, where regardless of our own origins speakers of English are the descendants of Walt Whitman’s languid ecstasies, Emily Dickinson’s psalmic utterances, the stately plain style of the King James bible, the witty innovations of William Shakespeare, and the earthy vulgarities of Geoffrey Chaucer; not to forget the creative infusions of foreign tongues, from Norman French and Latin, to Ibo, Algonquin, Yiddish, Spanish, and Punjabi, among others. Linguist John McWhorter puts it succinctly in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, writing that “We speak a miscegenated grammar.”
There is a glory to this, our words indicating people and places different from ourselves, our diction an echo of a potter in a Bronze Age East Anglian village, a canting rogue in London during the golden era of Jacobean Theater, or a Five Points Bowery Boy in antebellum New York. Nicholas Oster, with an eye towards its diversity of influence, its spread, and its seeming omnipresence, writes in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World that “English deserves a special position among world languages” as it is a “language with a remarkably varied history.” Such history perhaps gives the tongue a universal quality, making it a common inheritance of humanity. True with any language, but when you speak it would be a fallacy to assume that your phrases, your idioms, your sentences, especially your words are your own. They’ve passed down to you. Metaphors of inheritance can either be financial or genetic; the former has it that our lexicon is some treasure collectively willed to us, the later posits that in the DNA of language, our nouns are adenine, verbs are as if cytosine, adjectives like guanine, and adverbs are thymine. Either sense of inheritance has its uses as a metaphor, and yet they’re both lacking to me in some fundamental way—too crassly materialist, too eugenic. The proper metaphor isn’t inheritance, but consciousness. I hold that a language is as if a living thing, or to be more specific, as if a thinking thing. Maybe this isn’t a metaphor at all, perhapswe’re simply conduits for the thoughts of something bigger than ourselves, the contemplations of the language which we speak.
Philosopher George Steiner, forever underrated, writes in his immaculate After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation that “Language is the highest and everywhere the foremost of those assents which we human beings can never articulate solely out of our own means.” We’re neurons in the mind of language, and our communications are individual synapses in that massive brain that’s spread across the Earth’s eight billion inhabitants, and back generations innumerable. When that mind becomes self-aware of itself, when language knows that it’s language, we call those particular thoughts poetry. Argentinean critic (and confidant of Jorge Luis Borges) Alberto Manguel writes in A Reader on Reading that poetry is “proof of our innate confidence in the meaningfulness of wordplay;” it is that which demonstrates the eerie significance of language itself. Poetry is when language consciously thinks.
More than rhyme and meter, or any other formal aspect, what defines poetry is its self-awareness. Poetry is the language which knows that it’s language, and that there is something strange about being such. Certainly, part of the purpose of all the rhetorical accoutrement which we associate with verse, from rhythm to rhyme scheme, exists to make the artifice of language explicit. Guy Deutscher writes in The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention that the “wheels of language run so smoothly” that we rarely bother to “stop and think about all the resourcefulness that must have gone into making it tick.” Language is pragmatic, most communication doesn’t need to self-reflect on, well, how weird the very idea of language is. How strange it is that we can construct entire realities from variations in the breath that comes out of our mouths, or the manipulation of ink stains on dead trees (or of liquid crystals on a screen). “Language conceals its art,” Deutscher writes, and he’s correct. When language decides to stop concealing, that’s when we call it poetry.
Verse accomplishes that unveiling in several different ways, chief among them the use of the rhetorical and prosodic tricks, from alliteration to Terza rima, which we associate with poetry. One of the most elemental and beautiful aspects of language which poetry draws attention towards are the axioms implied earlier in this essay – that the phrases and words we speak are never our own – and that truth is found not in the invention, but in the rearrangement. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that we receive “the word from another’s voice and filled with that other voice.” Our language is not our own, nor is our literature. We communicate in a tongue not of our own creation; we don’t have conversations, we are the conversation. Bakhtin reasons that our “own thought finds the world already inhabited.” Just as the organization of words into enjambed lines and those lines into stanzas demonstrates the beautiful unnaturalness of language, so to do allusion, bricolage, and what theorists call intertextuality make clear to us that we’re not individual speakers of words, but that words are speakers of us. Steiner writes in Grammars of Creation that “the poet says: ‘I never invent.’” This is true, the poet never invents, none of us do. We only rearrange—and that is beautiful.
True of all language, but few poetic forms are as honest about this as a forgotten Latin genre from late antiquity known as the cento. Rather than inheritance and consciousness, the originators of the cento preferred the metaphor of textiles. For them, all of poetry is like a massive patchwork garment, squares of fabric borrowed from disparate places and sewn together to create a new whole. Such a metaphor is an apt explanation of what exactly a cento is – a novel poem that is assembled entirely from rearranged lines written by other poets. Centos were written perhaps as early as the first century, but the fourth-century Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius was the first to theorize about their significance and to give rules for their composition. In the prologue to Cento Nuptialias, where he composed a poem about marital consummation from fragments of Virgil derived from The Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues, Ausonius explained that he has “but out of a variety of passages and different meanings,” created something new which is “like a puzzle.”
The editors of The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory explain that while forgotten today, the cento was “common in later antiquity.” Anthologizer and poet David Lehman writes in The American Scholar that “Historically, the intent was often homage, but it could and can be lampoon,” with critic Edward Hirsch writing in A Poet’s Glossary that they “may have begun as school exercises.” Though it’s true that they were written for educational reasons, to honor or mock other poets, or as showy performance of lyrical erudition (the author exhibiting their intimacy with Homer and Virgil), none of these explanations does service to the cento’s significance. To return to my admittedly inchoate axioms of earlier, one function of poetry is to plunge “us into a network of textual relations,” as the theorist Graham Allen writes in Intertextuality. Language is not the provenance of any of us, but rather a common treasury; with its other purpose being what Steiner describes as the “rec-compositions of reality, of articulate dreams, which are known to us as myths, as poetry, as metaphysical conjecture.” That’s to say that the cento remixes poetry, it recombines reality, so as to illuminate some fundamental truth hitherto hidden. Steiner claims that a “language contains within itself the boundless potential of discovery,” and the cento is a reminder that fertile are the recombination’s of poetry that have existed before, that literature is a rich, many-varied compost from which beautiful new specimens can grow towards the sun.
Among authors of centos, this is particularly true of the fourth-century Roman poet Faltonia Betitia Proba. Hirsch explains that one of the purposes of the cento, beyond the pedagogical or the parodic, was to “create Christian narratives out of pagan text,” as was the case with Proba’s Cento virgilianus, the first major Christian epic by a woman poet. Allen explains that “Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature;” what Proba’s cento did was a more literal expression of that fundamental fact. The classical past posed a difficulty for proud Roman Christians, for how were the faithful to grapple with the paganism of Plato, the Sibyls, and Virgil? One solution was typological, that is the assumption that if Christianity was true, and yet pagan poets like Virgil still spoke the truth, that such must be encoded within his verse itself, part of the process of Interpretatio Christiana whereby pagan culture was reinterpreted along Christian lines.
Daughter of Rome that she was, Proba would not abandon Virgil, but Christian convert that she also was, it became her task to internalize that which she loved about her forerunner and to repurpose him, to place old wine into new skins. Steiner writes that an aspect of authorship is that the “poet’s consciousness strives to achieve perfect union with that of the predecessor,” and though those lyrics are “historically autonomous,” as reimagined by the younger poet they are “reborn from within.” This is perhaps true of how all influence works, but the cento literalizes that process in the clearest manner. And so Proba’s solution was to rearrange, remix, and recombine the poetry of Virgil so that the Christianity could emerge, like a sculptor chipping away all of the excess marble in a slab to reveal the statue hidden within.
Inverting the traditional pagan invocation of the muse, Proba begins her epic (the proem being the only original portion) with both conversion narrative and poetic exhortation, writing that she is “baptized, like the blest, in the Castalian font – / I, who in my thirst have drunk libations of the Light – / now being my song: be at my side, Lord, set my thoughts/straight, as I tell how Virgil sang the offices of Christ.” Thus, she imagines the prophetic Augustan poet of Roman Republicanism who died two decades before the Nazarene was born. Drawing from a tradition which claimed Virgil’s Eclogue predicted Christ’s birth, Proba rearranged 694 lines of the poet to retell stories from Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels, the lack of Hebrew names in the Roman original forcing her to use general terms which appear in Virgil, like “son” and “mother,” when writing of Jesus and Mary. Proba’s paradoxically unoriginal originality (or is its original unoriginality?) made her popular in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Cento virgilianus taught to catechists alongside Augustin, and often surpassing Confessions and City of God in popularity. Yet criticism of Proba’s aesthetic quality from figures like Jerome and Pope Gelasius I ensured a millennium-long eclipse of her poem, forgotten until its rediscovery with the Renaissance.
