Number and Verse

Number and Verse

A Poem by Robert Ronnow

The question should not be in what ways writing and utterance trope each other, but how both are involved with number. Without relating the technology of writing to number (as opposed to sound or drawing), it is impossible to discuss it meaningfully as an aspect of versecraft.

          Courage to write and courage to not write. Read
          The great poets and highly accomplished letters
          Of leaders. Yet the war and the book have lives
          Of their own. Vacuum house, analyze mankind.
          His idea of himself. Ideas subsumed
          By better ones unite people into one people.
          I watch from my little bowl of nuts. Watch
          The one red squirrel and the many gray.
          Watch the nuthatch pair, platoon of chickadees.
          Here is what I say: When we can go
          From planet to planet on nothing but air,
          Leaving behind a drop of water,
          No burger bags blowin’ in the sun,
          I’ll love my children, my dogs and be happy.

What is needed is a way to pry apart the polar, mimetic fiction that undergirds discussions (even sympathetic ones) of writing and versification, and see how we can relate writing to measure. Roy Harris’ investigations into the origin of writing make this connection possible.

          Electronic millennium. A long silence
          Wouldn’t hurt. Not that the national debate
          Should cease, it should proceed, passionate
          And furious. Those who have studied the matter
          And have something to say should write cogent
          Opinion pieces on the totalitarian
          Tendencies of minaret Islamists,
          The terminal contradiction of advancing
          Democracy with the unitary military.
          George Washington would not have approved
          And even Lincoln vacillated between
          The practicalities of preserving union
          And the ideal of freeing slaves. The president
          Carries his burden of matter, the physics
          Of existence cannot change our aloneness
          Or the butterfly’s importance, the very
          Last insects at the screens of August.
          It is life we face and death we meet.

He argues that the origin of writing did not lie in the drawing of figures, or attempts to imitate speech, but in the recording of number. According to Harris, the oldest ‘writing’ that we have, like that on the 11, 000-year-old Ishango bone, is in ‘lines.’ The surface is scored with rows of short, parallel strokes, which probably served a numerical function. We still use such scoring systems today on occasion.

          OK, different strokes. But reading North’s poems
          And his predecessors’ in which noun and verb
          Are so far separated by modifiers,
          Post-positioned prepositions, diversions
          Into ditches, gardens, heavens, I don’t know
          What to do laugh or put the book down and eat
          Several cookies. In other words, anything goes,
          There truth resides. 1/3 life in suburbs,
          1/3 on the subway, and the last third
          On the mountain. A fourth hallucinating
          In heaven. That’s how it goes. You get what you believe.
          Bones in mud. It’s always possible I suppose
          That for nine months analogous or symmetrical
          With gestation our souls wander call it limbo,
          Doing the limbo and harassing the living
          With unanswerable questions, finally accepting
          Free molecular rent in a cubic meter
          Of interstellar space, a rose hip.
         
Harris speculates about counting by scoring:
What is relevant for our present purposes is the fact that counting is associated in many cultures with primitive forms of recording which have a graphically isomorphic basis... The iconic origin of such recording systems is hardly open to doubt: the notch or stroke corresponds to the human finger...

          Partridgeberry, mugwort, mats of raspberry,
          Cranberry, bearberry, autumn eleagnus,
          Autumn Nocturne, Autumn Leaves, the changes
          To the tunes and the scientific names.
          When it doesn’t matter what you do
          You’re probably doing something new.
          That’s a woodpecker. That’s a moth. I’m bounded
          By my surroundings, I feel at home.
          Could be Schenectady. Could be Troy.
          One of many small cities in which to while
          Away my anonymity. Be specific.
          Not asphalt but impermeable surface.
          Not trees but mature stems. Quercus rubrus--
          Quality veneer. Into such a garden
          Have a victor and a fool penetrated.

In short, the rows of strokes are graphically isomorphic with just that subpart of the recorder’s oral language which comprises the corresponding words used for counting. It makes no difference whether we ‘read’ the sign pictorially as standing for so many fingers held up, or scriptorially as standing for a certain numeral.

