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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Poem: What survives

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Photo 'lead type' from jm3 at flickr
via Creative Commons license


Our children, and subsequent children, will know little about the printing press, movable type, and typesetting, except from history books and very cool art departments where book printing continues as an art form. My Uncle Jimmie had his own printing press and these tiny letters and symbols of different fonts. He had a nice little private printing business and printed our wedding invitations thirty-three years ago. I got to thinking about the loss of this painstaking "black art" sometime late afternoon yesterday, when I looked out the deck window and noticed that all the birds were gone. There had been hundreds of them on top of the bird seed on the ground all day. It got me thinking about . . .

What survives


Not a one is left
on the basin of ground
under the spruce tree
where sunflower seeds cover
snow

like black letters
on a white page

And evening draws down
its fade --

sky, rooftops and ground
the same shade of white-gray

The bamboo leaves
are still

and graceful,
like vintage wallpaper

A hundred birds
scavenged
all the day,

tirelessly
picking up and
rearranging black seeds

like typesetters preparing
the evening paper

for hours,
in a rush,

furiously, against
a cold night

as if their livelihood depended on it
as if a deadline approached

And where are they now
gone from this silent basin

Perched on the bars
of pine trees

inside a thick atmosphere
of huddling?

Their black claw feet
tapping each other,

knocking snow
from the boughs

their gullets
transforming seeds

into words
inside them

like
y e s t e r d a y

and
t o m o r r o w

and
n o w






Listen to a podcast of this poem here.

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68 comments:

Char said...

beautiful poem (and photo credit too)

words have survived...long long after we have. i worry about my words and try to be careful with them, without changing too much of who i am.

i wonder in 2,000 years if some unearthed my dead sea scrolls what they would make of our little century.

Bonnie said...

This poem transports one with its possibilities. Lovely.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

What a wonderful metaphor, Ruth, typesetters and their inky block letters and seeds in the snow. The nostalgia in the question What Survives almost hurts, seeming to beg the painful answer: nothing. Yet there is something so resiliently hopeful and redeeming in the ending, in that transformation of the seed by the birds, by you and us really, into words... contemplating yesterday with a bit of sentimental mourning, pondering tomorrow with some fear, but at the last fixing our attention on "now", on living the present moment and doing so artfully.

What survives? Art survives. I believe that as much as I believe in anything. And this poem and post have much art in them.

I almost feel guilty that I bought a kindle a month ago!

It's great to see your Uncle Jimmie again, by the way. I remember first 'meeting' him shortly after starting to read your blog in a poem you wrote about flying off to his funeral. I especially remember the end of that poem which struck me at the time as a line that would always accompany me whenever I was on a plane the instant of takeoff (and it has!). I recommend it to your readers, who can find it using the Uncle Jimmie label on this post.

deb said...

oh,
love this.

My old typewriter was my best friend.

Woman in a Window said...

i am so pleased by this.

while upstairs this morning, sorting through things, this came to me and i ran downstairs to jot it down,

remember typewriters?
when strikes mattered?
remember when we couldn't afford to throw out words,
not even letters?


oh, how i love how you've drawn out the metaphor with birds, and how i fear even they might disappear.

robert ran a printing press in Toronto for 20+ years. i just picked up the letters e, r, and h, to dust them.

xo
erin

Maureen said...

When I was in high school decades ago I learned to set type to be able to do our school's newspaper. It was incredible! I love the old bits of type that I see occasionally in artists' studios and in fine craft shows.
One luxury I allowance myself is my subscription to Arion Press, which creates the most beautiful hand-made books.

Your poem is beautifully written. I just read one by Mark Nepo at Three Intentions that also involves a bird.

Shari Sunday said...

Lovely poem and I loved the picture. It is hard to know what will survive. I wonder how long our blogs will last. I hope my grandchildren can somehow read mine someday. I was a typesetter. I started out on the "dump" replacing lead type lines that had errors. The operator made the replacement lines on an old linotype machine. Then the paper got a computer and went with "cold type." I was there for the beginning and now those skills are out of date. Whatever survives, it seems clear that job skills will continue to change with technology. Hopefully the words and the thoughts will survive. As usual, you made me think today.

George said...

This is a lovely poem, Ruth, made all the lovelier by the personal connection with your Uncle Jimmie. Like Lorenzo, however, I find myself fixated on the title of the poem, "What Survives." As I read the poem, the birds tell us that the only things that survive are memory (yesterday), hope (tomorrow), and the present moment (now).

Barb said...

