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(And a Brief Foray into Hardware)

Making Your Meek Adjustments to the Computer as Co-creator

The typewriter is a dumb beast.  It has its advantages:  tactile feedback that makes creating a poem feel, for many, more like a physical thing—as real hammered iron.  And it’s totally subservient.  Still, if muscled with muscular software, writing on a PC can be a distinct advantage. 

For your writing software to be most useful, it must be quickly and easily accessible—at your fingertips is best, rather than at the twitch of your mouse tail.  Windows allows you to set shortcut keys, which can call up a useful program from wherever you are.  For instance, if you’re composing a poem in Microsoft Word and need a thesaurus, you don’t need to leave the program, dumbly search for an icon which will summon it up, and then return only to find you’ve lost your train of thought. 

I find it’s best to set up a logical sequence of hotkeys to take you immediately to programs you need.  If you’re a fast touch typist, as I am, these shortcut keys rapidly become second nature.  I prefer to preface all my shortcut keys with Control+Shift.  They’re easier to remember that way.  I then assign a terminal letter that’s a mnemonic for what I want:  Control+Shift+t for thesaurus, for instance.  Or Control+Shift+o for the Oxford English Dictionary.  Whatever system you choose, be consistent.

To begin setting up these keys, left-click on the Start Menu (lower left) and point to All Programs using your mouse.  From this menu, you can find the program you want to customize.  Right-click on its icon.  Left-click on Properties.  Left-click in the white box next to Shortcut keys.  Now you can choose the key strokes which will activate the program by just pressing them.  Your choice will appear in the white box.  Press the OK button at the bottom to record your selection.  Now you’re ready to go.

One generally useful shortcut key to assign is for Show Desktop.  I have put it under Ctrl+Shift+j, because the “j” reminds me of a down arrow.  No matter how many programs you have open, you can get to the icons on your desktop by shrinking all open programs to icons at the bottom of your screen.  In standard Windows nomenclature, you “minimize them.”  Also, assign a hotkey for your browser.  A lot of useful information for a writer’s research can be accessed on the web quickly.


WriteExpress Inc.Rhymer not only features regular end rhymes (blue/shoe), but more complex double rhymes (conviction/prediction), triple rhymes (frightening/brightening), beginning rhymes (physics/fizzle), first syllable rhymes (carrot/caring), and last syllable rhymes (timber/harbor).  Unlike rival programs, Rhymer draws on an extensive database of 92,000 words.  A misconception of some free-verse writers is that they can’t benefit from these tuneful tools.  However, any poet can enrich musical effects other than simple rhymes at the end of lines.  J. D. McClatchy, for instance, patterns a section of one poem with a series of slant rhymes in the middle of lines. 

At one writers’ conference at Squaw Valley which I attended, Robert Hass demonstrated that Keats’ vowel sounds in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ made us re-participate in the creation of the poem, reforming the air of the poem in our throats and on our tongues. Listen to the long mournful long o’s here:

Close to her ear touching the melody;—
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
He ceased—she panted quick—and suddenly
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.

Every poem is an echo chamber.  I was surprised when I visited Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse, now a museum in Laugharne.  On display was one sheet packed with words which had extensive, but sometimes not obvious, sounds in common.  It was the sonorous cacophony of a poem not yet written.  I had thought previously that Thomas’s intense music was a result of unconscious correlation, instinct.  If Thomas could at least partially rely on such a primitive musical cheat sheet, so we too can benefit from a program that can supply the same much more quickly. 

Rhymer comes with Phonetic Finder, where you can specify even more specific and intricate series of sounds in any order you want, if you wish to proceed hastily from Bach’s Little Organ Book to the Art of the Fugue. 

Because you can summon Rhymer so quickly with its sorcerer’s assistant of sounds, improvisation and flow are better accommodated.  For those poets who work as I do, in the shimmering twilight between consciousness and unconsciousness, opening a print thesaurus would be deadly to maintaining that altered state.  For me, opening an electronic thesaurus disturbs nothing.  A door opens and closes so quickly you almost don’t know it appeared.

Frost famously complained that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.  I maintain that writing free verse is like creating the game itself and all the rules as you go. 

You innovate new complex patterns in concert with the subject matter.  Line breaks in a poem about a bee, for instance, are bound to be different than in a poem about a wolverine. They'd have to be. 

And so also for the arrangement of internal music.

A music professor once told me that in the Baroque, the ear was attuned to hearing the melody and bass line equally.  We have an opportunity now to innovate new ways of listening.  Let’s choose for our fugue theme a jazz tune in a rhythm that oversteps the beat of the regular rhyme at the end of the line, then counterpoint it.  Free verse encourages new constraints and thus new ideas.  In fact, each new free verse poem demands a new form. 


