Doug Wilton ≈ Ephemeral or Archival? thoughts on the media of writing


In my long, delusional pursuit of something called ‘poetry’ I have tried to escape from time to time. After one kindly editor wrote, “This is probably the best of your juvenilia,” I threw the manuscript off the Burrard Street bridge and watched it flutter down, like a bird with rectangular wings, toward the dark water below.

Not long after I arrived in Toronto in the eighties I conveniently left a valise holding a hot new collection of my poems under my seat in a repertory cinema. That hurt, because I thought those poems were riding a new wave and I couldn’t catch it again.

Days before I left the city I carried a large leather suitcase filled with unfinished work and dumped it all in a dumpster. Then I bought a pack of cigarettes and resumed that addiction for a while. That sleepless night I heard the voice of a woman (my muse?) vowing vengeance from behind a wall. Then I dreamed I was assaulted by two thugs on the street who twisted off my arms and threw them away. If the work is a waste what use are the hands that make it?

Next morning I noticed that some of my writing had survived because I had printed it in a few chapbooks that had not been in the suitcase, but on a bookshelf.

I am a huge enthusiast of digital media but I know that a hundred years from now the only writing that will survive is what is carved in marble or printed on paper. With respect to survival there are two kinds of writing: ephemeral and archival. Writing, literary or otherwise, that is only of the moment, for the moment, need not waste trees but if you have written something that you want to survive beyond your own demise, you had best get it printed and nicely bound. People are more likely to take care of books, even bad books, if they are handsomely designed and illustrated. Like Alice said, “What’s the use of a book without pictures?” Obviously the illustrations too have a better chance of surviving if printed in many books than if they were only circulated digitally. So printed art and text are natural allies in the quest for survival.

But digital books are not the only major competitor for print media. We must also reckon with spoken word and performance art. Performance art or ‘slam’ poetry is a kind of return to the oral tradition which existed for millenia, before the invention of writing. Both the Odyssey and the Thousand And One Nights, drew on a common Mediterranean sea of stories that were originally transmitted orally and the best stories being transmitted orally in the present era may also survive by word of mouth.

Performance art will persist for a while, as movies do, by being remastered to new media but in the long run performances, like movies, will only survive, like the tales in the Arabian Nights, if they have a memorable narrative. But what about the non-narrative poem (like Tom hardy’s poems in this issue) or any number of masterworks whose power resides not only in the stories or ideas but in the precise arrangement of words that transmit a unique tone, coloration and voice and which are just as necessary as the exact shape, weight and colour of the brush strokes in a great painting?

In the long run only the simplest stories will be remembered and passed on orally but that means a vast amount of good writing and art will not survive unless it is committed to the most enduring of media which, perhaps surprisingly, is ink on paper (or vellum). A few years ago at Trinity College in Dublin I paid my ten euros and went into a softly lit, climate controlled room where I saw, thru a thick pane of glass, The Book of Kells, opened to show a page of Latin in immaculate Celtic script illuminated by a facing page of exquisite and psychedelic complexity.

I held my breath, lost in the beauty of the work and the thought of the patient and passionate hands which had made these very shapes more than 1200 years ago. No doubt there are detailed digital versions of these pages but, should something happen to the original physical book, would those digital records (on CDs, hard drives or in the few large servers known as the ‘cloud’) survive for another 1200 years?


2 thoughts on “Doug Wilton ≈ Ephemeral or Archival? thoughts on the media of writing

  1. Phil Mader says:

    Walter Benjamin would have found your comments on literature to his liking, your dedication to understanding, to investigation.

    I liked the anecdotes about your torments with your own writing.

  2. Wendy Weseen says:

    I love this commentary and it helps to clarify why I WANT to be published in a real live book (besides wanting to hold the fruit of my labour in my hands). I also saw the Book of Kells but it was only a replica, Nonetheless, the day I saw it at Durham Cathedral there was no one in the museum but me and one of the monks personning it, let me take it from its glass case and handle it. I thought I would die with the emotion of it. I will never have a book like that but I have been trying to get a travel memoir published that is accompanied by 20 of my own self-designed postcards. Thanks for this point of view; it spurs me on.

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