do I write in non-standard English?
This question has been asked of me consistently, since I began
spelling and grammar back in the mid 1970’s. It has been asked politely
and it has been asked with expletives undeleted. Readers and editors have been
offended and confused by it, as well as delighted by it. A friendly but critical
colleague from the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange dubbed it “stevespell” many
years ago, and that has become my preferred name for it.
Sometimes I feel I am hewing the words out of wood or stone, rough approximations
to a deeper, more accurate language. Sometimes I feel like I am taking the “found
art” of English, and refining and polishing it. Sometimes the words are
like very soft clay in my hands, oozing through my fingers. Sometimes the words
are like nuggets of gold discovered as I sift through gravel and fast running
water. Stevespell has allowed me to discover new words, new meanings in words,
and new relationships between words, and it has become one of the modalities
of my creativity.
I realize that to many readers, my language appears idiosyncratic, obscure, and
nearly impenetrable. Yet, when I am writing, I feel like I am speaking in an “English” that
underlays the infinite variations and personal morphologies that are illusorily
lumped together into a single language. People question stevespell, as if “English” were
a pre-existing, complete, and unalterable phenomenon in nature, and I am breaking
the rules. I am not breaking the rules; I am discovering them; I am extending
Here’s the metaphor that I keep coming back to: most people think of words
as if they were bricks. They think of words as hard, clearly shaped, baked clay
units. They’re made in some factory somewhere doesn’t matter where
or with what clay to be used to build permanent things. I think of words as soft
clay, easily shaped and re-shaped, mostly used to build impermanent things in
impermanent and poorly designed ways. It is the rare structure, indeed, that
survives these harsh conditions that we build in.
I have two friends in Provincetown, Conrad and Anne, who are among the most beautiful
people in the world. One of the tricks Conrad likes to play on the world is to
sculpt in brick, in ways that appear to defy gravity. When you see these sculptures,
you are forced to wonder: are these “bricks” really styrofoam, or
are they real bricks somehow being held up with invisible wires? You bricklayers,
when was the last time you made a brick float in air?
Stevespell evolved organically. You can find two relatively early examples of
it in the Reading Room: the poem “In
ov Nations” and
the story “A
Pilgrimmage to Mecca".
Compare those writings to “In
the Ruwenz ov the Tempel, I Herd...” ! At least to me, the language
in them seems so normal, so unadventurous. To my eyes they also lack a certain
and intensity. And yet, those writings, too, generated questions and controversy
not unlike what I hear regarding my most recent work.
My earliest intention was two-fold. First, I wanted to normalize English spelling
to spoken English. This seemed easy to accomplish, in my naivete. I soon discovered
that I wasn’t the first to try such a project. For example, the Chicago
Tribune attempted to partially normalize English, only to be booed into submission.
On top of that, normalization presented all kinds of new problems. Conjugational
and etymological continuities often had to be stretched or abandoned. And what
was I to do with regional and national accents? If a written-spoken normalization
had been my only motive, I too would have quit the project. But that is not the
case. By the way, if you study the evolution of my spellings you will see that
I have progressively moved towards a normalization that reflects my accent.
My second intention with stevespell was more ambitious and radical. I wanted
to develop a grammar in which subject and predicate, object and action were merged.
I had heard that this was possible in Sanskrit, and it seemed intuitively right
to me. Surely, the actor and the action are not two separate things, but aspects
of one thing. Later, when I began to learn Hebrew, I saw how root words and the
absence of written vowels were used to create dynamic, interweaving structures
of sound, meaning, and perspective. But English, and most European languages,
don’t have (or don’t focus on) these kinds of conceptual tools. Perhaps
our language was creating unnatural distinctions between actor and action, or
between past, present, and future. So I began to work the clay, and I found that
the possibility of merging noun and verb in English was waiting patiently just
below the surface. Actually we are doing it all the time! Colloquial usage commonly
slurs the “ing” verb form into “in,” as in “I’m
goin’ to the store.” Superimpose this on the form that converts a
verb into a noun using “-ence” (as in “transcend” to “transcendence”),
and, presto, yu ar the transenden ov normel Eenglish!
Critics pointed out to me two other inter-related and important effects of stevespell.
First, it forced them to read more slowly. This really annoys a lot of people.
We have so much to do, and so much to read, we don’t have time to crawl
along, actually paying attention to individual words. But just a second. That’s
precisely what poetry is about! It’s about paying attention to each word;
hearing them, considering them, going back and reading phrases again and maybe
even again, slowly proceeding, and ohmigosh, actually enjoying the sensuality
of language. I hope you speed demons don’t have sex the way you read, trying
to get done as quickly as possible. I much prefer to read slowly, sensuously,
seductively engaged with each word.
The other complaint I got, a complaint by another poet, mind you, was that my
poetry forced him to read my work aloud if he wanted to understand it. Damn,
that annoyed him.
Say what?? That too is exactly what poetry is about: hearing the words, speaking
the words, creating not a fleeting shadow of a thought as you rush on through
a zillion words a minute, but resonating the words through the very bones of
your body, from the chest outward. I remember a wicked northeaster on Cape Cod
one February. I was living alone in my parent’s cottage on the beach. The
waves were thundering, battering the seawall mercilessly; the wind was howling
furiously and pummeling the walls. The curtains were swaying and the cracks in
the walls were whistling, and me, I was reading Blake’s “Jerusalem,” screaming
it at the top of my lungs, for hours, until the storm faded around dawn. It was
one of the most glorious nights of my life. And I swear, Willy B. was right there
with me belting it out, the two of us laughing till we could hardly breathe,
then reading on.
So, you’re not breaking my heart if you have to read slowly, and if you
even have to read my poetry aloud to get it. That’s what you’re supposed
to do with poetry.
There is at least one more effect intended by stevespell. Poetic language has
ebbed and flowed for thousands of years between the use of heightened, formal
language, and the use of colloquial, simplified language. Often, when language
is used to convey a sense of the sacred, it tends towards the formal, and this
may easily become awkward or stilted. Nonetheless, I want to separate my poetry
from mundane and secular literature. Whether or not I succeed and achieve a sense
of the sacred in my poetry is for you to decide, but that, too, is part of my
To read my further writings on language and poetics, go to my blog, http://shivvetee.blogspot.com and
click on any of the following labels (just below the 4 slide shows): language,
linquistics, altered spelling, or poetics.