Posts Tagged ‘fountain pen’

Pen 2 ps

To mark my most recent birthday my wife gave me a Conway Stewart fountain pen. Conway Stewart & Co., Limited, the most venerable name in British fountain pens, was founded in London in 1905. During the First World War, their handcrafted pens were used extensively by soldiers writing home from the front. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill enlisted a Conway Stewart pen to sign important wartime documents. More recently, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were presented with Conway Stewart pens to commemorate their golden wedding anniversary. Known as the Wordsworth Shingle, my particular pen is a delight to hold and behold. And to a degree exceptional in this day and age, it affords what I would call the pleasures of inscription.

Foremost among those pleasures is the sensuousness of the experience: the sensation of the pen’s nib pressing against the page. Whether light or heavy, that pressure and its attendant sensations can be felt when using any writing instrument, but with a fountain pen they are far more varied, nuanced, and subtle. I would liken them to what I feel in my left-hand fingers when pressing the nylon strings of the classical guitar, sensations that vary according to the placement of the finger-tips and the string I’m pressing down. Placing (or, rather, misplacing) the finger-tip between the frets requires more effort and creates more tension than placing it next to the fret. The bass strings, being metal-wound, also require greater effort.

Something similar occurs when writing with a fountain pen. The pressure and the accompanying sensations felt by the writer will depend on multiple conditions, including the writer’s mood, the quality of the paper, the breadth of the nib (broad, medium, fine, extra fine), the angle at which the pen is being held, and the particular character being created. When all of those conditions are optimal, a good fountain pen will produce an even, distinctive script, analogous to the clear, pure tone of a well-played guitar. And even before that result can be seen or heard, it can be felt in the hand of the player or writer.

Writing well with a fountain pen requires precise control. At the same time, it demands a gentle relinquishing of control. When writing by hand—in longhand, as we used to call it—with a fountain pen, one has the sense of continuous flow, as the hand moves steadily forward, and the ink is released into and onto the page. Obviously, this process begins with an act of conscious will. But to the practiced writer, the process can feel as if it’s happening on its own. In this instance, I would liken the experience to that of seated meditation. Both require effort and skill on the practitioner’s part, but they also demand awareness of—and adherence to—the fine line between making something happen and allowing it to happen. Having found that point of balance, the writer and the meditative practitioner may experience a keen sense of participation in the natural flow of things, be it ink or the breath or time itself.

Beyond the sensory aspects of writing by hand, the experience also aligns the writer with an activity nearly as old as the human race itself. In a poem of mine titled “The Pleasures of Inscription” I explore my motives for writing poems and essays. After considering such “noble” purposes as reifying fleeting moments, witnessing political oppression, or reflecting on the art of poetry itself, I conclude that my primary motive is simply to enjoy the “pleasures of inscription, / which Hardy must have felt / and Sophocles before him, / even as they looked / on death and human passion / and faithfully inscribed / such words as came to mind.”  Writing by hand with a pen, I sometimes feel an affinity with writers as distant in time as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Hardy, who by necessity did the same.

Yet even as writing by hand fosters this sense of camaraderie, it also heightens and sharpens the sense of self. A handwritten script reveals the temperament of the writer. It is an act of creation as well as inscription. And what is being created and thereby objectified is the author’s unique, impermanent, and authentic self. Watching the ink from my Conway Stewart pen dry on the page, I may wish that what I’ve just written, be it a poem, essay, or note to a grieving friend, might be indelible. But whether or not it last, my handwritten script is a concrete expression, here and now, of my inalienable humanity, which words can refer to and names identify but handwriting intimately embodies. There goeth my soul, I might have said, were I living in Elizabethan England. And there beneath it, for all to see, is my indivisible birthright: my sovereign signature.


Photo: Conway Stewart Wordsworth Shingle fountain pen




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Today I am writing this column with my Sailor 1911 fountain pen. Its name commemorates the origin of the Sailor Pen Company, which was founded in 1911 by Mr. Kyugoro Sakata of Hiroshima, Japan. Having learned about fountain pens from a British sailor, Mr. Sakata started his own company, naming it after his source of inspiration. My Sailor 1911 is plum-colored and sports a gold-plated nib, from which the black ink flows freely. A gift from my wife, it is a pleasure to use and a handsome object in its own right.

Yet my pen is also a composite thing, and when I take it apart to clean it, I see that it consists of four principal components: nib, cartridge, cap, and barrel. Were I to take those components themselves apart, I would discover that my fountain pen, which feels so stable in my hand, is actually an impermanent aggregate, to which the concept “fountain pen” has been applied. And though it appears independent, it is really a locus of interdependent causes and conditions, including the manufacturers who produced its resin, metal, and ink, the craftsman who assembled it, and of course Mr. Sakata himself. Far from being a separate entity, my pen might better be seen as an event in the ever-changing web of life. For all its beauty and functionality, it is void of solidity or intrinsic existence.

That is no small discovery. And were I to continue my investigation, examining my Sailor 1911 under an electron microsope, I would see that my so-called fountain pen is mostly energy and formless space. I would recognize the formlessness—or what Zen teachings call “emptiness”beneath the form. Through direct experience, I would have verified the core teaching of the Heart Sutra, which is chanted daily in Zen monasteries. “Form is no other than emptiness,” that sutra informs us, “emptiness no other than form”. A pen is indeed a pen, but it is also not a pen. And what is true of fountain pens is true of all phenomena, ourselves included.

To examine the world and the self in this fashion might seem a rather negative, if not destructive, enterprise, but in practice it is quite the opposite. It is as nurturing as it is liberating. In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle explains:

Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you. This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself, that which is beyond death.*

In Zen teachings, what Tolle describes as the “dimension of the formless” is usually called the “absolute” dimension. It is contrasted with the “relative” dimension, where a pen is a pen and a post is a post. In Zen training we are enjoined to see all things, including our bodies, thoughts, and feelings, from both perspectives. We cultivate a kind of double vision, seeing the changing and the changeless, the relative and the absolute, as two sides of a single coin. By so doing, we loosen our anxious attachments to things and thoughts and feelings, having recognized that ultimately there is nothing solid to be attached to, or any need to be attached. And if peace arises, as it often does, it is because at long last we are seeing things as they are.


*Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (Penguin, 2005), 81.

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