It's fascinating how we make connections in our minds between what at first would seem two disparate happenings - the birds and the typesetters. Your poem has so many wonderful images, Ruth. I especially love "And evening draws down its fade --"

neighbor said...

What are the odds, do you think, that so many of your blog readers have set type? Add me to the list. I love printing with a letterpress, handsetting the type, eyeballing the layout and seeing the proofs for final tweaking...

Though I haven't put up the actual scanned copy of the press-printed broadside, come see this, and this.
(which is a copy of the print).

Nice, nice work, your catching of what survives.

Babs-beetle said...

I attended the London College of Printing, as a mature student, on a years full time course for Graphic reproduction technology. I not only set led type, but actually went into the 'hot metal' room where they made the type. That was one scary room, with swinging buckets of molten led.

So many printing techniques I used are gone now.

Love the poem :)

Amy @ Soul Dipper said...

Great painting with words - a bridging that lets go and keeps.

Elisabeth said...

To think the arrival of the printing press has had such a huge effect on the history of mankind and now like your birds it too has been superseded this time by by technology. What next? What after e-books?

This is a wonderful poem, Ruth , I love the image of those black claw feet and the way you merge the birds bodies with the letters. Thanks.

Shaista said...

I like the synch-ro-ni-zing of Terresa posting a typed letter by Virginia Woolf today, on Woolf's birthday.. the last letter she wrote, bidding farewell to Leonard, leaving her heart with him in black and white. This, is what survived.

I am playing Miles Davis and John Coltrane's So What from your blog anniversary post to send Mum and Dad off into sweet dreams... so you are here, making 35 years a sweet survival of the blues.

Oliag said...

I love coming here and reading your poetry then reading all these great comments...It is amazing to me what people can put into words never mind type!

My father and his family were bookbinders and embossers, how I wish I learned the craft...

Terresa said...

This is my favorite poem you've ever written, although I have a feeling, not close to your last! :) Loved so much, don't know even where to start, from the photo up top, the description of your wedding invitations (do you have any, could you scan them sometime and put them on your blog?), to the hundreds of birds, bird seed, the title of the poem, the middle, the end, all of it, exactly this: wonderful.

The Solitary Walker said...

Lovely, Ruth. Your astonishly varied poems are almost never typecast - but I'm glad you made an exception in this (both upper and lower) case!

Ann said...

When I was in primary 6, we went to the local newspaper to see how they make the paper.

Some of the boys stole pocketful of the cast. They were caned infront of us.

Ruth said...

Char, thank you.

It is good, very good, to pay close attention to words. They are soul expressions, given and received, and can have tremendous impact on the air around us.

To wonder how our words will last, and be perceived, seems to me an important consideration. Every day.

Ruth said...

Bonnie, I can't ask for more than that. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, thank you for finding those things in this small poem. These themes are all around us these days. I am listening to Bill Evans play "Peace Piece" as I write this, and somehow the art of it, the heART of it, echoes what you wrote. In spite of all the painful changes and losses we experience, there can be peace. This gets communicated through art, and its longevity, and long-giving beauty. As we dive head-first into Rilke and his art of living, I am amazed at how eternal it feels.

I've been thinking a lot about kindles and this post since I posted this yesterday. While I love printed matter, the efficiency and economy of kindles and nooks is mind boggling and irresistible! All the works of Tolstoy for $2.95 or something??

And in this context, that you remembered my Uncle Jimmie poem means so much. And that you feel that bottomless feeling, from the poem, and in take-off, remembering it . . .

What a life of connections this is. Imagine if Uncle Jimmie knew how his lovely life was being remembered, how he survives!

Ruth said...

Deb, I'm glad you love this.

It's fascinating to me how people write, what media they like to use. Some love to write with a pen or pencil only. The typewriter and its sounds and physicality is reassuring. I love a computer, and the blank white page at the start of a poem, the ease of rearranging words and lines. I used to correct mistakes on the typewriter with annoyance. But I still like the idea of a typewriter. And the aesthetics of the very old ones, with Courier font.

Ruth said...

Erin, how exciting that these things are in our minds simultaneously, synchronously.

What is being translated through these technological changes? Still, the beauty and pain of the world comes through, and to more people, and in more democratic ways (blogs, for instance). I will always love the aesthetic pleasure of paper, books. The sound of the page turning. The yolky felt of the surface of the paper. The weight and tilt of a book. Scribbling notes and underlinings with my colored pens. I don't ever want to lose this.