          In a crowded world every action results
          In an equal and overwrought reaction.
          Yet, all the energy recycles
          And there is not one thermal unit more or less
          When all is said and won. Even when the tribes
          Were isolated behind mountain ranges
          And rushing rivers, they sought each other out
          For trading and for taking. Humanity
          Is lonely. Humor is the only remedy
          And going to your daily discipline
          The only way past Monday. Join the torrential
          Flow of words, emotion, wit and erudition.
          It is embarrassing to see a good writer
          Work himself into a lather, having
          Something to say. A system of beliefs
          To illustrate, characters dressed accordingly.
          Gardens and wilderness in which to wander.
          A cave with a view. The plumbing problem never
          Resolves. Fax your results. We’ll be working late.

Along with other evidence, this leads him to argue that the invention of writing--or the division of writing and drawing into separate functions--occurred when the graphic representation of number shifted from the token-iterative system that appears on the Ishango bone, to type-slotting.

          Electricity is occult enough for me.
          Excessive classifying could be fascist!
          Yet how else can one organize people
          Into contexts. By their associations.
          Family, work, habits, each assigned
          A day of the week, moon of the month.
          Poets rhyme, jazz musicians count time.
          There is more than one way to make war. By
          Declaration, by punishing offenses
          Against the law of nations, by granting letters
          Of mark and reprisal, by making rules
          Concerning captures on land and water, by
          Suppressing insurrections and repelling invasions,
          Erecting forts, magazines, arsenals,
          Dock yards and other needful buildings. Today
          I face the blank page between the finished pages.

Harris gives the following example of what he means:
The progression from recording sixty sheep by means of one ‘sheep’ sign followed by sixty strokes to recording the same information by means of one ‘sheep’ sign followed by a second sign indicating ‘sixty’ is a progression which has already crossed the boundary between pictorial and scriptorial signs.

          When my grandmother considered it favorable
          That I would be a writer, she had in mind
          Clear commentary from which many people
          Could derive meaning. No such luck. My writings
          Are like the flicking tail of that flycatcher,
          And I am the flycatcher, weighing but an ounce.
          My grandfather’s rough-hewn peasant chairs
          Are well known by my sons though they never knew him
          And the chairs were not hewn, just owned by him.
          One is in a corner of the room and two
          Are scrimmaged around a computer screen.
          Computers post-date him and cars post-date
          His father and so on. If the grid collapses,
          The crops fail and the roads close, some will be forced
          Across boundaries among boulders, naming snakes
          And stars according to memory.
          They will be hungry, mortal and strong.

A token-iterative sign-system is in effect equivalent to a verbal sublanguage which is restricted to messages of the form ‘sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep...’, or ‘sheep, another, another, another...’, whereas an emblem-slotting system is equivalent to a sublanguage which can handle messages of the form ‘sheep, sixty’.Token-iterative lists are, in principle, lists as long as the number of individual items recorded. With a slot list, on the other hand, we get no information simply by counting the number of marks it contains.
When this change occurred it opened ‘a gap between the pictorial and scriptorial function of the emblematic sign’, which had been previously inseparable in the counting represented by rows of slashes.

          No book I know tells if blue cohosh
          Caulophyllum thalictroides--a barberry--
          Is edible. Other barberries are
          But that blue berry looks risky to me.
          And May-apple--Podophyllum--other
          Than the fruit itself which is definitely
          Sweet. So I read, not sure of myself.
          There is a patience with which to wait out anger,
          And a patience with which to endure ignorance.
          The job is everything. It is freedom
          And purpose and religion. It is acceptance
          And shelter and sustenance. Last night
          We were watching Tweet’s show: groveling before
          The rich pharisee’s judgements. I said no
          Amount of money could make me grovel
          Before that guy. His toupe’s gayer than his lisp.
          But who am I? You think bullets won’t kill?
          I’m the guy they put before a wall and shoot
          Then eat lunch. But that feeling passed quickly.