Rearranging the pastoral Eclogues, Proba envisions Genesis in another poet’s Latin words, writing that there is a “tree in full view with fruitful branches;/divine law forbids you to level with fire or iron,/by holy religious scruple it is never allowed to be disturbed./And whoever steals the holy fruit from this tree,/will pay the penalty of death deservedly;/no argument has changed my mind.” Something uncanny about the way that such a familiar myth is reimagined in the arrangement of a different myth; the way in which Proba is a redactor of Virgil’s words, shaping them (or pulling out from) this other, different, unintended narrative. Scholars have derided her poem as juvenilia since Jerome (jealously) castigated her talent by calling her “old chatterbox,” but to be able to organize, shift, and shape another poet’s corpus into orthodox scripture is an unassailable accomplishment. Writers of the Renaissance certainly thought so, for a millennium after Proba’s disparagement, a new generation of humanists resuscitated her.
Cento virgilianus was possibly the first work by a woman to be printed, in 1474; a century before that, and the father of Renaissance poetry Petrarch extolled her virtues in a letter to the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, and she was one of the subjects of Giovani Boccaccio’s 1374 On Famous Women, his 106 entry consideration of female genius from Eve to Joanna, the crusader Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily. Boccaccio explains that Proba collected lines of Virgil with such “great skill, aptly placing the entire lines, joining the fragments, observing the metrical rules, and preserving the dignity of the verses, that no one except an expert could detect the connections.” As a result of her genius, a reader might think that “Virgil had been a prophet as well as an apostle,” the cento suturing together the classic and the Hebraic, Athens and Jerusalem.
Ever the product of his time, Boccaccio could still only appreciate Proba’s accomplishment through the lens of his own misogyny, writing that the “distaff, the needle, and weaving would have been sufficient for her had she wanted to lead a sluggish life like the majority of women.” Boccaccio’s myopia prevented him from seeing that that was the precise nature of Proba’s genius – she was a weaver. The miniatures which illustrate a 15th-century edition of Boccaccio give truth to this, for despite the chauvinism of the text, Proba is depicted in gold-threaded red with white habit upon her head, a wand holding aloft a beautiful, blue expanding sphere studded with stars, a strangely scientifically accurate account of the universe as the poet sings song of Genesis in the tongue of Virgil. Whatever anonymous artist saw fit to depict Proba as a mage understood her well; for that matter they understood creation well, for perhaps God can generate ex nihilo, but artists must always gather their material from fragments shored against their ruin.
In our own era of allusion, reference, quotation, pastiche, parody, and sampling, you’d think that the cento would have new practitioners and new readers. Something of the disk jockeys Danger Mouse, Fatboy Slim, and Girl Talk in the idea of remixing a tremendous amount of independent lines into some synthesized newness; something oddly of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in the very form of the thing. But centos proper are actually fairly rare in contemporary verse, despite T.S. Eliot’s admission that “mature poets steal.” Perhaps with more charity, Allen argues that reading is a “process of moving between texts. Meaning because something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates.” But while theorists have an awareness of the ways in which allusion dominates the modernist and post-modernist sensibility—what theorists who use the word “text” too often call “intertextuality”—the cento remains as obscure as other abandoned poetic forms from the Anacreontic to the Zajal (look them up). Lehman argues that modern instances of the form are “based on the idea that in some sense all poems are collages made up of other people’s words; that the collage is a valid method of composition, and an eloquent one.”
Contemporary poets who’ve tried their hand include John Ashbery, who weaved together Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lord Byron, and Elliot; as well as Peter Gizzi who in “Ode: Salute to the New York School” made a cento from poets like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Ashbery. Lehman has tried his own hand at the form, to great success. In commemoration of his Oxford Book of American Poetry, he wrote a cento for The New York Times that’s a fabulous chimera whose anatomy is drawn from a diversity that is indicative of the sweep and complexity of four centuries of verse, including among others Robert Frost, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Taylor, Jean Toomer, Anne Bradstreet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Robert Pinsky, Marianne Moore, and this being a stolidly American poem, our grandparents Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
Lehman contributed an ingenious cento sonnet in The New Yorker assembled from various Romantic and modernist poets, his final stanza reading “And whom I love, I love indeed,/And all I loved, I loved alone,/Ignorant and wanton as the dawn,” the lines so beautifully and seamlessly flowing into one another that you’d never notice that they’re respectively from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Butler Yeats. Equally moving was a cento written by editors at the Academy of American Poets, which in its entirety reads:
In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man is King
Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree
Day after day, I become of less use to myself,
The hours after you are gone are so leaden.
Take this rather remarkable little poem on its own accord. Its ambiguity is remarkable, and the lyric is all the more powerful for it. To whom is the narrator speaking, who has been trusted and apparently violated that loyalty? Note how the implied narrative of the poem breaks after the dash that end-stops the third line. In the first part of the poem, we have declarations of betrayal, somebody is impugned as “Brute. Spy.” But from that betrayal, that “great pain,” there is some sort of transformation of feeling; neither acceptance nor forgiveness, but almost a tacit defeat, the “vulturous boredom.” The narrator psychologically, possibly physically, withers. They become less present to themselves, “of less use to myself.” And yet there is something to be said for the complexity of emotions we often have towards people, for though it seems that this poem expresses the heartbreak of betrayal, the absence of its subject is still that which affects the narrators so that the “hours…are so leaden.” Does the meaning of the poem change when I tell you that it was stitched together by those editors, drawn from a diversity of different poets in different countries living at different times? That the “true” authors are Charles Wright, Marie Ponsot, Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett?
Steiner claims that “There is, stricto sensu, no finished poem. The poem made available to us contains preliminary versions of itself. Drafts [and] cancelled versions.” I’d go further than Steiner even, and state that there is no individual poet. Just as all drafts are ultimately abandoned rather than completed, so is the task of completion ever deferred to subsequent generations. All poems, all writing, and all language for that matter, are related to something else written or said by someone else at some point in time, a great chain of being going back to the beginnings immemorial. We are, in the most profound sense, always finishing each other’s’ sentences. Far from something to despair at, this truth is something that binds us together in an untearable patchwork garment, where our lines and words have been loaned from somewhere else, given with the solemn promise that we must pay it forward. We’re all just lines in a conversation that began long ago, and thankfully shall never end. If you listen carefully, even if it requires a bit of decipherment or decoding, you’ll discover the answer to any query you may have. Since all literature is a conversation, all poems are centos. And all poems are prophecies whose meanings have yet to be interpreted.
Image credit: Unsplash/Alexandra.
“It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in as much as it prevented daubing. None the less for that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” (1905)
When the first English poetry was given by the gift and grace of God it was imparted to an illiterate shepherd named Cædmon and the register that it was received and was alliterative. In the seventh century, the English, as they had yet to be called, may have had Christianity, but they did not yet have poetry. Pope Gregory I, having seen a group of them sold as slaves in the markets of Rome, had said “They are not Angles, but angels,” and yet these seraphim did not sing (yet). There among his sheep at the Abbey of Whitby in the rolling Northumbrian countryside, Cædmon served a clergy whose prayers were in a vernacular not their own, among a people of no letters. A lay brother, Cædmon feasted and drank with his fellow monks one evening when they all took to reciting verse from memory (as one does), playing their harps as King David had in the manner of the bards of the Britons, the scops of the Saxons, the Makers of song–for long before poetry was written it should be plucked and sung.
In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St. Bede described how the monks were “sometimes at entertainments” and that it was “agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turn.” But in a scene whose face-burning embarrassment still resonates a millennium-and-a-half later, Bede explained that when Cædmon “saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from the table and returned home.” Pity the simple monk whom Alasdair Gray in The Book of Prefaces described as a “local herdsman [who] wanted to be a poet though he had not composed anything.” An original composition would wait for that night. Cædmon went to sleep among his mute animals, but in the morning he arose with the fiery tongue of an angel. Bede records that in those nocturnal reveries “someone” came to Cædmon asking the herdsman to sing of “the beginning of created things.” Like his older contemporary, the prophet Muhammad, some angelic visitor had brought to Cædmon the exquisite perfection of words, and with a commission most appropriate–to create English verse on the topic of creation itself. When Cædmon awoke, he was possessed with the consonantal bursts of a hot, orange iron bar being hammered against a glowing, sparkly anvil; the sounds in his head were the characteristic alliteration of his native English.