But the beauty of a printing press, and the sheer labor involved!! It just blows me away.

Ruth said...

Maureen, thanks so much.

Remarkable how many here in comments have experience with typesetting. It's a beautiful, frustrating art. I haven't done it myself, but I think I would enjoy it. We have a gorgeous paper store in Ann Arbor that also has book making materials for sale. I have thought how nice it would be to create a book of poems by hand that way. Thank you for the tip about Arion Press. I will look into them.

Ruth said...

Shari, how incredible, what is covered in your comment! Think of it, what you transitioned, what happens, just in your lifetime.

Have you thought of getting a blog book made for your grandkids? Maybe pick the best of the year, and do yearbooks. There's something about having the pictures and words in their hands.

Ruth said...

George, thank you, my friend.

I know. I feel there is something in the air . . . before, during and after this poem, that keeps circling in my head, about permanence and impermanence. No doubt the Rilke conversations are much behind this, and your posts, and the many things that fill my mind from the last months. They are glorious mind walks.

M.L. Gallagher said...

I think the 'typesetting' connection for so many of us is amazing.

I too learned some of the art in high school as editor of our school newsletter. I loved those quiet times in a room that smelled of ink (hmmm...) and the hum of the drum going round and round and the pages flying off the press.

This poem is so beautiful. As I read I felt a sense of coming home. Of familiarilty, as if the words were roosting in my heart.

Lovely.

Shari Sunday said...

Reading over the comments, I just remembered so clearly the SMELL of a typewriter. Besides the sound and feel, I always liked the smell. Is it only me?

Dutchbaby said...

This is the convergence of so many things I love: fonts, birds, seeds, paper...

That photo is superb, as is your poem. I can visualize an animated short with birds by Charley Harper setting seeds for the evening newspaper.

Jeanie said...

Wow. I have come to think that this type of printing is a lost art -- and I mean art. I remember taking a printing class in 9th grade. My teacher had to pass me -- even give me an A, I think -- because I always aced the tests. But I was messy as all get out. My parents said he told them in teacher conference that there were guys who would be making a living doing this; then there was me.

Ironic, isn't it, that in a way, that's what I do. Not that I move the type or print with it -- all that is on the computer. But those principles started me out on a lifetime of looking a type, design, printing... Nothing like getting a print-pressed card.

I can "see the birds," the seed, and what remains through your words. Yes, now...

Pat said...

I love this imagery! I can just picture those birds scattering the seeds in the snow. This is beautiful.

J.G. said...

Just lovely, Ruth, and the meanings go backwards and forwards within and between the images. (Synch-ro-ni-zed!)

I like the way your birds line themselves up on the branches. I dabbled in publishing and even though it's all computerized, we still got "galleys" to proofread, named after the little boats the lines of type used to ride in. So that's my mental picture of the birds: units all in a line, alike but different, together but independent.

Dutchbaby said...

J.G., I never knew that's why they call them "galleys"! Thanks!

Margaret Bednar said...

What a beautiful mind you have. To see the little birds fluttering about on the ground and them reminding you of striking keys and little typeset letters is wonderful. I love how your poems are so well thought out but also so free and flowing. I will look up the the other post on your uncle Jimmy...

Looking for Siddhartha said...

ah, this poem is "refreshing", poetical and thought provoking!
Beautiful!

Have a peaceful day, dear Ruth!

Renée

Arti said...

Oh thank you Ruth, for a vivid picture of apt metaphors. I love all the lines. And especially the ending of the three words like they're typed out, and the layered meaning in your poem... A title came to me suddenly: The Remains of the Day.

Ruth said...

Barb, thank you very much. What you say about connecting two disparate things is what synch-ro-ni-zing is about, pretty much. I guess my mind is doing that all the time, because of writing poems.

I'm glad you like that line "And evening draws down / its fade --" . . . I learned a trick from a workshop with the poet Robert Kelly back in the early 1990s. He said when you are writing a phrase, and a cliché comes to mind, like "evening draws down its shade" . . choose instead a word that rhymes with the clichéd one. The mind wants the clichéd word, and yet at the same time, it tells you it would not be good poetics. In this case, I brought the word "shade" in a couple of lines later. Anyway, it is a good trick that I used now and then. :)

Thank you.

Ruth said...

Hi, Neighbor, I don't know what the odds would be of so many readers here having experience setting type, it is quite amazing to see so many. On the other hand, I think many readers who come here are of a literary persuasion (though I am not much of a reader, go figure), and I find that those who love reading books often have a strong affinity for the making of books, including proofreading, editing, creating books, etc. I've always enjoyed the design and layout too, but I've never had experience typesetting. How very cool that you did.