This semiological gap, made writing possible because it meant that signs could be manipulated to ‘slot’, or identify, anything whatsoever. The open-ended quality of the scriptorial sign was a necessary precondition for the development of writing systems.

          Lately I’ve been copying wholesale
          From the great poems, lines and ideas not my own
          Or owned by all? It’s ok, I can be ignored
          Or appreciated in a future city,
          By a future shore. The honest man can
          Only recognize what he loves and point to it.
          That Borges poem called In Praise of Darkness.
          Emerson and snow. A meditation
          That bumps serenely, with acceptance,
          Between things and thoughts. It is said one should
          Know for whom, to whom one is writing.
          These are letters to those who love letter writing.

As Harris points out, no writing system is accurately phonetic. Even the alphabet only highlights certain phenomena in the speech stream. The reason for this is that alphabetic writing did not begin as a simpler or more accurate way to record speech than other writing systems, but as an easier way to write.

          A possible cancer had taken me
          To the edge of my endurance. Pokeweed,
          Poisonous, became attractive. Red stems
          And juicy black berries. I had packed warm clothes
          And pain killers. Why the warm clothes if this
          Was to be my last walk? To die in comfort
          Without a fly’s buzz. Overlooking a ravine,
          Sea of mountains, dawn. But it proved a false alarm.
          Now Sunday will be a holy day of plant
          Identification. Nothing better
          Than lying in leaf litter, skin drying
          To a taut drum. Ravens stay away!
          Until cougar’s had his fill! Instead
          I showed the boys pokeweed growing among blackberries
          And taught them the differences and uses.

Through a radical reduction in the number of signs, the alphabet simplified the scriptorial system in and of itself. The evolution of writing therefore may look like this: simple forms of counting preceded the complications of pictorial representation, which in turn led to simplification of the writing system in cultures that adopted the alphabet.

          I was running uphill, parallel to
          The Taconics extending northward into
          Vermont (I find Vermonters in their jalopies
          Annoying but admire them for planning
          To arrest the president for war crimes) when
          I happened upon a flock of cedar waxwings--
          Said to be a gentle and politic bird--
          Sharing--very orderly--dried frozen grapes
          On the vine. (Rose hips, buckthorn, ash, pokeweed.)
          I tried one, too, the two seeds in my mouth
          Keeping me company down the mountain.
          I see no downside whatsoever
          To compensating for global warming,
          Constructing the green energy economy.
          New inventions may facilitate
          Our transportation to other planets.
          Yesterday a young man, Barack Obama,
          Won Iowa. I’m hopeful he will
          Articulate an international vision,
          A world order in which each neighborhood’s
          Good as another. I have no particular
          Love for writers; they’re a dime a dozen.
          But so are chickadees and I love them!

Discussing the power of inscriptions of number, Harris points out:

Counting is in its very essence magical, if any human practice at all is. For numbers are things no one has ever seen or heard or touched. Yet somehow they exist, and their existence can be confirmed in quite everyday terms by all kinds of humdrum procedures which allow mere mortals to agree beyond any shadow of a doubt as to ‘how many’ eggs there are in a basket or ‘how many’ loaves of bread on the table.

          True, nature would be a stern, unforgiving
          Mistress too, and man is but her right hand
          Acting on her command. How cold! How hot!
          The individual doing what he loves or not.
          Trees and cities. Herons, hawks. What we fail
          To govern in ourselves, nature will.
          We caught the killer and his gorillas,
          Now let’s go home, let the “innocent” choose
          Up sides. A good thing was done but the tyrant
          Should’ve been undone through global governance.
          Writing is divination using rhymes
          And estimations. Words like mammals
          Come near your sleeping head. Last night I emerged
          From the hum of our refrigerator
          Under a hazy, phaseless moon. The peepers
          Were an exact expression of my happiness.

Or, one might add, for how many stanzas there are in a poem, or lines in a stanza, or stresses, feet, or syllables in a line, or occurrences of particular syntactical or grammatical patterns, and so on. As every serious student of versification has always understood, versification is about counting language.

