Poets using fountain pens

Bruce Meyer in a letter about the poets using fountain pens for writing

I owe you a more detailed explanation than just a no to the request for my handwriting for use on the cover or the interior,

Let me start by asking you two questions: do you write with a fountain pen? Have you read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging?” My reply is inherent in those two items.

Look at the nib of a fountain pen. I would suggest a visit to The Fountain Pen Hospital website in New York. Every pen has a name, a unique name that no other pen (except copies) have. A nib might appear to look like a diamond from a deck of cards, but if you turn over a nib, it takes a different shape. It becomes a shovel. Heaney says “Between my thumb and forefinger my squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.” That’s the idea of a pen in nutshell. It is a shovel. Why? Words, according to tradition, are literally shovelled from the mouth to the page, and before they were in the mouth they were part of a person’s soul, fragments that have either broken away or that the soul is willing to give away to the world to serve other purposes. Words are not merely scrawlings for taking notes. There’s more to them.

My grandfather, whenever he began to write something, would put the tip of the pencil or the nib of his fountain pen (he absolutely refused to use a ballpoint because they reduced writing to mere words on the page) in his mouth. He said it was to wet the nib. But there’s an ancient belief, Celtic in origin and to which I subscribe, that the pen is a shovel. Before one begins to write, the tip of the pen must be put in the mouth to shovel the words from the mouth to the page. There are reports that the monks of Lindesfarne and Kells had smudges all over their lips. A word is not just a series of phonetic symbols on a page but a piece of a person’s soul that is shovelled from mouth to page. A word contains a spirit (see the John 1:1 in the New Testament). Handwriting is personal.

Now I don’t mind having personal poems published. In a poem what stands between me and the world is the veil of poetic  artifice, the craft so long to learn as Chaucer says. The poems are personal but they are poems that have been crafted on this side of the divide between soul and world. If they appear in poems, they have passed through the veil of artifice. Have you ever heard of the science of cryptology? A person’s state and structure of mind can be determined by their handwriting. I’d rather the poems speak for me than my handwriting.

Most poets I’ve known — Heaney, Gervais, Tomlinson, GE Clarke — write in fountain pen. Words are not mere markings on a page. They are not instruments of notes. They are the building blocks of for artifice in this world. So, the idea of putting my handwriting (cryptological concerns aside — handwriting reveals a person’s personality and mine is tiny, fussy, irregular, and hard to read according to my wife and daughter and my former students) doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve had students tell me they don’t know how to read cursive. I only write in cursive. There goes a market slice. But moreso, the difference between poetry and handwriting is that veil of artifice through which words, ideas, and image pass. On this side, they are refined, polished, selective. They are mean to be works of art rather than pieces of my soul. I’m glad you see the soul in my work, but the poems are the result of long hours of poetic practice, a careful and meticulous crafting of the raw material of my experience, my feelings, and my past.

That said, I would encourage you (if you already do not use one) to purchase a fountain pen. Be careful filling it. I gave one to a writer I know and she got ink on her hands and threw a temper tantrum and smashed it. I felt the loss of the pen. Marty recently gave me a fountain pen I love. It has a tremendously generous reservoir (the ink chamber) and I find I’m not continually running for the ink bottle.

One other thing you should know about fountain pens: at the tip of every nib if a tiny bead of a soft metal known as rodium. The rodium, as one writes, shapes to the flow and motion of the user’s hand, so that one should never, ever, lend a fountain pen to someone else even to try. A good friend of mine who runs a pen shop in Yorkville in Toronto, Peter Laywine, replaces all the nibs for his tester pens before he sells them to a buyer. A nib is like a toothbrush. It shouldn’t go into someone’s hand. And have you ever wondered where J.K. Rowling got the idea for the spirit each wizard posseses? It comes from using a fountain pen. Even when she was dead broke, she used a fountain pen. That rodium on the tip of the nib is known as “the angel.” Handwriting is the work of angels. Jesus wrote “sigils” or signs in the sand to convey ideas to the disciples, and the word sigil means angel writing.

So, to the matter of putting my handwriting out there, I hope these reasons (everything from sales to tradition, to angelic hosts) are the reason why I must say no. By the way, whenever I sign a book, I draw a line through the printed words of my name on the title page. Robertson Davies told me I should always do that. “It is bad luck,” he said, “to have your name appear twice on the same page, especially when you have written the second one.” By bad luck, I think he meant hubris. I draw two lines through my printed name and I always make sure, as best I can, that each book is addressed to someone particular and that it contains a message and that no two messages are the same.

My wife put it bluntly: no one can read your handwriting. I can’t read your handwriting. Mystery is the key to love and love comes from the soul, but then my daughter added, “Why puzzle the reader? I can’t read it either.” We learn something new from each other every day.

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