Number and Verse


Nothing in me, zero.
Enough to watch the moon.
Innumerable wonders.
Fearless as a daisy.

The question should not be in what ways writing and utterance trope each other, but how both are involved with number. Without relating the technology of writing to number (as opposed to sound or drawing), it is impossible to discuss it meaningfully as an aspect of versecraft. What is needed is a way to pry apart the polar, mimetic fiction that undergirds discussions (even sympathetic ones) of writing and versification, and see how we can relate writing to measure. Roy Harris’ investigations into the origin of writing make this connection possible. He argues that the origin of writing did not lie in the drawing of figures, or attempts to imitate speech, but in the recording of number. According to Harris, the oldest ‘writing’ that we have, like that in 11,000-year-old Ishango bone, is in ‘lines.’ The surface is scored with rows of short, parallel strokes, which probably served a numerical function. We still use such scoring systems today on occasion. Harris speculates about counting by scoring:

            What is relevant for our present purposes is the fact that counting is associated
            in many cultures with primitive forms of recording which have a graphically
                isomorphic basis. The iconic origin of such recording systems is hardly open to
            doubt: the notch or stroke corresponds to the human finger . . . In short, the rows
            of strokes are graphically isomorphic with just that subpart of the recorder’s oral
            language which comprises the corresponding words used for counting. It makes
            no difference whether we ‘read’ the sign pictorially as standing for so many
            fingers held up, or scriptorially as standing for a certain numeral.
                                                                                             – Roy Harris, The Origin of Writing

Along with other evidence, this leads him to argue that the invention of writing – or the division of writing and drawing into separate functions – occurred when the graphic representation of number shifted from the token-iterative system that appears on the Ishango bone, to type-slotting. Harris gives the following example of what he means:

            The progression from recording sixty sheep by means of one ‘sheep’ sign
             followed by sixty strokes to recording the same information by means of one
           ‘sheep‘ sign followed by a second sign indicating ‘sixty’ is a progression
            which has already crossed the boundary between pictorial and scriptorial signs.
            A token-iterative sign-system is in effect equivalent to a verbal sublanguage
            which is restricted to messages of the form ‘sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep . . .,’ or
            ‘sheep, another, another, another . . .,’ whereas an emblem-slotting system is
            equivalent to a sublanguage which can handle messages of the form ‘sheep, sixty.’
            Token-iterative lists are, in principle, lists as long as the number of individual
               
items recorded. With a slot list, on the other hand, we get no information simply
               
by counting the number of marks it contains.

When this change occurred it opened ‘a gap between the pictorial and scriptorial function of the emblematic sign,’ which had been previously inseparable in the counting represented by rows of slashes. This semiological gap made writing possible because it meant that signs could be manipulated to ‘slot,’ or identify, anything whatsoever. The open-ended quality of the scriptorial sign was a necessary precondition for the development of writing systems. As Harris points out, no writing system is accurately phonetic. Even the alphabet only highlights certain phenomena in the speech stream. The reason for this is that alphabetic writing did not begin as a simpler or more accurate way to record speech than other writing systems, but as an easier way to write. Through a radical reduction in the number of signs, the alphabet simplified the scriptorial system in and of itself. The evolution of writing therefore may look like this: simple forms of counting preceded the complications of pictorial representation, which in turn led to simplification of the writing system in cultures that adopted the alphabet. Discussing the power of inscriptions of number, Harris points out:

            Counting is in its very essence magical, if any human practice at all is. For
            numbers are things no one has ever seen or heard or touched. Yet somehow
            they exist,and their existence can be confirmed in quite everyday terms by all
            kinds of humdrum procedures which allow mere mortals to agree beyond any
            shadow of a doubt as to ‘how many’ eggs there are in a basket or ‘how many’
            loaves of bread on the table.

Or, one might add, for how many stanzas there are in a poem, or lines in a stanza, or stresses, feet, or syllables in a line, or occurrences of particular syntactical or grammatical patterns, and so on. As every serious student of versification has always understood, versification is about counting language. The reason to write verse is less to score the voice than to imbue words with the magical quality of counting. That is why meter, or measure, is at the heart of debates over all verse forms, including free verse. Number is one of the creative grounds of poetry, and the idea that writing grew out of counting is the missing link in studies of the graphic in versification.

It is almost uncanny that lines of verse look exactly like the most primitive ways of counting – parallel scorings that can be numbered. Verses are countable in exactly the way that token-iterative digits are countable, from either end of the sequence. Each one indicates only its singularity, not a number. Every poem in lines effaces, or predates, the distinction between writing and drawing in the same way as the lines on the Ishango bone; lines of verse combine functions of writing, drawing, and counting.

            –from “Verse, Prose, Speech, Counting, and the Problem of Graphic Order”
             by David Rothman in Versification


Copyright 2012 by Robert Ronnow. Acknowledgements.