I made a sound when I was born, I am sure of it, some note I found in my mouth that would be found again and again throughout my time, just begun, on earth, a perfectly articulate apostrophe to all the zero I knew then. “O,” I gasped as my throat found its first own air, “O.” Perhaps the note came wrapped in spit, perhaps the scrape of some blubbery consonant was on it, but I said “O,” and though it was hardly original, though it sprang from me without a even a slip through my mind, it was my first poem. The poem was not necessarily a great one, but it was complex. It was true.
Or maybe not. According to the Steven Roger Fisher’s sometimes troubling History of Language, “Human infants…are anatomically incapable of articulating most human sounds until the larynx drops down in the throat at one year of age or later” (Fisher, 37). In this way when very young we physiologically resemble Homo ergaster, a hominid species of 1.6 million years ago who were not quite set up for speech as we now know it, both because of their raised larynx (which never dropped), and because they:
All holes are O’s. As the small hole widened, allowing exhalation-control, the English language’s five-fingered-handful (and sometimes “y” and “w”—the polydactyls) of vowel sounds were planted, prying open a pandora’s voicebox of sounds that would adapt, ever so slightly, over millennia. As the small hole widened, vowels escaped: those sounds for which there is no closure of the throat or mouth during vocalization. Consonants, of course, require a constriction of the air at some point in its passage from lung to world. Words in English may consist entirely of vowels (“I” and “A”) but never exclusively of consonants. Vowels are the points at which words breathe openly. And no vowel is more sonically or typographically open than the “O”— calligram, concretion, and cipher in one.
Poetry always asks more than what lies on the page. The sonic qualities of a poem—be they meticulously metered or mellifluously mouthed—are inseparable from the ‘sense’ of what is said, compounding and driving the subject toward another power. Via metaphor a widening and deepening of subject is achieved, along with the possibility of associative leaps. Even when making use of metaphor’s most self-conscious and sigh-inducing wing—the pun—the poet widens the scale of what is said by inserting two types of reminders. First, the reader is made acutely aware of the poet’s presence at every step of the poem in the form of the ever-evolving decisions she makes, highlighting what Roman Jakobson calls the poetic function of language, “the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination.” Pun reminds us of poetry’s constructed-ness. Second, pun stresses the compound nature of language itself: raising the punned word or phrase to a level that hovers above the page, above context. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, “Dam!” Poetry’s purpose: to use all available to build that dam that reminds us that we are swimming in a moving river. To perforate the “O.”
Poets privilege these tools. In Robert Hass’ translation of Buson’s haiku, we observe the raising of the “O” from its state of fixedness on the page, from its role as word-facilitator or phonemic “part of speech” to concrete, dramatic representative of the “real” world outside of typography:
The birds of poetry are always singing, but rarely are we brought so close to the font of their song. Through the practically cinematic magic of lineation we are brought shot-by-shot into the sparrow’s “tiny mouth”—and beyond, into a state of “openness” beyond lyric itself, into a primal physiological awareness of the shape and vessel of true song.
Of the poem’s ten syllables, three are carried by the “O” sound—“sparrow,” “mouth,” and “open,” and each occurrence, when pronounced out loud, requires a similar circling of the speaker’s mouth itself, in aspiration of this most onamatapoetic of letters. In a poem that treats as its subject the visualization of the act of singing rather than the rapture of the sonic qualities of that song, this circling of the reader’s (at-least-mental-) mouth becomes important, as it is indeed the final note the poem hits before retreating necessarily back to the scope of the written, into the “-pen” that places the word –the o—and poem on paper. With these multiple “openings” of the windpipe and mouth, the reader becomes mimetic of the sparrow itself.
It is a fact of a certain kind of criticism to speak of the ends of poetic lines as receiving a kind of promoted reading and attention, what with the predominance of rhyme and metrical fracture/decision at these critical junctures written into the English language poetic tradition. Even when viewing the Hass haiku from a distance too great to make out its words, one can see the weight of the poem falling on the left margin, due to the brevity of its last line. Zooming in, with special focus applied by the eye (another kind of “O”) to the first words in each line, each word becomes a representative of the sentence’s, and the poem’s, subject: the sparrow, its ownership, and its openness. As I am hurdled from the sparrow’s song to its “small mouth” to, finally, this very state of inner exposure, I hover over these particular notes. Further, the first line sets up a sonic expectation, a syllabic and accentual precedent that is met in the second line: four syllables apiece, there is a sense of symmetry granted both the eye (for one can see in a glance the entire poem, practically read it instantaneously as haiku would have it) and the ear (for though the meter reverses from a trochaic to iambic pattern, the galloping rhythm and binary balance survives). This precedent is broken badly in the final line, and there is a surplus of breath left over equal to exactly its duration once again when the poem ends on this one-word note. This surplus pressure is placed back again, in the form of three cranial “O”s: eye, ear, and mouth, on the final word, “open,” and in particular its first syllable, preceded as this sound has been by previous usage in each of the lines before it. The “O” has it, rising from the page and claiming its own natural space in the reader’s consciousness as more than simply an alphabetical letter, but as the natural shape of passage from interior to exterior, through the “tiny mouth” and into Keats’ “full-throated ease.”