Now let me tell you. When I opened your second link, from last April. Well. Two things. Your block prints are absolutely gorgeous, and they brought my Uncle Jimmie to me right here, in my lap (laptop). He made so many of those, images of birds, poems, verses, for calendars and things. Your work is just stunning, and the poem profoundly beautiful. Secondly, seeing Barry's comment there. Well. Now I am gone for a bit. Deeply moved. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Babs, WOW! I had never imagined the room where type was made. And you experienced it! I don't know, but there is something so symbolic to me about this very physical process being left behind. It makes complete sense to move ahead as we have, but there is great poignancy for me in the craft of typesetting and printing presses.

Thank you.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Amy. That is our mystery, isn't it. Closing and opening our hands.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Elisabeth. Sometimes I wonder if there are very many inventions with a greater impact on society than the printing press. Suddenly, certain groups could no longer control opinions that were published, at least not in the same ways. Now with our blogs, we are participating in another remarkable layer of freedom of speech and "the press."

And thank you for linking the feet with the letters, which I hadn't thought of. I was thinking of men at a bar, after work, or homeless men keeping their feet warm on the sidewalk. What you saw adds another metaphor.

Ruth said...

Shaista, a heartbreaking letter Terresa posted of VW's. I wonder if VW's words were "being typed" inmy head when I wrote this, which I just put on my sidebar on her birthday: "Arrange whatever pieces come your way." Your recognition and connection that the letter, VW's words, were what survived, after reading this post about the printing press not surviving, is beautiful irony.

Oh it is poignant, your parents (so very sweet, I love them), combined with Miles and Trane, with So what, the blues, the years we live, and lose, and all the stories that get played out. I'm grateful for your always-conscious and lovely heart.

Montag said...

Some poem!

I got as far as "like black letters / on a white page " and the entire thing began to take off like a flock of blackbirds from a hidden wire!

I'm still chasing after them...

Loring Wirbel said...

I'm certainly glad someone is memorializing them, though I have a feeling small-press options will survive like retro objets d'art, sort of like vinyl LP records - one can hope. But if all we have is a memory, at least it's a stunning poem such as this one.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Oliag. I love the comments too. It has been fantastic making these connections with the typesetters among us!

Bookbinders and embossers . . . truly, those words to me are among the most elegant in the English lexicon. Ahhhh.

Ruth said...

Terresa, oh wonderful, thank you!

I'm sure our wedding invitations are in a storage box somewhere, probably out in the shed. If I were more organized, I would be able to do as you suggest and scan one. But I'll tell you that they were on buff paper with a ragged bottom edge, with brown ink (I love love love brown ink . . . can you tell?), embossed, in the Papyrus (if I remember right) font. They were extremely simple, and elegant, if I do say so myself.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Robert! If I were a drummer on the Tonight Show, I would now do a ba-dip-doop-cymbal-splash. That was pretty good!

:)

Now, I have to get over to The Solitary Walker where I have been dying to read more Levertov and see what kind of jive is goin' on over there ...

Deslilas said...

let us hope our digitalized fileswould last as long as the printed books and the painting and argentic pictures.
Internet plus Gutenberg are very powerfool tools for revivals.
For the last days, I 've met very interestingpeople born in Troyes on 1808 and 1835, father and son Cottet, and could find lots of information about them through Internet and some visits to old libraries.
The son escaped from a priosn in Ageria where he was sent with his father for their political activities against Napoleon 3rd, went to USA...
They survive !

Susan said...

Your poem is really beautiful, my friend. It reminds me of Josh who only liked using a manual typewriter for his writing. There is something about the keys striking the paper and the swipe of the carriage return that makes writing seem more real. And it doesn't get more real than your writing.

ellen abbott said...

I hear a lot of melancholy about things that are lost or will be lost to future generations. things not really lost as transformed. The conveyance of words for instance. Those that bemoan the loss of the handwritten letter to email do not bemoan the loss of what came before which was getting news from passing strangers, actually talking to a person rather than reading words on paper. The younger set will no doubt bemoan the loss of email when they are older and something even more fantastic out there takes it's place. similarly, we who bemoan the loss of moveable type do not mind that books are no longer hand written. Our children may be the last to know books which they will mourn while their children will not mind at all and yet they too will face change no doubt in the future.