That bright night in a dark age, what was delivered unto the shepherd were the first words of English poetry: “Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard, / metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc, /uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes, / ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ / hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum / heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen,” and so on and so forth. The other monks brought Cædmon to the wise abbess St. Hilda, who declared this delivery a miracle (preserved only in 19 extant manuscripts). Gray described this genesis of English literature: A herdsman sang in a “Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon” to an amanuensis “who got learning from the Irish Scots,” his narrative being a “Jewish creation story transmitted to him through at least three other languages by a Graeco-Roman-Celtic-Christian church” with verse forms “learned from pagan German warrior chants.” The migrations of peoples and stories would, as with all languages, contribute to the individual aural soul of English, so that the result was an Anglo-Saxon literature that sounded like wind blowing in over the whale-road of the North Sea, reminding us that “Alliteration is part of the sound stratum of poetry. It predates rhyme and takes us back to the oldest English and Celtic poetries,” as Edward Hirsch writes in A Poet’s Glossary.
Read that bit of quoted verse from Cædmon aloud and it might not sound much like English to you, the modern translation roughly reading as “Now [we] must honor the guardian of heaven, / the might of the architect, and his purpose, / the work of the father of glory / as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders,” (and so on and so forth). But if you sound out what philologists call “Anglo-Saxon,” you’ll start to hear the characteristic rhythms of English–staccato firing of short, consonant rich words, and most of all the alliteration. Anglo-Saxon, if heard without concentration, can sound like someone speaking English in another room just beyond your hearing; it can sound like an upside-down version of what we speak every day; it can sound like what our language would be if imitated by a non-fluent speaker. Cædmon’s verse may have been gifted from angels, but the ingredients were his tongue’s phonemes, and unlike the Romance language’s rhyme-ready vowels, he had hard Germanic edges.
Such was the template set by Cædmon, for though “Old English meter is not fully understood,” as Derik Attridge explained in Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, it does appear to “have been written according to complex rules.” Details of prosody are beyond my purview, but as a crackerjack explanation, what defines Anglo-Saxon meter is a heavy reliance on alliteration, whereby what connects the two halves of a line, separated by a caesura (the gap you see between words in the bit of Cædmon quoted above), is an alliterated meter stress. In Cædmon’s first line we have the alliteration of “hergan/hefaenrīcaes,” in the second line the alliterative triumvirate of “metudæs/maecti/mōdgidanc,” a pattern that continues throughout the rest of the hymn. A meter that David Crystal in The Stories of English described as “the most structurally distinctive verse form to have emerged in the history of English.”
The vast majority of Anglo-Saxon’s “structurally distinctive verse,” as with all literatures, is lost to us. By necessity, oral literature disappears, as ephemeral as breath in the cold. Words are subject to decay; poetry to entropy. Only about 400 manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon survive, less than the average number of books in a professor’s office in Cambridge, or Berkeley, or Ann Arbor. Of those, slightly fewer than 200 are considered “major,” and there are but four major manuscripts of specifically poetry. The earliest of these, the Junius manuscript, is that which contains Cædmon’s hymn; the latest of these, the Nowell Codex, contains among other things the only extant Anglo-Saxon epic, that which we call Beowulf. Such is undoubtedly an insignificant percentage of what was once written, of what was once sung to the accompaniment of a lute. Much was lost in the 16th century when Henry VIII decided to dissolve the monasteries, so that most alliterative verse was either turned to ash, or stripped into the bindings of other books, occasionally discovered by judicious bibliographers. Almost all Anglo-Saxon literature, from poetry to prose, hagiography to history, bible translation to travelogue, could be consumed by the committed reader in a few months as they’re squirreled away in a Northumbrian farm house.
Anglo-Saxon has a distinctive literary register that revels in riddles, in ironic understatement, in the creative metaphorical neologisms called “kennings,” and of course in alliteration. This is the literature of the anonymous poem “The Seafarer,” a fatalistic elegy of a mere 124 lines about the life of a sailor, whose opening was rendered by the 20th-century modernist poet Ezra Pound as “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, /Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days / Hardship endured oft.” Pound was not only bewitched by alliteration’s alluring galumph, but the meter of “The Seafarer” propels the action of the poem forward, the cadence of natural English speech tamed by the defamiliarization of enjambment and stress, rendering it simultaneously ordinary and odd (as the best poetry must). Anglo-Saxon is a verse, for which the Irish poet and translator of Beowulf Seamus Heaney remarks, where even when the language is elevated it’s also “always, paradoxically, buoyantly down to earth.” Read aloud “The Wanderer,” which sits alongside “The Seafarer” in the compendium known as the Exeter Book, where the anonymous scop sings of “The thriving of the treeland, the town’s briskness, / a lightness over the leas, life gathering, / everything urges the eagerly mooded / man to venture on the voyage he thinks of, / the faring over flood, the far bourn.” Prosody is an art of physical feeling before it ever is one of semantic comprehension–poems exist in the mouth, not in the mind. Note the mouth-feel of “The Wanderer’s” aural sense, the way in which reading it aloud literally feels good. Poetry is a science of placing tongue against teeth and pallet, it is not philosophy. This is what Heaney described as “the element of sensation while the mind’s lookout sways metrically and farsightedly,” and as English is an alliterative tongue it’s that alliteration which gives us sensation. A natural way of speaking, for as Heaney wrote “Part of me… had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”
The cumulative effect of this meter is as if a type of sonic galloping, the clip-clop of horses across the frozen winter ground of a Northumbrian countryside. Such was the sound imparted to Cædmon by his unseen angel, and these were the rules drawn from the natural ferment and rich, black soil of the English language itself, where alliteration grows from our consonant top-heavy tongue. Other Germanic languages based their prosody on alliteration for the simple reason that, in the Icelandic of the Poetic Eddas or the German of Muspilli, the sounds of the words themselves make it far easier to alliterate than to rhyme, as in Italian or French. The Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman-edited Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms explains that among the “four most significant devices of phonic echo in poetry”—rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration—it was the last which most fully defined Anglo-Saxon prosody, grown from the raw sonic materials of the language itself. To adopt a line from Charles Churchill’s 1763 The Prophecy of Famine, Cædmon may have “prayed / For apt alliteration’s artful aid,” but the angel only got his attention–the sounds were already in the monk’s speech.
Every language has a certain aural spirit to it, a type of auditory fingerprint which is related to those phonemes, those sounds, which constitute the melody and rhythm of any tongue. Romance languages with their languid syllables, words ending with the open-mouthed expression of the sprawled vowel; the spittle-flecked plosives of the Slavic tongues, or the phlegmy gutturals of the Germanic, and despite their consonants the gentle lilt of the Gaelic languages. Sound can be separate from meaning as something that can be felt in the body without the need to comprehend it in the mind.
In his masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, the logician Douglas Hofstadter provides examples of individual languages’ aural spirit. Hofstadter examines several different “translations” of the Victorian author Lewis Carrol’s celebrated nonsense lyric “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. That strange and delightful poem, as you will probably recall, encapsulates the aural spirit of English rather well. Carrol famously declared “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.” Other than some articles and conjunctions, the poem is almost entirely nonsense. Yet in its hodge-podge of invented nouns, verbs, and adjectives, most readers can imagine a fairly visceral scene, but this picture is generated not from actual semantic meaning, but rather from the strange wisdom of English’s particular aural soul. From “Jabberwocky” we get a sense of its preponderance of consonants and its relatively short words, a language that sounds like chewing a tough slab of air-dried meat. As Hofstadter explains, this poses a difficulty in “translating,” because the aural sense of English has to be converted into that of another language. Despite that difficulty, there have been several successful attempts, each of which enact the auditory anatomy of a particular tongue.
Frank L. Warrin’s French translation of Carrol’s poem begins, “Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux / Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave”; Adolfo de Alba’s Spanish starts, “Era la asarvesperia y los flexilimosos toves / giroscopiaban taledrando en el vade”; and my personal favorite, the German of Robert Scott’s first stanza, reads as “Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven / Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben; / Und aller-mümsige Burggoven / Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.” What all translations accomplish is a sense of the sounds of a language, the aural soul that I speak of. You need not be fluent to identify a language’s aural soul; unfamiliarity with the actual literal meanings of a language might arguably make it easier for a listener to detect those distinct features that define a dialect. Listen to a YouTube video of the prodigious, late comedic genius Sid Caesar, a master of “double-talk,” who while working in his father’s Yonkers restaurant overheard speakers of “Italian, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, French, Spanish, Lithuanian, and even Bulgarian” and subsequently learned that he could adeptly parrot the cadence and aural sense of those and other languages.
