Writer in Residence

A Map of Reading From Zero to Infinity

By Edward Carson

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“Modern reading is a silent and solitary activity. Ancient reading was usually oral, either aloud, in groups, or individually.” (Paul Saenger’s Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading)

Around 8,000 (BC), we were in the early stages of tracking/accounting for quantities of things by means of clay tablets.

A few thousand years later we moved on to cuneiform and hieroglyphs that reflected strongly established, layered, multifaceted societies requiring more complex methods of tracking, recording, information control and decision-making.

By the middle of the 8th century BC, the Phoenicians had initiated classifications and arrangements of letters and characters.

Later, consonant and vowel sounds were further developed by the Greeks, ultimately producing what is known as continuous script – a lack of spacing between written words, reflecting language’s oral tradition origins in speech.

Nicholas Carr, in describing this period, says, “reading was like working out a puzzle. The brain's entire cortex, including the forward areas associated with problem solving and decision making, would have been buzzing with neural activity.”

It’s here that Saenger points to a critical transition between oral and silent reading. By the 15 century, “ . . . a gradual change in writing―the introduction of word separation―led to the development of silent reading.”

Add in the cumulative effect from Gutenberg’s press

So . . . what happens in poetry as that silent, solitary activity and experience – for both writer and reader – is now filtered through electronic media?

Poetry can no longer be entirely silent or solitary in its connectivity, execution and experience.

 A new, networked, more collaborative writing process emerges that links and combines personal thought with broad arrays of electronic media, information, algorithmic directions/suggestions and a variety of focused external influences.

Think of a poem now as an autonomous but widely connected space arranged into consecutive compass points of access, internal orientation, with entrances and exits linked to external references, choices, comparisons.

The poem becomes more and more a reflection of the embedded predispositions of electronia media and the rapidly adapting mind.

Spaces between words are synaptic pauses, bridges spanning voids filling the reader with the expectation of what comes next, what once was there but now isn’t, the consilience and pleasure of thought.

The language of the screen absorbs you as you absorb it; it’s a puzzle of need.

Poetry gives readers the illusion that it follows an apparent narrative line, but in fact it follows more of a cephalopodic network that wanders about, sometimes aimlessly in search of a direction, and arrives by getting somewhere (one hopes) unexpected. 

The restless clockwork of mind and poetry – the algorithmic arabesque of self-organization and spontaneous order and release – connects to the complex electronic word marquetry or intarsia hovering like slight whispers on the screen, thoughts like apparitions.

Like a search engine, a poem is forever in search of its own meaning, and that meaning is forever in search of an audience.

Poetry in the era of electronic media is simultaneously a problem and solution conjoined, linked together as one, inseparable from the thoughts that co-create it, indivisible from the feelings that shape it

Think of a poem now as a kind of see-through technology that adds/introduces to the brain ideas, images from the real world with the chemical algorithms of the mind then acting on these as a kind of hyperlink to wider arrays of words and meanings.

Think of poetry’s writer/reader experience now as a long-distance transaction conducted with a more immediate intimacy, instantaneously repeated over time and through multiple channels.

A poem on the screen now quickens the mind, a resonance, connectivity and ricochet acting as a synthesis of insight, design and distraction, the fusion of everything you thought you were doing and the disruptions that take you away from that plan.

Tune in to my next poetry post on Tuesday, April 16 to read “A Poem is a Rhetoric of Substance and Selection”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Edward Carson, writer and photographer, is twice winner of the E.J. Pratt Medal in Poetry and author of Knots, Birds Flock Fish School, and Taking Shape, as well as his most recent collection, Look Here Look Away Look Again. He lives in Toronto.