But an “O” is also a zero (0), and no poet imparts her “O”s with as much duplicity of presence and absence as Emily Dickinson. Her poems enact a relentless typographical and mathematical drama in which the quick, slanted circles of her script are constantly caught in the metamorphosis from letter to number and back again. Dickinson was a student of algebra at Mount Holyoke, and the signs of algebra are everywhere in her manuscripts, plus and minus signs adorn her working pages as consistently as they do equations and bank books. As Gary Lee Stonum notes in The Dickinson Sublime, “Mathematics occupies a distinctive place in Dickinson's work. Roughly two hundred of Dickinson's poems include some reference to mathematical terms and ideas, often in a precise and pointed way, and a number of others often implicitly depend on counting, measuring, and quantitatively assessing” (133). Aware as Dickinson is of the space of her page as an active field of sums and cancellations, she makes great use of her “O” to represent the expiration of breath and life—“zero to the bone”—as she repeatedly forces the reader into a dizzying awareness of the tolling of moments on earth.
To use a well-known example, let us take the first quatrain of 260:
Dickinson begins her exclamatory effort at self-identity and annihilation with a word that wraps itself around two “Os,” the first syllable of “Nobody” being the prefix nix, the cancellation of any root word it precedes, the zero times any integer that equals—ultimately—zero. And that root word, “body,” is zero mirrored between ‘birth’ and ‘death’, ending in ‘why?’ as Merrill would have it1. “Look closely at the letters,” indeed. After the first exclamation point, we get another mirror, “Who are you?” the speaker asks, perfectly balancing the two “O”s in the first sentence with two more. Quadruple-ought in the first line, the equation has now sprung. Five times 0 (5 x 0) in the second line, with the first double-“O” falling noticeably in the rhymed word “too”— or, homophonically, in “two.” In this word, two “O”s become one sound, or as Dickinson equates in #768, “One and One—are One.”
The third line, “Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!” reduces the obsessive “O” usage to a mere “pair” of instances, going as far as to omit any “O” sound from its anticipated position as an end-rhyme. The phrase “don’t tell” has significance as both a word of warning to the other “Nobody” and as a mathematical term, “tell” in the sense of adding up—or in this case, not adding up, much in the way the rhyme scheme refuses to: zeros added to zeros “don’t tell.” The quatrain finishes its existential arithmetic with another dual-“O” flurry: “they” (presumably those dreary, frog-like “somebodies”) would seek to banish those who would have achieved a leveling erasure of identity, “you know.” We see this transfer between letter and number everywhere in Dickinson, from her extra-temporal mirrored “noons” (“my noon had come, to dine;” “noon—is the hinge of day”) to her explicit use of the apostrophic “Oh” in transcendental—a term also applicable in the mathematics classroom—situations2 (“Oh Future! thou secreted peace;” “Oh sumptuous moment;” “Oh, honey of an hour”). Through the manipulation of one circular character, Dickinson grapples with the whole of the universe, as well as the hole at the universe’s center.
What else begins with “O?” Certainly Paradise Lost—“Of man’s first disobedience”—as well as its perforated descendant, Radi Os. Radi Os, an erasure of Paradise Lost performed by Ronald Johnson (“I composed the holes,” he writes in his prefatory note) seeks to explain the ways of nature to man. Johnson’s apprenticeship to the physical possibility of letters as discrete material seems more thorough than most poets’: as an accomplished calligrapher and creator of letterforms, Johnson would have been intimately familiar with the letter “O” as the key letter in many calligraphic scripts, and as a concrete poet, Johnson would have been comfortable with the nuances and suggestions of letters as shapely representatives of the actual world. This piece from “Songs of the Earth” illustrates Johnson’s tendency to link letters directly to the natural world, in a way that Dickinson may have enjoyed (if not agreed with):
Here we are granted a quick (yet eternal) vision of a world which exists only through an extremely abridged––though not by any means simple––alphabet. Where Dickinson’s “noon” was loaded with the darkly absent, Johnson’s is shot through with light. “On” is one way to switch the light switch, one way to illuminate a space. “In the beginning…” Another way is to enter the outdoors during day (even better—at noon) and to look straight up at the singular, circular, life-giving, center of our solar system. The sun is an “O,” and even the fading ellipses at the end appear to consist of “Os” as the poem passes on into infinity.
