What better place to start than with the letter A. The beginning of learning and the door of heaven, is what that madman Christopher Smart called it. Its shape comes from the head of an Ox, they say, and ‘Ox’, according to my dictionary, is, 1: Any bovine animal. 2: Castrated male of the domestic species. It was Smart’s strong conviction that there is life in language, a generative power. The current view of the matter, however, would go along with the gelded version, holding that language is a domestic arrangement, an information technology which in itself is devoid of life and mystery. I suppose that ever since people began to think about language, instead of simply living inside the spell of it, a tension has existed between these two views - the magical and the rational. Perhaps the very act of thinking about words is what severs the Ox from its magic potency. That; or in encountering some untamed element of the Aleph we do indeed stand in jeopardy of being tossed into a madness.
Weak-minded people, wrote Arthur Rimbaud, beginning by thinking about the first letter of the alphabet, would soon rush into madness. In the overweening confidence of his youth when, by his own confession, he considered himself Magus or Angel, exempt from all morality, he made that famous sonnet in which he claims that each vowel has a colour, and that the sounding of them conjures up images in the mind: A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies which buzz around cruel smells, gulfs of shadow. Following a deliberate path of poetic initiation, he battered at the conventions imposed on language by the one-eyed intellect until its vowels became for him five Halleluiahs heralding a change of consciousness. One must be deader than a fossil, he wrote, to finish a dictionary in any language...
Poem and excerpt © Paul Matthews