In his memoir Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, the performer observes that “Every language has its own song and rhythm.” If you’re fluent in fake French or suspect Spanish, you may naturally inquire as to what fake English sounds like. When I lived in Scotland I had a French room-mate whom I posed that query too, and after much needling (and a few drinks) he recited a sentence of perfect counterfeit English. Guttural as German, but with far shorter words; it was a type of rapid-fire clanging-and-clinking with words shooting out with a “ping” as if lug-nuts from a malfunctioning robot. If you want a more charitable interpretation of what American English sounds like, listen to Italian pop star Adriano Celentano’s magnificently funky fake-English song “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” where with all the guttural urgency THAT our language requires, he sings out “Uis de seim cius nau op de seim/Ol uoit men in de colobos dai/Not s de seim laikiu de promisdin/Iu nau in trabol lovgiai ciu gen.”
If every language has this sonic sense, then poetry is the ultimate manifestation of a tongue’s unique genius; a language’s consciousness made manifest and self-aware, bottled and preserved into the artifact of verse. Language lives not in the mind, but rather in the larynx, the soft pallet, the mouth, and the tongue, and its progeny are the soft serpentine sibilant, the moist plosive, the chest gutturals’ heart-burn. A language’s poetry will reflect the natural sounds that have developed for its speakers, as can be witnessed in the meandering inter-locking softness of Italian ottava rima or the percussive trochaic tetrameter of Finland’s The Kalevala. For Romance languages, rhyme is relatively easy–all of those vowels at the ends of words. That Anglo-Saxon meter should be so heavily alliterative, along with its consonant-heavy West Germanic cousins like Frisian, also makes sense. Why then is rhyme historically the currency of English language poetry after the Anglo-Saxon era? After all, one couldn’t imagine a philistine’s declaration of “This can’t be poetry; it doesn’t alliterate.”
The reasons are both complex and contested, though the hypothesis is that following the Norman invasion (1066 and all that) Romance poetic styles were imposed on the Germanic speaking peoples (as indeed they’d once imposed their language on the Celts). In A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie, she writes that “In the history of English poetry, rhyme takes over when alliteration leaves off.” A century-and-a-half of free verse, and almost five centuries of blank verse, and so enshrined is rhyme that your average reader still assumes that it’s definitional to what poetry is. But alliteration, despite its integral role in the birth of our prosody, and its continual presence (often accidental) in our everyday speech, is relegated to the role of adult child from a first marriage whose invitation to Thanksgiving dinner has been lost in the mail. There is an important historical exception to this, during the High Middle Ages, when the Germanic throatiness of old English was rounded out by the softness of Norman French and some poets chose to once again write their verse in the characteristic alliterative meter of their ancestors. Or maybe that’s what happened, it’s entirely possible that English poets never chose to abandon alliteration, and the so-called alliterative revival with poems like the anonymous Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and William Langland’s Piers Plowman are just that which survives, giving the illusion that something has returned which never actually left.
In All the Fun’s in How you Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification, Timothy Steele writes that some regard the alliterative revival as a “conscious protest against the emerging accentual-syllabic tradition and as a nationalistic effort to turn English verse back to its German origins.” Whether that’s the case is an issue for medievalists to debate. What is true is that the Middle English poetry of this period represents a vernacular renaissance of the 13th and 14th centuries when much English poetry read as, well, English. Again, with a sense of mouth feel, read aloud Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when the titular emerald man picks up his just severed head and says, “you must solemnly swear/that you’ll seek me yourself; that you’ll search me out/to the ends of the earth to earn the same blow/as you’ll dole out today in this decorous hall.” That “s,” and “e,” and “d” – there’s a pleasure in reading alliteration that can avoid the artifice of rhyme, with its straitjacket alterity. Armitage explains that “alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads” (that line itself replicating Anglo-Saxon meter, albeit in prose). For the translator, alliteration exists as “percussive patterning” which is there to “reinforce their meaning and to countersink them within the memory,” what Crystal calls “phonological mnemonics.”
But if the alliterative poetry of the High Middle Ages signaled not a rupture but an occluded continuity, then it is true that by the arrival of the Renaissance, rhyme would permanently supplant it as the prosodic element du jour. Adoption of continental models of verse are in large part due to the coming influence of Renaissance humanism, yet the 14th-century also saw the political turmoil of the Peasant’s Rebellion, when an English-speaking rabble organized against the French-speaking aristocracy, motivated by a proto-Protestant religious movement called Lollardy and celebrated in a flowering of vernacular spiritual writing, which contributed to the Church’s eventual fear of bible translation. As the rebellion would be violently put down in 1381, there was a general distrust among the ruling classes of scripture rendered into an English tongue–could a similar distrust of alliteration, too common and simple, have shifted poetry away from it for good? Melvyn Bragg writes in The Adventures of English: The Biography of a Language that poets like Langland (himself possibly a Lollard) rendered their verse “more believable for being so plainly painted,” a poetry “meant to sound like the language of the people.” This was precisely what was to be avoided, and so perhaps alliteration migrated from the rarefied realms of poetry back to simple speech, eventually reserved mostly for instances in which, as Bragg writes, there is a need to “Grab the listener’s or reader’s attention…such as in news headlines and advertising slogans.”
Madison Avenue understands alliteration’s deep wisdom, such that “Guinness is good for you” (possibly true) and “Greyhound going great” (undoubtedly not true).” While at home in advertising, Attridge explained that alliteration is a “rare visitor to the literary realm,” with Hirsch adding that it now exists as a “subterranean stream in English-language poetry.” Subterranean streams can still have a mighty roar however, as alliteration’s preponderance in the popular realm of slogans and lyrics can attest to. Alliteration exists because alliteration works, and while it’s been largely supplanted by rhyme for several hundred years it remains in the wheelhouse of some of our most canonical poets. The 19th-century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins largely derived his “sprung rhythm” from Anglo-Saxon meter, where he lets the Sybil’s leaves declare “let them be left, wildness and wet; Love live the weeds and the wilderness yet,” calling forth all the forward momentum of “The Wanderer.”
For exhibition of alliteration’s sheer magnificent potential, examine W.H. Auden’s under-read 1947 masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, which demonstrates our indigenous trope’s full power, especially in a contemporary context, and not just as a fantasy novel affectation for when an author needs characters to sound like stock Saxons. Across six subsections spread amongst 138 pages, four war-time characters in a Manhattan bar reflect on modernity’s traumas in a series of individual inner alliterative monologues. Alliteration is perfectly attuned to this setting, which Auden later described as “an unprejudiced space where nothing particular ever happens,” because alliteration simultaneously announced itself as common (i.e. “This is what English speakers sound like”) while also clearly poetic (“But we don’t normally alliterate as regularly as that”). Take the passage in which one of the characters, now drunk in a stream of consciousness reverie (for that’s what good Guinness does for you…), examines his own face across from himself in the barroom mirror (as one does). Auden writes:
How glad and good when you go to bed,
Do you feel, my friend? What flavor has
That liquor you lift with your left hand;
Is it cold by contrast, cool as this
For a soiled soul; does yourself like mine
Taste of untruth? Tell me, what are you
Hiding in your heart, some angel face,
Some shadowy she who shares in my absence,
Enjoys my jokes? I’m jealous, surely,
Nicer myself (though not as honest),
The marked man of romantic thrillers
Whose brow bears the brand of winter
No priest can explain, the poet disguised,
Thinking over things in thieves’ kitchens.
That thrum supplied by alliterative meter, so much sharper and more angular than rhyme’s pleasing congruencies or assonance’s soft rounding, feels like nothing so much as the rushing blood in the temples of that drunk staring at his own disheveled reflection. Savor the slink of that “shadowy she who shares” or the pagan totemism of the “marked man” and the colloquialism of that which is “Hiding in your heart.” The Age of Anxiety perfectly synthesizes a type of vernacular bar-room speech that nonetheless is clearly poetry in the circumscribed constrictions of its language. In choosing our rhetorical tropes certain metaphysical implications necessarily announce themselves. Were The Age of Anxiety rhymed or in free verse it would be a very different poem, in this case a less successful one (despite our collective ignorance about Auden’s elegy). At one point, one of the characters imagines the future, imagines us, and she predicts that the future will be “Odourless ages, an ordered world/Of planned pleasures and passport-control, /Sentry-go sedatives, soft drinks and/Managed money, a moral planet/Tamed by terror.” This is, first of all, an obviously accurate prediction of life in 2019. It’s also one all the more terrifying in the familiar wax and wane of alliteration, for it calls forth the beating heart of English itself, and while not sounding like that stock medieval herdsman it still harkens back towards the primordial hymns of our tongue, of Cædmon strumming his lute while he pops antidepressants and checks Facebook for the 500th time that day.
