You’ve spent the whole of your time reading this essay missing the letters for the words. With spelling, we have roped ourselves into another rote; a new spelling is fresh, spesh, happie like a new krispy kreme flavor (and isn’t it sad that it is branders and marketers, and not poets, who play with spelling most?). At its best, free spelling will help us transition to a performative poetry, one with passionate enactment of emotion rather than passive description. A poem can be – both to eye and ear – a large-scale onomatopoeia. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is good for imagists and sleep, but for a living poetry we should ‘make, not show’. As an artist, the way to respond to beauty is to make beauty, to add joy to any joy we have felt. I felt a fizzical sumbthing ingside ☺.
Ultimately, the best free spellings are the truest: spelling can be a deeply expressive technique, not merely experimental. Aram Saroyan’s famous ‘lighght’ is ultimately unconvincing, from this standpoint, because it fails to enact what it represents. It does not generate the feeling of light, as might, say, liet, lite or liht. Far better would have been nighght, which gains from the density and darkness of the spelling, the emphasis on the guttural, earthy gh. A blak night is far eerier than a black one – something about the lack of the c, but also the emphasis on the k (whereas i would find a darck one quite comical). Allone is lonelier than alone. I wouldn’t mind being out alone on a black night, but may all the police in Manchester be on duty if I’m out allone on a blak nighght.
The past can help us into the future. The vibrancy and instability of language in the middle ages echoes the situation in our language today. Ultimately, Chaucer is the role model: someone who heralded the English vernacular in its infancy, and someone whose work is full of beautiful spelling. Looking at works through the history of our language makes us realize the contingency of spelling, and the joy of free spelling. Now we experience spelling as static when in reality we have caught it posing for the camera; it has been on a journey that will not finish. There is no more an end to the history of spelling than there is an end to history. Simon Horobin writes that the history of English spelling is a cultural achievement; the future of English spelling is a cultural achievement in the making. If we can bring to the poetry that makes expressive use of free spelling — when it doesn’t seem odd to remark that one poet developed a very consonantal language for her purpose, another pushed the letter q to places it had never been taken, another found unexpectedly joyful ways to spell clichés — then we can be happy in the knowledge that we used a stand-out feature from the language of our times to create something timely and timeless.
Leo Mercer is President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. He poetweets free spellingly @the_poetweet.