Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pens and Pencils

For all that a computer can do with numbers, there are some things that only pens, paper, and pencils really can capture.

Part of this is the tactile, easily smudged feeling we get from compressed cellulose fibers, ink and graphite. Part of it is surely sentimentality. Perhaps, in the future, when the mind interfaces with computers directly, unencumbered by a clunky, cumbersome keyboard, the future will look back on fingers through the faint film of nostalgia we reserve for broken Crayolas, fat black pencils, and chalk. Perhaps.


Robert Frost once observed that when you translate a poem from one language to another, what you lose is the poetry. Perhaps the same is true when you move from one artistic medium to another: from ink, pencil and paper, in this case, to binary code, and you try to keep the sensations of writing intact. Maybe.

But then how do you explain how it is possible to translate a feeling like love into words, as poets have done for centuries? Isn't it actually a bit harder to move emotions from a living heart into the lifeless structures of art, while preserving their meaning, their essence, than it is going from English to French? Or from paper to numbers? And even if we are successful in preserving some modicum of the original feeling, we lose the evanescence of the experience, the thing that makes any sensation--even sadness--so profoundly precious?

These questions are too thorny for me this Tuesday. I was up late last night, troubled by the news I received of the recent suicide of a childhood friend in Buffalo, and I had trouble sleeping. He was a handsome, intelligent, sensitive boy, good at algebra. He left a bewildered wife and a son.

When we were in high school, we would lift weights together. I nicknamed him "Josephine Gorilla" because he could do the best gorilla voice. I don't believe we ever drank together, but we did play Dungeons and Dragons, Crater Cruncher, and we would occasionally wrestle.

So, tonight, in Joe's memory, I will simply post a poem and pose the original question about translation--pencils, paper, love, art and life--and leave the answers to you.

A Change

Were you to dip into my diary
Today, you might notice a change—from pen
To pencil: a pointy mechanical
Pencil—a pointed, mechanical change.

It isn’t that I’ve given up entirely
On ballpoints, nibs, the colors black and blue—
Making that indelible impression
Both dictators and poets long to make

In different languages, perhaps, and lives,
A dozen gray centuries hence—oh no.
I am one of those prickly little folks
Susceptible to moods. I change my mind.

A more impermanent world is my province.
I have no nuclear ambitions to disclose—
Unless you count forming a family
I can find in the dark, because they glow.

No, Love is not always victorious.
But, while I possess lead for this pencil,
And your forgiveness for my many faults,
My mistakes will be easier to erase.

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