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Reading Typography
– Jan. 27, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 1, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.


"Gymnopédia No. 3" by Adrian Matejka — Poetry Daily, 1/20/14


from Poetry (Jan. 2014)
poem found here

First lines:
The sunlight on snow

This decrescendo


reading typography


Saw this poem when it was posted and wanted to drop but a very quick comment on a typographical moment within the poem, within the fourth stanza:

the way it always will
at the rock ⅔ of the way down.

I am talking about the use of "⅔."

All I want to do here is make a comparison and ask a question.

First the comparison, between the two stanzas in poem as posted

the way it always will
at the rock ⅔ of the way down.

Stop & shiver in it: the ring
            of snow inside gloves,
            the cusp of red forehead

and with the words written out

the way it always will
at the rock two-thirds of the way down.

Stop and shiver in it: the ring
            of snow inside gloves,
            the cusp of red forehead

What is the difference between the two when I read the lines?

First, "⅔" is not a word, it is a symbol; it reads like a symbol. So when I come to "⅔" in the poem I stop reading words in order to see and read a symbol. So it creates a bump in the reading of the poem.

When a person is reading they are not reading solely by and for sound. They see the words on the page, they break up the words into their parts. When a sophisticated reader reads "two-thirds," they not only see the meaning of the word but they also see that it is two syllables, and they see the word two and they see the word thirds – and a reader who has developed their ear is reading also for syllables and for visual cues, especially then pretty much the entire poem elsewise is constituted of written-out words. Now, an undeveloped ear, a less-sophisticated reader may not hear the difference. But the same is true in music: an undeveloped ear usually cannot hear when a player is schlocking their way through a piece. (I know this by repeated observation.) An undeveloped ear does not hear bad fingering on a violin, or sloppy runs on a piano. But that does not justify the events: because generally we do not judge things by the decisions of a person who cannot hear the difference between well-performed and not-well-performed.

Second, because I stop to read it as a symbol, I am cued to (1) look for a reason in the immediate context for it to be a symbol rather than a word, and (2) look for a reason within the poem as a whole for there to be a symbol and not a word.

When no real reason for the symbol appears either in the moment or within the poem, then my reading has been tricked by the poem visually pointing me to someplace the poem is not at all going. As such, the symbol reads either as a sloppy mistake or as a gimmick rather than something to a purpose, and a gimmick that accomplished nothing other than create a bump in the reading of the poem.

Third, in writing the number as a symbol, especially in that it is a fraction, I am shifting my context from that the description of a snow scene into one of either mathematics or science, two fields where the use of fractions is expected and has a purpose (that if signalling measured exactness). Indeed, "at the rock ⅔ of the way down" in every way looks like part of a question on an algebra exam. As such, I am bringing into the poem contexts are not at all intended in the poem.

(Do you also notice how "Stop & shiver" looks a like a title with the ampersand, and a phrase without?)

Fourth, on the simple level of the visual, it looks amateur-hour; it looks daft. It is something that would be marked incorrect in every compisition course at any point in a person's academic career. Why would be acceptable here without some justification for it?

And let me be clear, the phrase (or any like the phrase) "E.E. Cummings opened the door for the use of typography in poems" being used as justification for the appearance of the fraction in the poem speaks only the ignorance of the person uttering the phrase. Cummings opened the door for the exploration of typography as part of the creative aspect of language on paper. He did not open the door for willy-nilly insertions of typography.

And that pretty much is what "⅔" reads like to me: willy-nilly, amateurish, "ooh, look at me I'm cutting edge!" (but really have no developed idea what I am doing) pop-poetry.

(Same with the ampersands, though far more so with the fractions.)


By happenstance, a facebook friend posted recently an article on the Vanity Fair site that is short biographical bit on Cummings (here). The article is introduced with this sentence:

Now remembered largely for his funky punctuation, E. E. Cummings was for decades one of America’s most celebrated, controversial, and popular poets—the dashing, impecunious prince of Greenwich Village.

And how exactly does on of the few brilliant writers of U.S. literature get reduced to "now remembered largely for his funky punctuation"? Here's my charting of the event:

  1. Cummings writes increasingly in an exploration of the flatness of a poem on the page ("flatness" in the same sense it was explored by painters).
  2. The culture of pop-poetry latches onto to the typography without really understanding (or bothering to understand) the purposes and ideational depth behind those explorations.
  3. Typographical games begins to appear in pop-poetry in mimickry of Cummings (as though mimickry magically carries the brilliance of Cummings into their poetry, when really all they are doing is aping something they do not at all understand).
  4. The mimicry gets established within the culture of pop-poetry as acceptable conventions and as tags for a certain kind of "avant garde" and quickly degenerates into pointless conventionality.
  5. As such the rest of Cummings's corpus – including possibly the most brilliant collection of sonnets in English – falls to the wayside, rarely even appearing in Literature text books.

I think that's pretty much it. And believe me, sophisticated readers can see the difference between someone who is exploring ideas through typography and someone who is merely being cheaply gimmicky, just as they can hear the difference between a jazz musician who is truly improvisational, and one who has merely memorized a pocket-full of riffs and brings them out one by one over and again in every song and set in their mimicking of other jazz musicians.