Such experiments as The Age of Anxiety have been at best understood as literary affectations, or at worst declarations of nativist Anglophilia (as with Pound). Kinzie complains that alliteration draws “attention away from what words mean to hint at what are often the…irrational similarities in their sounds,” though I’d argue that that describes all rhetorical devices, from metaphor to metonymy, catachresis to chiasmus. She writes that alliteration appears “towards the self-conscious end of the continuum of diction,” but it’s precisely self-awareness of medium that makes language poetry. Hirsch writes that “Alliteration can reinforce preexisting meanings…and establish effective new ones,” which Kinzie interprets as mere “fondness for gnomic utterance.” But that’s the prodigious brilliance of alliteration–its uniquely English oracular quality. As with all verse, it’s these “gnomic utterances” that are birthed from the pregnant potential of our particular words, and alliteration’s naturalism is what makes it so apt for this purpose in our language. Prosody at its most affecting incongruously marries the realism of speech with the defamiliarization that announces poetry as being artifice, and that’s why alliteration is among the most haunting of our aural ghosts. Poetry is of the throat before it is of the brain, and alliteration is the common well-spring of English, sounding neither as contrived nor as straight-jacketed as rhyme. As such, why not embrace alliterative meter as more than just gimmick; why not draw attention to that aural quality of our language that is our common ownership? Our tongues already talk in alliteration, so let us once again proclaim our poems in alliteration, let us declare our dreams in it.
“When they ask what [God’s] name is, what shall I tell them?” —Exodus 3:13
“Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas.” —Dr. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Attar of Nishapur, the 12th-century Persian Sufi, wrote of a pilgrimage of birds. His masterpiece The Conference of the Birds recounts how 30 fowls were led by a tufted, orange hoopoe (wisest of his kind) to find the Simurgh, a type of bird-god or king. So holy is the hoopoe, that the bismillah is etched onto his beak as encouragement to his fellow feathered penitents. From Persia the birds travel to China, in search of the Simurgh, a gigantic eagle-like creature with the face of a man (or sometimes a dog) who has lived for millennia, possesses all knowledge, and like the Phoenix has been immolated only to rise again.
In the birds’ desire to see the Simurgh, we understand how we should yearn for Allah: “Do all you can to become a bird of the Way to God; / Do all you can to develop your wings and your feathers,” Attar writes. An esoteric truth is revealed to the loyal hawk, the romantic nightingale, the resplendent peacock, and the stalwart stork. There is no Simurgh awaiting them in some hidden paradise, for the creature’s name is itself a Farsi pun on the phrase “30 birds.” Attar writes that “All things are but masks at God’s beck and call, / They are symbols that instruct us that God is all.” There is no God but us, and we are our own prophets.
As a dream vision, The Conference of the Birds appears to be borderline atheistic, but only if you’re oblivious that such mysticism is actually God-intoxicated. And as with all mystical literature, there is (purposefully) something hard to comprehend, though a clue on interpretation when Attar writes that “The shadow and its maker are one and the same, / so get over surfaces and delve into mysteries.” Equivalence of shadow and maker—it’s a moving understanding of what writing is as well, where the very products of our creation are intimations of our souls. My approach to these mysteries, plumbing past the surfaces of appearance, is in an illustration of the epic’s themes done in the characteristic Islamic medium of calligraphy. Alongside the intricate miniatures which defined Persian art, there developed a tradition whereby ingenious calligraphers would present Arabic or Persian sentences in artful arrangements, so that whole sentences would compose the illusion of a representational picture.
One such image is nothing but the word “Simurgh” itself, yet the way in which the artist has configured letters like the ascending alif, horizontal jim, rounded dhal, and complex hamzah presents the appearance of a bird rearing with regal countenance—all feather, claw, and beak. A beautiful evocation of Attar’s very lesson itself, for as the avian penitents learn that there is no Simurgh save for their collective body, so, too, do we see that the illusion of the picture we’re presented with is simply an arrangement of letters.
Pithy demonstration of the paradox of literature as well. If the Simurgh of The Conference of the Birds is simply composed by the fowl themselves, and if the image of the calligrapher’s art is constituted by letters, might there be a lesson that divinity itself is constructed in the later way? Just as each bird is part of the Simurgh, may each letter be part of God? For as images had been banned, they still can’t help but arise out of these abstracted letters, these symbols imbued with a fiery life. Little wonder that incantations are conveyed through words and that we’re warned not to take the Lord’s name in vain, for it’s letters that both define and give life. A certain conclusion is unassailable: God is an alphabet—God is the alphabet.
“Bereshit” is the word by which Genesis is inaugurated, and it’s from that word that the name of the book derives in its original language. No text more explicitly deals with the generative powers of speech than Genesis, and in seeing the Torah as both product of and vehicle for God’s creation, we get closer to the sacredness of the Alphabet. Bereshit begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet—bet—which looks like this: ב. Something about the shape of the abstracted letter reminds me of a tree with a branch hanging out at an angle, appropriate when we consider the subject of the book.
There’s something unusual in the first letter of the Torah being bet, for why would the word of God not begin with Her first letter of Aleph? Medieval kabbalists, adept in numerology, had an answer: It was to indicate that reality has two levels—the physical and the spiritual, or as Attar called them, the surfaces and the mysteries. But if the surface of the sheep vellum which constitutes a physical Torah is one thing, the actual reality of the letter is another. A deeper truth is conveyed by the mystery of letters themselves, the way in which abstract symbol can make us hallucinate voices in our heads, the way in which entire worlds of imagination can be constructed by dying the skin of dead animals black with ink.
We dissuade ourselves against magic too easily, especially since literacy itself is evidence of it. That language is sacred should be an obvious truth. Even as the old verities of holiness are discarded, the unassailable fact that language has a magic is intuited at the level of an eye scanning a page and building universes from nothingness. Jewish sages believed that the alphabet preceded that initial Bereshit; indeed, that was a requirement that letters existed before creation, for how would God’s accomplishment of the latter even be possible without Her access to the former? As the kabbalistic book Sefer Yetsira explains: “Twenty-two letters did [God] engrave and carve, he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.”
Chiseled onto the sandy-red shoulder of a sphinx found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula is evidence of the alphabet’s origins that is almost as evocative as the story told in the Sefer Yetsira. As enigmatic as her cousins at Giza or Thebes, the Sinai sphinx is a votive in honor of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, guardian of the desert, and she who protected the turquoise mines which dotted the peninsula and operated for close to eight centuries producing wealth for distant Pharaohs. The Serabit el-Khadim sphinx is only a little under 24 centimeters, more than diminutive enough to find her new home in a British Museum cabinet. Excavated in 1904 by Flinders and Hilda Petrie, founder of Egyptology as a discipline, the little Hathor lioness lay in wait for perhaps 3,800 years, graffiti etched into her side attesting to alphabetic origins.
The sphinx was carved by laborers whose language was a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew (and indeed some have connected the inscription to the Exodus narrative). In Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World, John Man describes how these “Twelve marks suggest links between Egyptian writing and later Semitic letters,” for though what’s recorded at Serabit el-Khadim are glyphs like “an ox-head, an eye, a house, a snake, and water,” what is found on the haunches of Hathor’s sphinx are the abstracted “roots of our own a, b, v, u, m. p, w, and t.” By 1916, Alan Gardiner used the decipherable Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription between the sphinx’s breasts, which read, “Beloved of Hathor, Lady of the Turquoise” to translate the 11 marks on her side, making this one of the earliest examples of a script called “Proto-Sinaitic,” the most ancient instance of alphabetic writing to ever be found. Gardiner hypothesized that this was an alphabetic letter system, arguing that it was either a form of simplified pidgin Egyptian used by the administrators, or that it was a simplified system invented by the workers. By simplifying the process of communication, the alphabet’s purpose was pragmatic, but its implications rank it among the most paradigm-shifting of history.
From In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman explains that if it’s “easier to learn the tens of hundreds of symbols required for syllabic system than it is to learn the thousands required for a purely logographic system,” than to learn easier still consonantal systems (as both proto-Sinaitic and Hebrew are), as these system “generally require fewer than 30 symbols.” Vowels may be the souls of words, but consonants are their bodies. The former awaited both the Greek alphabet and the diacritical marks of Masoretic Hebrew, but the skeletons of our alphabet were already recorded in homage to the goddess Hathor.
Man writes that three features mark the alphabet as crucial in the history of communication: “its uniqueness, its simplicity and its adaptability.” Perhaps even more importantly, where pictograms are complicated, they’re also indelibly wed to the tongue which first uttered them, whereas alphabets can “with some pushing and shoving, be adapted to all languages.” The alphabet, a Semitic invention born from Egyptian materials for practical ends, “proved wildly successful,” as Hoffman writes, with proto-Sinaitic developing into the Phoenician alphabet and then the Hebrew, which was “used as the basis for the Greek and Latin alphabets, which, in turn, along with Hebrew itself, were destined to form the basis for almost all the world’s alphabets.” Birthed from parsimony, proto-Sinaitic would become the vehicle through which abstraction could be spread. Still, the blurred edges of our letters proclaim their origin in pictures—the prostrate penitent worshipping prayerfully in an “E;” in an “S,” the slithering of the snake who caused the fall.
