This Week's Must Read
6:12 pm
Fri June 27, 2014

SCOTUS On Cellphones And The Privacy Of Poetry

Originally published on Fri June 27, 2014 6:33 pm

Dear sweet privacy, where did you go? And where can we go to be alone with you again? Thanks to the Supreme Court, one answer is, surprisingly, our cell phones. On Wednesday, the Court ruled that, except in emergencies such as kidnappings and bomb threats, police can't search our phones without a warrant.

Privacy advocates cheered the unanimous ruling. The police weren't so psyched, fearing it would make their work harder. Basically, the Court decided that the Founding Fathers had never anticipated carrying one's whole life in a handheld device, and so that device deserved the same privacy protection the Founders had fought so hard for.

But literature has another answer, an odd one I'll admit, that also involves a handheld device called a book. Some writers protect their privacy by hiding in plain sight.

"Confessional" poetry has been in vogue since a generation of poets — Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath most famously — came to prominence in the decades after World War II. Rather than keep their secrets, they turned them into a kind of performance. Anything you say can and will be used against you, but only if you care what people think.

One notable, if unsung, example of this kind of writing is a book-length poem by the late A.R. Ammons, whose career spanned the '60s through the '90s (he died in 2001). His Tape for the Turn of the Year is a marvel of minute revelations.

Ammons wrote the book on a roll of adding machine tape, sort of like Kerouac's mythic On the Road scroll, only much skinnier. In it, he works through his anxiety and anticipation while "waiting to hear if / Cornell will give me / a job" teaching, which he got and kept the rest of his life.

Mixing observations about the world out his window, "the actual / fact, the mere / occurrence — the touched, / tasted, heard, seen," all sorts of silly, often horny musings — "swing! / your partner, / promenade (and when / you can / get laid / get laid") — and visions of how the tape "coils again on / the floor / into the unity of its / conflicts," Ammons shows us his actual mind, crabby, over-excited, scared, and endlessly curious.

This book doesn't contain evidence of illicit drug deals, like the most scintillating smartphones, but it's far more than most of us would show a stranger. It offers up what we always hide — the very fabric of our innermost thoughts, something no warrant can uncover, nor any ruling protect.

Craig Morgan Teicher's latest collection of poetry is called To Keep Love Blurry.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Supreme Court ruled this week that, with the exception of some emergencies, the police cannot search a cell phone without a warrant during an arrest. To put a literary spin on this news, we turn to poet Craig Morgan Teicher. Here he is for our series This Week's Must Read.

CRAIG MORGAN TEICHER: Privacy friends cheered. The police weren't so psyched. But the justices ruled unanimously. Our devices with our texts, our photos, our scribbles stay private. We can hide in plain sight. This isn't a new idea. The confessional poets have been doing it for decades. Instead of keeping their secrets, they turn them into performance.

My favorite of these is a book-length poem by A.R. Ammons. It's called "Tape for the Turn of the Year." He wrote it on a roll of adding machine paper, kind of like Jack Kerouac's famous "On the Road" scroll, only skinnier. At the time, he was full of anxiety and anticipation. (Reading) I'm waiting to hear if Cornell will give me a job, he writes. (Reading) I need to work and maybe I write too much.

He also mixes in what he sees out his window - the touched, tasted, heard, seen, he says. Plus all sorts of silly musings - swing your partner, promenade, he tells us. And he describes the tape he writes on - how it coils again on the floor into the unity of its conflicts. Ammons shows us his actual mind. It's crabby, overexcited, scared and endlessly curious. This book doesn't contain evidence of illicit drug deals or gang memberships like the most scintillating smart phones, but it's more than most of us would show a stranger. It offers up what we always hide - the fabric of our innermost thoughts. That's something no warrant can uncover, nor any ruling protect.

CORNISH: The book is "Tape for the Turn of the Year" by A.R. Ammons. It was recommended by Craig Morgan Teicher. His latest book is called "To Keep Love Blurry."

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.