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For fast research purposes I use DtSearch, which turns regular text files into a database I can search with various complex parameters. For instance, I’ve scanned in several reference books I often use (e.g., An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by J. C. Cooper, Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John K. Terres, my own image notebooks and journals, a general book of baby names, which includes their derivations, etc.).

I convert the text with optical character recognition software, ABBYY FineReader, then use DtSearch to add these files to its index. I can do a blindingly quick search for the meaning of a name like Cecil. Or I can search for “blue bird” and get back a whole list: black-throated blue warbler, blue darters, blue hawks, etc.

Note that a very fast scanner specialized for archiving documents quickly becomes very desirable.  Most of the popular scanners from HP and Epson and the like are just not up to this job.  And it’s painfully difficult to find comprehensible statistics on the speed it takes a scanner to copy one regular book page (really two book pages of text, because most current flat beds have sufficient glass surface).  Epson, for instance, rates its scanners in msec/line.  Trouble is no one at Epson knows what this means.  Through numerous phone calls to tech support, I could find no one who could say how long it took for the scanner, from start to finish, to absorb one page. 

Scanner Recommendation

But I persevered—and finally found my current favorite, the Fujitsu FI-6230.  Total flatbed scan time for two pages of an open book is about 6 seconds, slightly dependent on the processor speed of  the computer.  Practically, this means you can input about 400 pages of a book per half hour.  My favorite search engine for deals is Google Shopping.  But CNET shopper is also worth consulting.

And of course you need a good OCR (optical character recognition) program to convert all these graphic squiggles into machine readable text.  I much prefer ABBYY FineReader, though Omnipage Pro  will also suffice.  See below.

Laptop Recommendation

Since I’m discussing hardware, I may as well recommend my favorite ultra-light laptop here.  I use my ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch Ultrabook in collaboration with my desktop computer (which I built myself - Velocity Micro offers great computers and great support for those not so hands-on inclined).  With excellent battery life (your milage may vary), I can write anywhere.  I hauled literally several tons of gorgeous Mt. Moriah flagstones down to my lower garden so I could have a “Shade Pad” where I could do my writing. 

There, my muses are virgins bower, cup-of-gold, and skyflower vines; goldheart bleeding hearts, green wizard rudbeckias, and royal blue Convolvulus tricolors; Herbertia lahue ssp. lahue, Primula pubescens, and Epimedium grandiflorum var. higoense (known variously as fairy wing or bishop’s mitre or barrenwort or horny goat herb, depending on your disposition or mood of the moment).  Planted purposefully near my redwood chair and munchkin table, I have a lovely new exotic iridescent mauve hibisus, Janys, whom I find quite stimulating, epecially when she opens her silver-lavendar aureole.

Point is, with an ultra-light, you can write anywhere you choose, from skyscraper to arboretum.

ABBYY FineReader Pro 11I love this OCR program.  It’s highly accurate in converting scanned book pages to text and then exporting them to your word processor.  One special feature is its ability to accurately read skewed text that curves at the center between pages when you scan a book on a flatbed.  And it’s much better than Omnipage Pro for scanning poetry, with its distinct line breaks.  (Note that there’s a setting for putting a hard return after every line.) For the best results, choose “Original layout” and check “Keep line breaks.”  Stanza breaks will disappear if you specify “Tables, paragraphs, fonts.”  I prefer to save scanned poetry books in both forms, however.  I name files with (ff) for full format to distinguish from regular.  For instance The Waste Land (ff).doc and The Waste Land.doc.  Why?  I like the readability of Times New Roman 12 point.  “Original layout” produces miniscule fonts sometimes. 

When ABBYY FineReader exports text to Word, I copy it and paste it to a new file using Word’s arcane but highly useful command:  PasteDestination.  This pastes what you’ve copied into the new document and formats the text after your default, which in my case is Times New Roman 12 point.  Different point sizes of text are standardized, but you don’t lose bold or italic.  I’ve assigned a hotkey, Control+Shift+v for this action.  See Customize Word for details.