So why do we mourn the changing format when what is important is the words imparted, the act of communicating? we still communicate words of love, stories, histories, news and with each transition, make it all quicker and more available. For what then do we mourn? A technique?

I have my own reasons for thinking we would be better off if certain out-dated skills were not lost. I think it's definitely within the realm of possibility that we may need them again someday.

Ruth said...

Ann, what a story! So, those boys wanted some of the type to "survive" in their pockets, eh? And they didn't "survive" school . . .

Ruth said...

Louise, I, too, am surprised and happy hearing that so many of you had this experience. Thank you, I'm glad the poem took you back to something familiar, and what a lovely way of saying so.

Ruth said...

Shari, yes!

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, oh I love that idea of an animated short! There is no end to the ways people are creative. Thank you, my friend.

Ruth said...

Jeanie, thank you for taking me/us back to that memory of your printing class in 9th grade. And I'm impressed that even though you feel that you failed miserably at the actual task, the lessons you took from it still survive in you. Beautiful!

Ruth said...

Pat, thank you so much!

Ruth said...

J.G., I'm glad you found those back-and-forth synchronizings n the poem, thank you. Like Dutchbaby, I did not know the origin of the term "galley," though I have heard the word in the context of printing. My sister Susan was the head of a University Printing office for 19 years, and I lived with her when I as in college. That must be where I remember it from. I love that you can see those little galley-boats lined up in this poem!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Margaret, for your kind words, and for looking up the Uncle Jimmie poem. He was such a beautiful, humble man. I love remembering him.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Renée, for such kind words, and for your wishes. I wish you peace as well!

Ruth said...

Arti, thank you for that title, which is perfect coming from your literary self, and really does capture this idea of what survives! Now my mind is off again, picturing two of my favorite actors, Emma and Anthony . . .

Ruth said...

Montag, I hope you will understand when I say that I love it when something I write sends you off chasing! Thank you, my friend.

Ruth said...

Loring, I hope you'e right! What treasures their books will be, from the small presses. I was very sad when Diane Wakoski's (and also Charles Bukowski"s) press closed shop a few years ago: Black Sparrow Press. They also printed William Everson's work.

Ruth said...

Daniel, that is extraordinary and beautiful! What could be better than using all the tools we have to connect with these brothers of the past, who are still very present, even on the Internet! Yes, they survive, and perhaps they will express themselves through you in new ways. Maybe they already have!

Ruth said...

Susie, I think your Josh was an old soul, and very romantic, in the best sense of that word. Sometimes people are born in an age that doesn't suit them. I used to think I should have been born in the 1800s. But people who feel these connections with things this way can, and should perhaps, keep them going in meaningful ways. Again, I want to create a book, a home made book. Hey, you and I should go back to Hollander's in Ann Arbor and pick up book-making materials, and learn how to make them. We could do it together some weekend if we could figure it out. You could put together a book of Josh's poems . . .

Ruth said...

Ellen, I am very interested in your thoughts, because my boss (Chair of the English department) and I had a fairly long conversation about this yesterday morning, before you left this great comment. He happens to be very forward-thinking and makes no judgments about the current generation (like his own children) who are multi-tasking with multiple technology gizmos! Who's to say Nietzsche, Rilke, Hemingway, all those great minds who thrived in communities of other great minds, wouldn't have adored the kinds of communication we have today? It reminds me of quilts. Would the women of the past have hand quilted if they'd had sewing machines? Of course there is great beauty in hand stitched quilts. And some crafters will go on making them that way, thankfully.

Now I am intrigued by your thought that we may need these mechanical tools. Yes, what if the electronic age were to come to an end . . .

neighbor said...

Ruth, thank you for your comment on my block prints and poem and for noticing Barry's comment as well. I replied over there in slightly more detail...

Also, I've forgotten several times to mention that Mind Walk is available free online at google videos: here.

Vagabonde said...

A very deep poem in a way Ruth – makes me think that “tout passe” but what is left? It saddens me to see that so many bookstores are going out of business – the latest are many branches of Borders – even the large one in Atlanta on Peachtree. People have less time to read, so no need for printing so many books or having bookstores. What else will go out of fashion?

Ginnie said...

I can SEE your poem, sister, as though I were there looking out the glass door with you. I love your analogy. Uncle Jimmie smiled at that. And now I ponder what Vagabonde has written. Astrid told me just yesterday that there are many electronic stores closing in Holland right now because everyone is buying what they want off the internet. It makes you wonder what world our grandchildren will be used to a few years from now. No main streets in town anymore? I wonder.