          5:30-6 write poetry,
          6-7 s**t, shave and shower, stretch
          Then get dressed, 7-7:30
          Clean house, 7:30-8 drive to work
          8-6 work (except Monday and Friday
          Work 8-4, basketball 4-6)
          6-7 drive home, shop, help make dinner
          7-8 eat dinner, read paper,
          Watch McNeil-Lehrer News Hour,
          8-9 play trumpet, study plants, type poems
          9-10 watch TV Mon: Murphy, Cybil,
          Tues: Frazier, Grace, Wed: Roseanne, Ellen,
          Thurs: Seinfeld, Friends, Fri: go out to dinner,
          10-11 read, except Tues watch
          NYPD Blue, Fri: Friday Night Lights,
          11 sleep. I could send this to the networks,
          Get a gizmo in my box. I hope my
          Schedule won't be interrupted for war.
          My dentist asked had I seen this morning’s
          Press conference, didn’t it just scare the s**t
          Out of you. I said your bill is what scares
          The s**t out of me. But here I am, writing
          And the sphere’s still turning. Or should I say
          Burning. As long as you write one poem per day
          You’ve left a little litter in the world.

The reason to write verse is less to score the voice than to imbue words with the magical quality of counting. That is why meter, or measure, is at the heart of debates over all verse forms, including free verse.

          Vigorous wind, voracious ocean,
          Many merciless hard frosts, hurricanes.
          The bed of a human, its smell and warmth
          36 teeth, 46 chromosomes, 2 feet, a loose dime,
          61 summers, some soot, some sand,
          Thunderstorms. I wake up to a lightning strike
          And my dream incinerates. When they say
          Life is but a dream, that’s what they mean.
          The writer working hard, telling the story
          Of what happened yesterday or yesteryear,
          A man’s born to a country not his choosing,
          Let labor flow like capital, of mere being!
          Pomegranate juice, broccoli, arugula,
          Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower,
          Collard greens, kale, radishes, turnips,
          Garlic, leeks, scallions, onions, 2 lbs
          Swordfish, tomatoes (8 medium),
          3 cups almonds, carrots, a sweet potato,
          Winter squash, cantaloupe, mangoes, watermelon.
          2 daily writing exercises,
          50 words on any subject: complaint, headache.
          The imagination applies a
          Countervailing pressure to reality.
          Writing badly is the best revenge.

Number is one of the creative grounds of poetry, and the idea that writing grew out of counting is the missing link in studies of the graphic in versification. It is almost uncanny that lines of verse look exactly like the most primitive ways of counting--parallel scorings that can be numbered.

          What you do to one side of the equation
          You gotta do to the other. Isolate
          The variable. Combine like terms. Metaphors
          And analogs are reduced to least common
          Denominators. Multiply through (parentheses).
          Write a new equation after each operation.
          Inscribe neatly. Check your work. Imagine
          That if you’re wrong, the astronauts burn.
          Change the signs which will avoid going
          The wrong way down the number line. Zero
          Is the middle of your universe.
          There it is, calm, comfortable as an egg
          On a spoon. That is, before possibilities
          Become probabilities. This is just
          Another equation manipulated
          With opposable digits. For at the ends
          Of your guns is the earliest calculator
          A magical machine which converts
          Numbers to words and words to numbers,
          Measures the mists, frequency and wavelength,
          Of the material penumbra.

Verses are countable in exactly the way that token-iterative digits are countable, from either end of the sequence. Each one indicates only its singularity, not a number. Every poem in lines effaces, or predates, the distinction between writing and drawing in the same way as the lines on the Ishango bone.

© 2020 Robert Ronnow


Author's Note

Robert Ronnow
--Rothman, David, "Verse, Prose, Speech, Counting, and the Problem of Graphic Order," Versification, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 21, 1997
--Harris, Roy, The Origin of Writing, Open Court Publishing Co., 1986.

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Added on January 5, 2020
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Robert Ronnow
Robert Ronnow

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