Every single major alphabetic system, save for Korean Hangul developed in the 15th century, can trace its origins back to this scratching on a sphinx. The Phoenicians, a people who spoke a Semitic language, developed one of the first proper alphabets. Michael Rosen, in Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, explains that the Phoenicians “used abstract versions of objects to indicate letters: a bifurcated (horned?) sign was an ‘ox’ (in their language ‘aleph’), and on down through the words for ‘house,’ ‘stick,’ ‘door’ and ‘shout’ up to ‘tooth’ and ‘mark.’” The alphabet is universal, applicable in any cultural setting, and yet the immediate context of its creation is of sailors and turquoise miners living in the Bronze Age.
An epiphany when some turquoise miner abstracted the intricate pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but used them not for ideas, but rather units of sound. The sea-faring Phoenicians, clad in their Tyrian purple cloth dyed from the mucus of clams, would disseminate the alphabet around Mediterranean ports. It’s the origin of elegant Hebrew, which God used when he struck letters of fire into the tablets at Sinai; the genesis of Arabic’s fluid letters by which Allah dictated the Qur’an. The Greeks adapted the Phoenicians’ invention (as they acknowledge) into which the oral poems of Homer could finally be recorded; the death-obsessed Etruscans whose tongue we still can’t hear appropriated the symbols of Punic sailors, as did the Romans who would stamp those letters on triumphant monuments throughout Europe and Africa in so enduring a way that you’re still reading them now. Languid Ge’ez in Ethiopian gospels, blocky Aramaic written in the tongue of Christ, Brahmic scripts which preserved Dharmic prayers, the mysterious Ogham of Irish druids, the bird-scratch runes of the Norseman, the stolid Cyrillic of the Czars, all derive from that initial alphabet. Even Sequoyah’s 19th-century Cherokee, though a syllabary and not technically an alphabet, draws several of its symbols from a Latin that can be ultimately traced back to the mines of Serabit el-Khadim.
Matthew Battles, in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word, writes how this “great chain of alphabetical evolution collapses in a welter of characters, glyphs, and symbols, mingling in friendly, familial and even erotic enthusiasms of conversant meaning.” We sense familiarity across this family tree of alphabetical systems, how in an English “A” we see the Greek α, or how Hebrew ח evokes the Greek η. But as the French rabbi Marc-Allain Ouknin explains in The Mysteries of the Alphabet, all of our letters were ultimately adapted by the ancient Canaanites from Egyptian pictures, for before there was an “A” there was the head of an ox, before there was “H” there was an enclosure. Ouknin writes that the “history of meaning is the history of forgetting the image, the history of a suppression of the visible.” In the beginning there was not the word, but rather the image.
During the 17th century, the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner was bedeviled by the question of how image and word negotiated over dominion in the Kingdom of Meaning. Kirchner is an exemplar of the Renaissance; born not quite in time for the Enlightenment, he was fluent in conjecture rather than proof, esoterica rather than science, wonder rather than reason. His was the epistemology not of the laboratory, but of the Wunderkammer. In The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Alphabet in History and Imagination, art historian Johanna Drucker writes that Kirchner’s studies included that of the “structure of the subterranean world of underground rivers, volcanic lava flow and caves, an exhaustive text on all extant devices for producing light,” and most importantly “compendia of information on China, [and] Egypt.”
Kirchner is both the first Egyptologist and first Sinologist, even as his conclusions about both subjects would be proven completely inaccurate in almost all of their details. His 1655 Oedipus Aegyptiacus was both an attempt to decipher the enigmatic symbols on papyri and monuments, as well as a “restoration of the hieroglyphic doctrine,” the secret Hermetic knowledge which the priest associated with the ancients. He concurred with the ancient Neo-Platonist Plotinus, who in his Enneads claimed that the Egyptians did not use letters “which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing … Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.” Kirchner thus “translated” an inscription on a 2-millennia-old obelisk which sat in the Villa Celimontana in Rome, explaining that the hieroglyphs should read as “His minister and faithful attendant, the polymorphous Spirit, shows the abundance and wealth of all necessary things.” Not a single word is accurate.
For Kirchner, what made both hieroglyphics and Chinese writings so evocative was that they got as close to unmediated reality as possible, that they were not mere depiction, but essence. In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco explains that Kirchner’s enthusiasms were mistaken, because his “assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram … was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset,” for contrary to his presupposition, neither Mandarin nor ancient Egyptian operated like some sort of baroque rebus.
Still, Kirchner’s was a contention that “hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world,” as Eco writes. Pictograms were as a window unto the world; fallen letters were simply scratches in the sand. Where Kirchner and others faltered was in letting abstraction obscure the concreteness of the alphabet. If you flip an “A” upside down, do you not see the horns of the ox which that letter originally signified? If you turn a “B” on its side, do you not see the rooms of a house? Or in the curvature of a “C” that of the camel’s hump?
Iconoclasm explains much of our amnesia about the iconic origins of our letters, but it’s also that which gives the alphabet much of its power. Imagery has been the nucleus of human expression since the first Cro-Magnon woman blew red ochre from her engorged cheeks onto the cave wall at Lascaux so as to trace the outline of her hand. But the shift from pictographic writing to alphabetic inaugurated the reign of abstraction whereby the imagistic forebearers of our letters had to be forgotten. Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains that “Behind each of the letters with which we are so familiar lies a history, changes, mutations based on one or more original forms.”
Since Gardiner’s translation of Serabit el-Khadim, there have been a few dozen similar abecedariums found at sites mostly in the Sinai. From those sparse examples, scholars trace the morphology of letters back to their original, when they brewed from that primordial soup of imagery, their original meanings now obscured. From our Latin letters we move back to the indecipherable Etruscan, from those northern Italians we trace to the Greeks, and then the purple-clad Phoenicians, finally arriving at the ancient Semites who crafted the alphabet, finding that the our letters are not a, b, and c, nor alpha, beta, and gamma, or even Aleph, Bet, and Gimmel, but rather their original pictures—an ox, a house, and a camel.
Philologists and classicists have identified all of the images from which the 26 letters derive. In proto-Sinaitic, “D” was originally a door. If you flip an “E” on its side you see the arms outstretched above the head of a man in prayer. “I” was originally a hand; the wavy line of “M” still looks like the wave of water which it originally was. “R” still has at its top the head above a body which it originally signified; “U” still looks like that which an oar was placed upon in a boat. Kirchner thought that hieroglyphics were perfect pictures of the real world, but hidden within our own alphabet absconded from the courts of Egypt are the ghostly after-images of the originals.
The alphabet spread something more than mere convenience—it spread monotheism. Man argues that the “evolution of the belief in a single god was dependent on an ability to record that belief and make it accessible; and that both recording and accessibility were dependent on the invention of the alphabet.” God made the alphabet possible, and it would seem that the alphabet returned the favor. What first had to be forgotten, however, were the meaning of the letters’ original shapes, for in pictograms there lay the risk of idolatry, of conjuring those old gods who birthed them.
At Mt. Sinai, the Lord supposedly used fire to emblazon Moses’ tablets with his commandments, the second of which demands that none shall make any “likeness that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” When writing those letters God very well couldn’t use ones that happened to look like a man, or an ox, or a camel’s hump. Ouaknin conjectures that “iconoclasm required the Jews to purge proto-Sinaitic of images,” for the “birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the receiving of the law.” The rabbi argues that it was “Under the influence of monotheistic expression [that] hieroglyphics began to shed some of its images, resulting in the first attempt of an alphabet.” Accessible abstractions of the alphabets were not a fortuitous coincidence, but rather a demand of the Mosaic covenant, since the newly monotheistic Jews couldn’t worship God if the letters of their writing system evoked falcon-headed Horus, the jackal Anubis, or baboon-faced Thoth with stylus in hand. Man writes that “both new god and new script worked together to forge a new nation and disseminate an idea that would change the world.”
A skeptic may observe that the alphabet hardly caused an immediate rash of conversions to monotheism in Greece, Rome, or the north country, as Zeus, Jupiter, and Tyr still reigned amongst their respective peoples. Yet alphabetic writing’s emergence occurred right before a period which the Austrian philosopher Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age.” Jaspers observed that in the first millennium before the Common Era, there was a surprising synchronicity between radically disparate cultures which nonetheless produced new ways of understanding reality which still had some unifying similarities between each other.
