Howard Nemerov's "Writing"

Updated on April 17, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Howard Nemerov

Source

Introduction and Text of "Writing"

In the firsts movement of Howard Nemerov's "Writing," the speaker likens writing to various other activities that have nothing to do with writing, such as figure skating, wherein the skaters seem to be etching a scrawl across the ice.

The second movement offers a philosophical summation of the first versagraph. The speaker offers his deep appreciation for the act of writing, finding examples in nature that he can call "writing" which clearly is nothing of the kind, as in the first movement, where the speaker's affection for writing as art has led him to equate those unrelated acts, the act of ice skaters, for example, to hand-writing, as he claims that the scrapes on ice remind him of the scribbles on a page.

Writing

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice. Being intelligible,
these winding ways with their audacities
and delicate hesitations, they become
miraculous, so intimately, out there
at the pen’s point or brush’s tip, do world
and spirit wed. The small bones of the wrist
balance against great skeletons of stars
exactly; the blind bat surveys his way
by echo alone. Still, the point of style
is character. The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger’s to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the ‘Slender Gold.’ A nervous man
writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on.

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. Having said so much,
let us allow there is more to the world
than writing: continental faults are not
bare convoluted fissures in the brain.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

Interpretive Reading of Nemerov's "Writing"

Commentary

The poem, "Writing," is celebrating the speaker's joy and fascination with the artifacts of chirography, concluding with a philosophical aside.

First Movement: The Art of Delight

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice. Being intelligible,
these winding ways with their audacities
and delicate hesitations, they become
miraculous, so intimately, out there
at the pen’s point or brush’s tip, do world
and spirit wed. The small bones of the wrist
balance against great skeletons of stars
exactly; the blind bat surveys his way
by echo alone. Still, the point of style
is character. The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger’s to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the ‘Slender Gold.’ A nervous man
writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on.

The speaker describes the visual appeal of chirography or penmanship. He admires the "cursive crawl, the squared-off characters," which "delight" him, even if he does not know the meaning of the lines. For example, the speaker can appreciate the appearance of Chinese lettering even without knowing what the marks mean. He can also enjoy the "scoring" made by skaters on a pond who leave "their white / records in ice."

When the observer is able to understand the scrawling, the shapes and figures become "miraculous." The products of the "pen's point" and "brush's tip" bind the world and spirit together through their "audacities / and delicate hesitations." Acknowledging that the human hand with its "small bones of the wrist" is responsible for the chirographic beauty, the speaker equates that wrist with "great skeletons of stars," claiming that they balance "exactly." He asserts, "the point of style / is character."

The speaker contends that each hand that writes writes differently because "the universe induces / a different tremor in every hand." The speaker offers as examples the widely contrasting "check-forger" and the Chinese "Emperor / Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy / the 'Slender Gold.'" The speaker concludes that nerves are ultimately responsible for the great chirographic variations: "A nervous man / writes nervously of a nervous world, and so on." The world as well as humankind is a-jitter with this nervous energy that leads to art.

Second Movement: The Miracle of Writing

Miraculous. It is as though the world
were a great writing. Having said so much,
let us allow there is more to the world
than writing: continental faults are not
bare convoluted fissures in the brain.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

The speaker concludes that it is all "Miraculous." He claims that it seems that the world itself is "a great writing." Such a statement, of course, offers only the view of one individual; thus, the speaker permits himself to backtrack somewhat: "let us allow there is more to the world / than writing." The speaker observes that he cannot equate the "continental faults" with the "convoluted fissure in the brain." Those two phenomena exist quite individually, one from the other. The world of miracles undoubtedly contains uniquely crafted patterns.

The skaters who leave their scratches across the face of the pond can remain out skating only so long and then must "soon go home." And the scoring their blades leave behind will disappear after the ice melts, "remember[ing] nothing, neither wind nor wake." No matter how beautiful the writing or the source of it, time and nature will erase its presence sooner or later.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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