Black Moss Press

The Pen

I’m writing this with a fountain pen. A green marble hand-finished pen made by Visconti in Florence, Italy. It’s called Pericles, a pen that is normally manufactured in pearlized colours with a hinge clip that resembles Pericles’s own headgear. The ink flows freely in broad strokes as I move the nib across the page.

Smooth, graceful, refined.

A lost art, really.

It occurred to me that few of us pay any attention at all to fountain pens. It’s difficult even finding one in a world that has embraced the roller ball or the ballpoint. But when I was in elementary school in Riverside, I sat at a wooden desk and wrote with a cheap fountain pen bought at the dime store. Every September, our mothers would buy us a new pen and a bottle of Waterman ink. And we’d dip our nibs into the ink bottles cradled in those inkwells at the corner of our desks. From about Grade 3 onward, we learned penmanship. They call it “cursive writing” today. Back when I was in school, I’m not sure what they called it, but we used a floppy exercise notebook and busied ourselves with all those curls and swirls and loops and zigzags. It might’ve been the Palmer Method. But we knew nothing of the theories behind this. We were busy and engaged in formal lessons every morning, slumped over our desks, sculpting out those letters from the alphabet, and filling page after page with inverse tornado-like figures. After a while, we were writing out little hearts out, writing over and over again the sentence, “The Quick Brown Fox jumps Over the Lazy Dog.” We wrote it until our hands were sore. We wrote in fear the nun patrolling the aisles would suddenly rap us across the knuckles if we didn’t get it right, or if for one lazy lapse, we slowed down.

We all experienced this. It was part of our upbringing in Ontario. We grew up in the same kind of classroom. Writing with cheap fountain pens that sometimes could be turned into “weapons,’ says Port Dover poet John B. Lee.

He told me once, “We would siphon up the ink and flick it at the fellow across the aisle, or we’d poke the girl in front of us with our pen.”

Lee says the exercise of learning longhand failed him: “I now half-write and half-print …  I have about seven different styles. If you look at my notebooks, it looks like seven different people wrote in them.”

I suffered the same fate. One might call it “cursed writing.”

Not everyone, of course, shares this.

A former Windsor elementary school teacher once told me she was so good at it in Grade 3, her teacher led her down the hall to the Grade 8 class to show them how “flawless” her writing was.  The teacher told her students, “If she can do this in Grade 3, you can certainly do it in Grade 8!”

Today, the computer dominates. Keyboarding is the way. Cursive writing is trying to learn a foreign language for most students. Think about it, what with the world of debit, and internet banking, and e-transfers, cursive writing is irrelevant, and it’s practically unnecessary to even know how to sign your name.

In a piece by Robert Kose in the Christian Science-Monitor, he recounted what it was like in the 1950s: “When I asked (my latter-day grammar teacher) if she valued good handwriting in her students, she looked puzzled, as if I had addressed her in Albanian…”

As for the fountain pen? Dead in schools. The keyboard is faster. As a matter of fact, most correspondence is probably done on a cellphone. Two-thumbs working the keyboard of the iPhone.

 

Still there are those who use pens, fountain pens. Once, when I went into a doctor’s office and was just beginning to spill out my tales of medical woes, this specialist leaned over and plucked my pen from my shirt pocket.

“This is nice! A Parker Duofold!” he said admiring it. The next few minutes, that’s all we talked about.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve used such glorious writing instruments. My newest purchase is a TWSBI fountain pen, bought in Windsor. These pens are amazing, and relatively inexpensive. They write like a dream, so smooth and easy to use. I realized that in taking up this practice, it means slowing down, like stopping outside your door and taking a deep breath. It means giving thought to what you write. I’m amazed at its smoothness and richness on the page. It brings me back to a memory of a Paris shopkeeper who told me years ago when I bought a Waterman from him: “The pen’s liquid is like wine – it goes down effortlessly…”

True enough.

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