Monotheism in the Levant, Greek philosophy, Persian Zoroastrianism, and the Indian Upanishads can all be traced to the Axial Age. For Jaspers, a paradigm shift in consciousness resulted in abstraction. What all of these different methods, approaches, and faiths shared was enshrinement the universal over the particular, the reality which is unseen over the shadows on the cave wall. In The Origin and Goal of History, Jaspers describes the Axial Age as “an interregnum … a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.”
Jaspers noted the simultaneous emergence of these faiths, but proffered not a full hypothesis as to why. I wonder if the abstractions of the alphabet were not that which incubated the Axial Age? In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud claimed that this “compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see … meant that as a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea—a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.” This triumph of abstraction included not just the prophets Isaiah and Elijah, but the philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus, and the sages Siddhartha and Zarathustra, all of whose words were made eternal in the alphabet.
From the Aegean to the Indus River, the common thread of the Axial Age was alphabetic writing, with the one major exception being China. In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, Leonard Shlain observed that the rise of phonetic letters coincided with the disappearance of idol worship in the Levant, writing that the “abstract alphabet encouraged abstract thinking,” a progeny born from the curve and line of the Word. Yet old gods can always be born again, their voices barely heard, yet still present in sacred phoneme, their faces peaking out in the spaces between our letters.
In the Babylonian desert, excavators frequently find small bowls, ringed with Aramaic and designed to capture demons. Molded by magi, the demon bowls are a trap, a harnessing of the magical efficacy of the alphabet. These talismans combined word and image to tame the malignant lesser gods who still stalked the earth, even after God’s supposed victory.
Appropriate that God’s alphabet is that which is able to constrain in clay the machinations of erotic Lilith and bestial Asmodeus. One such bowl, which depicts the succubus Lilith at its center as an alluring woman with long hair barely obscuring breasts and genitalia, incants that “60 men who will capture you with copper ropes on your feet and copper shackles on your hands and caste collars of copper upon your temples.” Israeli scholar Naama Vilozny is an expert on the images of demons painted on these bowls by otherwise iconoclastic Jews. In Haaretz, Vilozny says that you “draw the figure you want to get rid of and then you bind it in a depiction and bind it in words.” There is control in the alphabet, not just in trapping demons, but in the ability to capture a concept’s essence. Writing’s theurgic power of writing, where curses against hell are as strong as baked clay.
Magic and monotheism need not be strictly separated; a sense of paganism haunts our faith as well as our letters. The psychologist Julian Jaynes, in his The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, posited a controversial hypothesis that human beings were only “conscious” relatively recently, since shortly before the Axial Age. The alphabet perhaps played a role in this development, theoretically eliminating the others gods in favor of the one voice of God, the only voice in your head. But Jaynes explains that the “mind is still haunted by its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities.” Certainly true when a frightened Babylonian places a bowl in the earth to capture those chthonic spirts which threaten us even though their dominion has been abolished.
The alphabet facilitated a new magic. Consider that the fourth commandment, which reads “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” is not an injunction against blasphemy in the modern sense, for surely the omnipotent can abide obscenity, but that in historical context it specifically meant that you shouldn’t use God’s name to perform magic. To know the letters of someone’s name is to have the ability to control them; there’s a reason that the “angel” whom Jacob wrestles with refuses to be named. The four Hebrew letters which constitute the proper name of God—יהוה—are commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, there being no clear sense of what exactly the word would have actually been pronounced as.
These letters have a charged power, no mere ink-stain on sheep-skin, for the correct pronunciation was guarded as an occult secret. Hoffman writes that the letters were “chosen not because of the sounds they represent, but because of their symbolic powers in that they were the Hebrew’s magic vowel letters that no other culture had.” The yod, hay, vov, hay of the Tetragrammaton demonstrated both the victory of monotheism, but also the electric power of the alphabet itself. God encoded into the very name, which in turn was the blueprint for our reality. A dangerous thing, these letters, for just as demons could be controlled with their names painted onto the rough surface of a bowl, so, too, could the most adept of mages compel the Creator to their bidding.
Incantation is sometimes called prayer, other times poetry, and occasionally the alphabet can substitute for both. As acrostic, alphabetic possibilities have long attracted poets. In Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, he writes about “Abecedarians,” that is, verses where each line begins with the respective letter of the alphabet. As all formal poetry does, the form exploits artificial constraint—in this circumstance, so as to mediate upon the alphabet itself. This is an “ancient form often employed for sacred works”; Hirsch explains how all of the “acrostics in the Hebrew Bible are alphabetical, such as Psalm 119, which consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew of the alphabet.” The “completeness of the form,” Hirsch writes, “enacts the idea of total devotion to the law of God.”
St. Augustin, the fourth-century Christian theologian, wrote an abecedarian against the Donatist heretics; nearly a millennium later, Chaucer tried his hand at the form as well. Centuries later, the English journalist Alaric Watt wrote his account of the 1789 Hapsburg Siege of Belgrade in alliterative abecedarian: “An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, / Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade. / Cossack commanders cannonading come, / Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.” There are, to the best of my knowledge, no major examples of abecedarian prose. Perhaps somebody will write something soon? Because as Hirsch notes, the form has “powerful associations with prayer,” the rapturous repetition of the alphabet stripping meaning to its bare essence, emptying both penitence and supplication of ego, in favor of the ecstasies of pure sound.
Such was the wisdom of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, who was inspired by the ecstasies of Pietists to return worship to its emotional core. He sought to strip ritual of empty logic and to re-endow it with that lost sense of the glowing sacred. Sometimes prayer need not even be in words, the sacred letters themselves function well enough. The Baal Shem Tov’s honorific means “Master of the Good Name”; he who has brought within the very sinews of his flesh and the synapses of his mind the pulsating power of the Tetragrammaton. So much can depend on four letters.
The Baal Shem Tov, or “Besht” as he was often called, lived in the Pale of Settlement, the cold, grey Galician countryside. Drucker writes that the Besht exhorted the “practicing Jew to make of daily life a continual practice of devotion,” whereby “each of the letters which pass one’s lips are ascendant and unite with each other, carrying with them the full glory.” The Besht taught that letters were not incidental; the alphabet itself was necessary for “true unification with the Divinity.”
According to Hasidic legend, one Yom Kippur, the Besht led his congregation in their prayers. Towards the back of the synagogue was a simple-minded but pious shepherd boy. The other worshipers, with fingers pressing prayer book open, repeated the words of the Kol Nidre, but the illiterate shepherd could only pretend to mouth along, to follow writing which he could not read. Emotions became rapturous as black-coated men below and women in the balcony above began to sway and shout out the prayers. Finally, overcome with devotion but unable to repeat after the rest of his fellow Jews, the shepherd boy shouted out the only prayer he could: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” through the rest of the 18 Hebrew letters.
There was an awkward silence in the sanctuary. Embarrassed, the young man explained, “God, that is all I can do. You know what your prayers are. Please arrange them into the correct order.”
From the rafters of the shul, decorated with Hebrew letters in blocky black ink, came the very voice of God, leading the entire congregation in the holiest of prayers, repeated from that of the simple shepherd: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” And so, in the court of the Baal Shem Tov, in the early 18th century in a synagogue upon the Galician plain, God deigned to teach women and men how to worship once again, in the holiest prayer that there is. The alphabet, repeated truthfully with faith in your soul, is the purest form of prayer.
Alphabets are under-theorized. Because it’s so omnipresent, there is a way in which it’s easy to forget the spooky power of 26 symbols. Considering how fundamental to basic functioning it is, we frequently overlook the sheer, transcendent magnificence of the letters which structure our world. Disenchantment, however, need not be our lot, for there is a realization that letters don’t convey reality, but rather that they are reality. Ecstatic to comprehend, the way in which stains on dead tree are the conduit through which all meaning traverses, much like the electrons illuminating our screens. Fundamentally, what I’m arguing for is not just that our alphabet is a means of approaching the divine—no, not just that. God is the alphabet, and the alphabet is God. Heaven is traversed through the alpha and the omega. I argue that the alphabet betrays its origins, for word and image are joined together in symbiosis, no matter how occluded.
Just as Kirchner believed hieroglyphics contained reality, so, too, is the alphabet haunted by pictures obscure; as Ouaknin enthuses, it’s in “unearthing the traces of the origin of letters and understanding how they evolved” that provide occult wisdom. Knowing that letters shift back and forth, so that they can return to the images which birthed them, as in the calligraphy which illustrates Attar’s Simurgh, is a demonstration of their fluid nature. Literal though we may misapprehend Egyptian pictograms to be, their abstract progeny in the form of our 26 letters are still haunted by their origins, and we can imbue them with a sense of their birthright now and again.