Encyclopedia Britannica CDIf you’re a word person and still want the best content, load the complete Encyclopedia on your hard disk.  It’s more reliable by far than info scattergunned on the NET. 
There are many computing programs to quickly search text files on your computer, but DtSearch is the best.  Valuable search features include:  Stemming (-ing, -ed, ...), where all such forms of the word will be retrieved; Phonetic Search; Fuzzy Search, where you don’t have to spell the word exactly; and Synonyn Searching, where your input word and various synonyms are retrieved in one pass.  Most valuable is the ability to search for words in proximity (within 5 spaces or within 25 spaces).  If I wanted to find instances of Yeats w/5 bird (I have scanned Richard J. Finneran’s edition of The Poems of W. B. Yeats into my computer), I'd get, among other things:

Yeats explained that ‘The birds of fairyland are white as snow.  The ‘Danaan Shore’ is, of course, Tier-nan-oge, or fairyland . . .”

I might use portions of this for an allusion in a poem I’m working on.

GooglebarFor comprehensive web searches for material.
(highly recommended)
Oxford English DictionaryThe definitive dictionary of the English language, the OED features the whole history of the meanings of words, giving current and extinct definitions.  The poet John Ciardi maintained that every word we use is haunted by its past.  Most of the best poets activate multiple meanings in their poems.  In “Credences of Summer,” Wallace Stevens includes many terms from heraldry to enrich its already complex systems of meaning.  When young poets who are very very good ask me how they can improve, one of my answers is they can add density to their work this way. 
SharpKeysI’ve always been partial to having my Control key next to the A on my keyboard and the Alt key under the Shift.  SharpKeys allows you to do this without complex fussing with your Registry or knowing further arcane lore of Windows.  Any keys can be reassigned. 
Microsoft WordMy other idiosyncrasies go far beyond simple key exchanges, though.  Having started with WordStar, I’m partial to keyboard navigation.  I don’t like to take my right hand off the keyboard to find and peck the delete key, for instance.  That’s a waste of time and inelegant as well as irritating.  I now have all my editing commands under my fingertips and they have become as intuitive as, say, pressing the letter A.  I don’t have to think anymore about what my fingers are doing when I’m editing or creating.  Delete a word?  Easy, Control+t.  Delete a line?  Control+y.  Moving about the poem is easy as well.  Similar to the old Wordstar “diamond,” Control-e moves my cursor up one line at a time,  Control-x one line down, Control-d one character to the right, Control-s one character to the left and so forth.  Although this might seem an odd scheme at first, once established it’s of enormous assistance not only to your editing, but to the composition of original work.  I’ve always argued that whatever medium you choose for creation—whether longhand or typewriter or computer—that instrument must be invisible to you.  There’s no one right way, as there’s no one right style or right school.  If your fingers bumble on a keyboard, maybe handwriting your work is right for you.  For some that also feels more personal.  Deborah Garrison believes the computer makes revision too easy.  In her interview with Bill Moyers, collected in Fooling with Words, she says:

“The problem with a word processor—at least for me it’s a problem—is that if you want to change a word, it’s too easy. You don’t retype the whole poem. You just go in—it’s like a heat-seeking missile— you zap that one word, put in another word, and presto! But if you have to retype that entire poem on a typewriter to change one word, you hear the poem again in your head as you retype it. To even change one word I retype the whole poem. The rhythms become more familiar to me, I internalize what the poem sounds like, and then I’ll come across other words that strike me as wrong—the break in this line doesn’t have the right tension, let’s say.” 

I, on the other hand, love changing things as I go.  My subconscious is freer to make emendations.  If a word bubbles up that’s better than what I’ve typed, it simply gets replaced.  I don’t have to think about it.  It just appears.  Often, I agree with Ginsburg, “First thought, best thought,” because many processes unknown to us are taking place.  I find this corroborated by Daniel Dennett’s Multiple Drafts mode model of consciousness (see his Consciousness Understood).  Apparently, before a thought becomes conscious, or we decide what is really real, many fugal lines peregrinate, interpenetrate, cross-checking, harmonizing various often disparate data, before it all froths up and becomes single.  For instance, multiple meanings of words are tracked without our being consciously aware.  A word that suits two contexts at once, a pun, can be supplied without our being consciously aware of it. 

All this is likely why poets are often not good explicators of what’s happening in their own work. 

My wife’s brain is fond of puns.  Once, while relaying some news tidbit about mastectomies, she remarked: “Women today are losing their breasts right and left.”  Then realized what she had said.  More complexly, symbols, image clusters, sounds, allusions are being refined in this state of flow without our knowing it.  For me, this best happens when I’m not broken out of the fictive dream by practical considerations—like searching for awkward arrow keys or hunting for the delete or even using the mouse to skitter up to a noun I’d like to curtail (now that was a spontaneous pun!). 

For the technical details on altering your Word’s keyboard, see Customize Word.


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