Typewriters as inspiration - literally

Inspired by our posts on the Olivetti Valentine and Praxis 48, Jim Petersen has this guest post about the perhaps surprising ways in which using a typewriter (as opposed to pen and paper) can be a creative tool for poets.

In 1951 Jack Kerouac typed up a later draft of “On the Road” on a single 120-foot roll of paper, in just over three weeks. The prevailing opinion is that he had been working extensively on the book, filling journals and writing early drafts, long before that extraordinary outburst of writing. Kerouac’s writing style—so influenced by be-bop jazz and the spoken cadences of his friend Neil Cassidy--was summarily characterized by Truman Capote at the time as, “It isn’t writing, it’s typewriting.”

Capote’s bias is obvious: good writers use pencils and pens and write their precious ideas out slowly and thoughtfully in longhand; bad writers simply type, automatically, mechanically. It was all too spontaneous, too improvisational, and apparently too effortless.

I guess Capote didn’t get the memo. What Kerouac intuitively knew was that the mechanical typewriter served him well as an expressive medium for composition. He wanted to get the ideas down on paper quickly, and he could do so with his 110-words-a-minute typing speed, and the continuous “scroll” that allowed him to write as long as the words kept coming.

Another innovative American writer of the time, the poet Charles Olson, took the virtues of the typewriter one step further. He speaks of the typewriter in much the same way that a jazz player might describe a preferred instrument. 

It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pause, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.
— Charles Olson

Olson took full advantage of the typewriter’s mechanical limitations—it’s rigidity, its mono-spaced lettering, the pause necessitated by the carriage return—and turned these to his advantage, notating and rendering his lines and phrases and unique improvised sound accurately on the page. He wanted to break out of the stiff box of traditional rhyme and meter in order to create poems much freer in their music and measure. (You can see an example here of how he used the typewriter's basic page layout capabilities to instruct the reader and printer.)

He called this way of writing Projective Verse, and it was a breakthrough that gave the poet the same freedom that jazz artists were enjoying then. A quick glance at an Olson poem confirms what he was up to—the irregular line lengths, irregular line spacing, uneven blocks of text that appear more like prose—all of these are intended to help the reader visualize how the poem might sound if spoken aloud.  Without the typewriter, Olson could not have rendered his compositions with the same fidelity.

The humble typewriter, long considered a mere utilitarian “device,” could take on a more privileged role in the poet’s hands, would in fact become the very medium through which the songs flow.