The question of infinity was Milton’s to ponder in Paradise Lost, and so it is in Radi Os that a 20th Century sense of infinity is investigated in erasure: “fed / With / place Eternal / In utter darkness, / from the centre / whirlwind” (6). The nature of outer and inner space (Milton’s definition of the mind: “infinitude confined,” is retained completely in Radi Os) as well as the intimate relationship between these two different eternities, is turned over and over, discovered anew in the remnants of Milton’s freshly aerated speech. Meanwhile, Milton’s own personal drama unfolds in his absence: he has read himself to blindness, and the act and art of seeing is put under the magnifying glass, “Too well I see / : for the mind / swallowed up / entire, / in the heart to work in fire, words the Arch.” Our sight (glossy colons), as well as our existence, must be kindled from somewhere, and in Radi Os this illumination comes from the sphere of the sun some 90 million miles away, firing its rays (radii) in every direction. And the centre whirlwind whirls.
With its excision of the P, a, s, e, s, and t of Paradise Lost, the book has found a new, updated moniker, one that exhibits the fracture and technological splay of our times. The possible readings of “Radi Os,” the title itself, are numerous and productive, but here I wish to place primary pressure on the “O” that falls after the caesura. Does the usage of “O” here refer specifically to the typographic “O?” Does “Os” suggest “Oz,” the enchanted land “somewhere over the rainbow” where a whirlwind blew Dorothy from Johnson’s native Kansas? Or is “O” here pluralized in a gesture towards the many circles that define us: the circles in our heads that orbit (circularly) the circle in the sky that offers us light with which to see, or, in turn a light that can blind?
“O” is a featured figure in Radi Os. The first character in the book, immediately following the “Os” emblazoned on the marquee, appears solo and enlarged as the first word in the book. The first page reads,
Here we witness the beginning of a cycle for our letter: “O” takes precedence as the first note of the poem, solitary and hung aloft the page. The dawn has come, the page working in a new way to develop horizon(tal) and vertical fields of meaning. The big “O” is situated spatially directly over the word “Rose,” suggesting a solar presence and connection. Another ray reaches towards “tree”—
the taker of light and maker of oxygen (O2) for our survival. The page ends with the “O”-rooted “song,” the lyric quality of poetry that rises “out of chaos” and out of the mouth via the singer’s choice of pattern, intonation, and repetition. The song on this page contains 15 printed vowels, 8 of them “O”s. As the reader assembles meaning from the perforated text, she finds herself using her own orbs in the act of connection, selection, and decision, dramatizing the radii of sight and the agency the seer possesses.
“O”s riddle Radi Os, visible reminders of the holes that Johnson shot into Paradise Lost, the irony being that these particular holes are retained, made physical and present. Seemingly every possible use of “O” is given, simultaneously and plastically, to the various “O”s in the book, from the ecstatic “O” of romantic poetry, “the O / Of wonder,” to the more celestial “O” into which it transforms in the very next lines, “circumference/ Hung on shoulders like the moon, whose optic glass / At evening, from the top / new / globe / of some great / burning / azure; / vaulted” (20). At points the “O” becomes microscopic, and even recalls Dickinson’s mathematized “0,” “to smallest forms / their shapes immense, and / far within, / in their own dimensions / silence” (20).
The enlarged “O” appears again at the beginning of the final section of Radi Os, again in a negative (but not pejorative) Dickinsonian sense:
By the very end of the poem, however, we have spun back into the territory of circular vision and solar illumination, beginning with the figure of a “wheel / Turned fiery / phalanx” (90) and ending with an exhortation to the reader to include the “actual” world outside of the book itself into her reading experience. Radi Os ends,
When Radi Os was first published in 1977, its cover bore an outsized “O,” not replicated in the 2005 edition I have before me. I do own a first edition3 of Johnson’s first volume of poems, A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees, whose very title suggests his lifelong association between word and world; (an early working title of Johnson’s epic master-work, Ark, of which Radi Os is purported to comprise the final section, was in fact first called Wor(l)ds). In my copy of A Line of Poetry… Johnson has inscribed a note to the poet Gena Ford. The inscription reads:
I am struck by the steadiness of Johnson’s pen. His handwriting, naturally, “borders on calligraphy,” as Ron Silliman has noted on his Web-log regarding a similar experience with a Johnson inscription (Silliman’s is in a first edition copy of Radi Os and says one word: “Gravitations!”). The “For” and “For[d]” in the first line of my (Ford’s) inscription are perfect visual matches, as if traced or Xeroxed. There are two more “O”s in the author’s name, perfect circles in a book that was born nearly a decade before I made my first sounds, my first concrete poems, my first investigations into the whorl of word and world.
1b o d y
by James Merrill
Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off — so soon —
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d
—as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines
and what the b and d stood for.
2A “transcendental situation” quoted from a Neil Diamond, interview, The New York Times, July 2005.
3 Thank you, Sandra Doller!