Guest post: Shlomi Harif on letters and artifacts

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Guest blogger Shlomi Harif is a transplanted Austinite, poet, writer, cook, and co-chair of the Austin International Poetry Festival. He also contributes to the the Drashpit.com ‘zine, a weekly odd look at portions of the Bible.

Over the winter break I visited the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin with my eleven year old daughter. It’s a very small museum – a person can browse the entire space in the space of an hour.

What caught her eye, and mine, was the exhibit of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings. There’s a thrill seeing his roll-top writing desk, easily deciphering his script when he wrote out a stanza of The Raven for a fan. He used a stick pen; India ink stained parts here and there. Little splotches of ink on the pages pulled his ghostly hand into my field of vision: I could see where he stopped, dipped, blotted. Where he paused, then resumed writing. There were numerous letters to and from friends, memos to publishers, cryptic messages to lovers.

In today’s digital world we’ve lost these physical scraps of our footprint on this world: they’re relegated to inboxes and folders, or printed out in some grim, relentlessly linear typeface like zombie handwriting. I’ve postcards and letters from when I was a summer camper, paper-thin aerogramme envelopes written after I’d moved overseas. Letters my parents received, stamped by military censors. Love letters from my marriage that spanned not quite a generation. Letters from girlfriends whose children are parents. Letters from relatives who’ll never write again.

We’ve lost an amazing connection with our past. Unlike the buggy whip or the clay tablet, written letters are more than just words whose medium has passed. They’re pricelessly annotated: flourishes of the script, cramped little words clearly written in the dark, in haste, stained with tears, grease, or blood. Reducing them to electronic bits, trite acronyms and fractured English sucks the marrow from the bones of their message, leaving a harrowed skeleton without the beauty of a full bodied letter.

Those of us who write in journals, who consecrate our thoughts, ideas and feelings to the printed page are carrying on a sacred tradition, one that blogs, twitter feeds and facebook walls can never replace. Nor should they, as the power of our words is diluted, somehow, when they’re cast to the ether’s wind instead of being nestled into an envelope, or blotted into place on a single side of a single page of a singular book.

4 thoughts on “Guest post: Shlomi Harif on letters and artifacts

  1. I would love to have seen Poe’s stick pen and ink-blotted manuscripts. There is something very intimate in the materiality of writing. Thanks for this post.

  2. I love looking at old pieces of writing, whether they be journals, letters, or shopping lists. There seems to be so much more humanity in these items than in the depersonalized forms of communication that are found on the Internet. One reason why I feel that it is important for people today to keep journals and to send written letters. Thank you for this post.

  3. I completely agree!! Last March I went to the London Natural History Museum’s temporary exhibit on Darwin, and it was amazing. My favorite part was the display of his notebooks. It was like traveling back through time and looking over his shoulder while he wrote the words on the page. What an wonderful, physical record of what was in his mind at the moment his pen touched the paper.

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