Moreover, the mysteries of the alphabet subconsciously affect us, so that as Battles claims concerning letters since “whether alphabetic or ideographic, they start out as pictures of things,” the better to explain “why writing works for us, and why it has conserved these signs so well over these three millennia.” Nevertheless, the haunting of previous incarnations of letters’ past shapes can’t alone explain their strange power. Only something divine can fully explicate how some marks on Hathor’s hide charts a direct line to the letters you’re reading right now. Perhaps “divine” is a loaded term, what with all of those unfortunate religious connotations; “transcendent” would be just as apt. Questions can certainly be raised about my contentions; I do not wish to be read as airy, but with every letter of my sentences I can’t help but believe that the kabbalists and Gnostics were right—the alphabet constitutes our being.
Reality, I believe, can be completely constituted from all 26 letters (give or take). Sift through all of them, and realize that the answer to any question lay between Aleph and Tav, not just as metaphor, but those answers are simply uncovered by finding the proper organization of those letters. The answer to any inquiry, the solution to any problem, the very wisdom that frees, can be discovered simply by finding the correct arrangement of those letters. Underneath the surface of these shapes are indications of their birth, but also that fuller reality just beyond our gaze. Vexation need not follow such an observation, but rather embrace the endless transition between image and word which is the alphabet. We need not pick between letter or picture, there is room enough for both. Xenoglossic is what we should be: fluent in language unknown to our tongues, but rather spoken in our souls. You need only repeat the alphabet as if you’re an illiterate shepherd in the assembly of the Baal Shem Tov. Zealots of the alphabet, with those very letters carved by fire into our hearts.
Image: Temple of Hathor remains in Serabit el-Khadim by Einsamer Schütze
Poets know form equals function. Even better, poets know form enables function — which might explain why poets appear more deliberately invested in form than fiction writers. Form is essential to poetry because it requires the union of strangeness and conformity. By nature, poems are acts of selection and deletion. The poet makes her own margins. In fiction, white space is often arbitrary: a clearing of the space amidst dialogue, the breaths between paragraphs. Poems are sculpted art, and it helps to begin them with a sense of form.
Edward Hirsch’s The Essential Poet’s Glossary — what he calls a “shorter and more focused” version of his encyclopedic A Poet’s Glossary — contains a wide variety of entries. He covers poetic movements and styles, from “abstract poetry” to “zaum,” a “kind of sound poetry, a disruptive poetic language focused on the materiality of words.” A gifted poet himself, Hirsch has long been known as a clear and specific critic. Each entry of this pared volume feels like a tight, concrete prose poem. Lovers of verse are blessed with specific examples and quotable lines. Hirsch’s book sends poets to other books, other poems, and even better — inspires poets to create new work.
My favorite part of Hirsch’s book is his compendium of poetic forms. Many are idiosyncratic and obscure — adjectives that have never stopped poets before. Each poetic form is an opportunity. A new house for words. In alphabetical order, here are 10 of the most intriguing forms included in Hirsch’s volume. Why not try them yourself?
Petrarch established this form of lyric love poem with stanzas of five or six lines, ending with an envoi — a half-stanza. Hirsch identifies Dante Alighieri as an admirer of the canzone, and the great poet created his own “maddeningly difficult” permutation of the form, which “uses the same five end-words in each of the five 12-line stanzas, intricately varying the pattern.”
See also the recursive wit of Marilyn Hacker’s “Canzone:” “sinewy and singular, the tongue / accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ / can.”
Pindar began the tradition of writing commissioned victory odes for 5th -century B.C.E. athletes. These poems “called for an ecstatic performance that communally reenacted the ritual participation in the divine.” A race or a wrestling match became the occasion for eternal significance. Gods and heroes were intoned. Steph Curry and Serena Williams deserve contemporary epinicia, but so might weekend warriors on the pick-up court hustling to recreate glory days. It would not be the first time that poetry has elevated the mediocre.
A gorgeous form, originated in 7th-century Arabia and practiced until the present. Hirsch finds meaning in both definitions of the word: “sweet talk” and “the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it must die.” Ahmed Ali notes an “atmosphere of sadness and grief pervades the ghazal.” Agha Shahid Ali calls them “ravishing disunities.” The form has several versions, but in one, there are “five or more autonomous couplets. Each two-line unit is independent, disjunctive.” See Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal:” “As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak, / inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.”
A French form with “any number of four-line stanzas, usually rhymed. The last line of the first stanza repeats, sometimes with meaningful variations, as the final line of each quatrain.” Hirsch suggests Thomas Campion’s 1613 poem “With broken heart and contrite sigh” as a text that “fits the letter and law” of the form. Campion repeats “God, be merciful to me” before concluding “God has been merciful to me.” Another useful example: Theodore Roethke’s children’s poem “Dinky:” “O what’s the weather in a Beard? / It’s windy there, and rather weird, / And when you think the sky has cleared / — Why, there is Dirty Dinky.”
Andalusian Arabic strophic poem that “regularly alternates sections with separate rhymes and others with common rhymes.” Think aa bbaa ccaa and so on. Began in 9th-century Spain and delivered in classical Arabic — although its final couplet often arrived in more vernacular Spanish. Later, Jewish Andalusian poets adopted the form, which became known as “girdle poems.” Peter Cole describes such a poem as one “in which the rhyming chorus winds about the various strophes of the poem as a gem-studded sash cuts across the body.”
So much in poetry is lost in translation, including the strict original rhyme of Charles Baudelaire’s pantoum “Evening Harmony:” “Now comes the time when swaying on its stem / each flower offers incense to the night; / phrases and fragrances circle in the dark– / languorous waltz that casts a lingering spell!” The spirit remains. Each line of a pantoum includes between eight and 12 syllables. Hirsch likens the pantoum’s disjunctive nature to the ghazal: “the sentence that makes up the first pair of lines has no immediate logical or narrative connection with the second pair of lines.” At first, the connection is made by rhyme, sound repetition, or even pun, but “there is also an oblique but necessary relationship, and the first statement turns out to be a metaphor for the second one.” The pantoum “is always looking back over its shoulder, and thus is well suited to evoke a sense of times past.”
A Japanese form, meaning “linked poem.” First created “around a thousand years ago” as a “party game,” each stanza of a renga links to the preceding section. Poets bounced tanka-like sections off each other, honing “their skills at creating images and linking dissimilar elements.” In the traditional Japanese method, the composition begins with an honored guest writing the opening, followed by an accompaniment by the party’s host. Certain renga shifted from playful to serious, but those light-hearted poetic games still remain.
In the 12th century, Provençal poets debated in verse battles. Each tenson “could take any metrical form, through the respondent was often challenged to reply in the same meter and rhyme scene used by the challenger.” If no literal combatant existed, poets sometimes created imaginary enemies. Yet contemporary poets likely would have no problem finding literary adversaries, and they could follow the model of Dante Alighieri and “his one-time friend Forese Donati,” who exchanged “six rancorous and insulting sonnets.”
Eight-lined poem, with two rhymes and two refrains. The subject is introduced in the first two lines. The fourth line is repeated later; between those repetitions include lines that expand the original subject. The final lines “knit the conclusion.” Repeated lines evolve in meaning and connotation. Hirsch describes the form as “intricate, playful, and melodious,” — but notes the first English triolets were prayers by 17th-century Benedictine monk Patrick Carey. According to Edmund Gosse, “nothing can be more ingeniously mischievous, more playfully sly, than this tiny trill of epigrammatic melody, turning so simply on its own innocent axis.” Innocent, yes, but also sharp, as in the pen of Sandra McPherson: “She was in love with the same danger / everybody is. Dangerous / as it is to love a stranger, / she was in love.”
Hirsch includes common and tried forms like sonnets, and although I’ve leaned toward the more unique forms, I can’t ignore the beautiful appeal of the villanelle, a true test of poetic endurance and dexterity (one that tempted and strained Stephen Dedalus). A French form by way of Italian pastoral folk songs, the villanelle contains “nineteen lines divided into six stanza — five tercets and one quatrain.” The rhyme and repetition is as follows:
Elizabeth Bishop and other poets have realized the “compulsive returns” of the villanelle form speak to loss: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Others, like Aimee Nezhukumatathil, have spun the form into fresh designs, as in “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye:” “You elbow me with your corduroy jacket / when a box chock-full of antique marbles comes up. / I can’t hear your whispers above the auctioneer’s racket. / / The clipped speech of the auctioneer cracked / me up when you impersonated him in bed.” The best poets spring headlong into forms, and, faced with forced constraints and concision, make all things new.