Written language has many features that the spoken word does not: physical space, distinct lines, font, colour, and so on. As language becomes less audial and more visual, the poetic is found in the look as much as the sound of a poem. Herbert — in shaping his poems — was conscious of the fact that poems are produced to take up space as well as time; they are works of art as well as pieces of music. What begins as a matter of presentation leads on to new possibilities of phrasing, and thus back to the music of the poem: we can think differently when writing than when speaking.
Beyond all this, the defining feature of written language is spelling. The disparity between spoken and written language has been a puzzle ever since there was a disparity between them, yet writers have rarely found poetry in the puzzle. H G Wells wrote that ‘for the most part, people do not know that there is so much as an art of spelling possible’. That was in 1901, in a delightful essay — ‘For Freedom of Spelling: The Discovery of an Art’ — which has been far less influential than it should have been. Its closing direction has remained ignored: ‘Spell, my brethren, as you will! Awake, arise, o language living in chains!’
‘Free spelling’ is one of the techniques that internet poetry is opening up for future poets to use as a matter of norm. Wells’ prophecy – ‘the liberation [from the dungeons of a spelling-book] I foresee, with the glow of the dawn in my eyes’ — has found a context in which it can be made sense of and explored sensibly and sensitively. The best pieces in ‘The YOLO Pages’ are those that are creative with spelling. Tom Hank posts, ‘one coll thing bout the sun is that it come back for mor every day even when thinges on this planet get very bad // remeber today that were all under the same sun // nice. // have a grate day im tom’. Horse ebooks tweets: ‘We re very lucky today’. The basic point is tweeted by steve roggenbuck: ‘hope u have fun teling people to conform to standardizsd spelling & gramar rules !! im gona have fun actively choosing how i present my words’. The internet shows us that, in normal writing, we have no need for standardization: we can read typos fine, and can moreover enjoy them.
Like free verse, free spelling is not free in the sense that there’s no method; but the method is personal intuition as opposed to external authority. It leaves the poet with the creative job of spelling for him or herself. It makes a live choice out of what was a dry norm: received spellings are as instable as received metres. This is a difficult freedom, not a lazy one.
Spelling is an art whose craft is underdeveloped. There are more than many possibilities: getting rid of letters nd doubl leters and making trippple letters; inventing typos (lief is livelier than life); new contrctions nd expanansions; sight-rhymes (neway / norway); removing and adding psilent letters; respelling words (a storie has a happy ending but a storry does not) and playing on features we know from elsewhere (excitedlie). New spellings can represent their meanings, bring humour, create resonances, make references, deal in a sort of visual assonance (for egg. th threee of them designd nd sang in joyfull surpluss). Spellings from different periods can be drawn upon and, as different communities develop their own spellings, textual accents will develop, and there can be spelling in an x-style or y-style.
I felt a physical something inside, much like hearing a perfectly balanced Shakespeare phrase. ‘I am amazed and know not what to say’. Similarly, I made a typo whilst attempting to spell which:
Its unexpected beauty struck me: something about the parallelism of wh and ch in its spelling. There is, then, such a thing as emotional spelling. We can reach it if we feel the freedom to spell as we like, and attune ourselves to picking it up. Steve Roggenbuck’s ‘I am liek October when I am dead’ works because the typo has been incorporated into what is already a powerful image with a convincing music: the typo serves the whole and helps to create the overall feel – equipping us with the experience of beauty that helps us survive our self-realization of morality, perhaps.