Soft text is potential text arising within language users in our interactions with ourselves, permeant surfaces, other persons, and object-events of living. It’s the text that silently formulates or never quite materializes in invisible relation to speaking, publishing, or other hard text form. Soft text is the invisible textuality of potential language: language that stays within the mind. A textual theory analogous to the social space theory of Lisa Robertson’s ‘soft architecture,’ soft text is the alterity, ghost, futurity, prefiguration, and/or potential otherness of the hard text line. Possibility intrinsically exceeds actuality, thus there is always more soft text than hard text anywhere and any time. The essay engages the soft text of encounters with the non-verbal world, conversation, public contexts, and responses to poetic lines, noting that the membranes among different soft textual apportionments cannot be delineated with absolute fixity, even as they all defer from hard text. The essay considers excerpts from Bill Direen’s Enclosures 2 (Percutio 2016) and from Lisa’s experimental memoir of childhood, Anti M (Chax 2013), and ends by thinking about areas of conceptual overlap between revisionary palimpsests, with their hard text ghosts, and ‘true’ soft text.
Soft text is potential text arising within language users in our interactions with ourselves, permeant surfaces, other persons, and object-events of living. It’s the text that silently formulates or never quite materialises in invisible relation to speaking, publishing, or other hard text form. Soft text is the invisible textuality of potential language: language that stays within the mind. You imagine an utterance but you don’t say it, or soft text is what is left out of what you do say.
Soft text is present in every moment of lingual living. It can be the visual imagining of uttered oral text — someone speaks and you picture the words in your mind – or the oral imagining of visually presented text, as in silently sounded reading. Soft text trembles in the encounter between a language user and an object-event. These trembles can be morpheme fragments, phonemic waves, full unuttered sentences, and more. Because soft text is potential in the moment, its visuality or orality is imagined but never incarnate as hard text.
A line in soft text is an increment of encounter experienced as a medial not-quite-articulation in the vivified non-evidence that constitutes soft text. Say you look at some boats and your soft text silently describes those boats. They move like little soft text lines, each boat a word or phrase, their conglomerance a soft text bunch of lines. Boat boat boat little white boat tilt boat shiny – this latter description cannot be soft text because it’s recorded in hard text form, but it’s an example of what could be a soft text instance had it not been written here. And if you say those descriptive boat words inside your mind (in silently sounded reading) that’s a soft text, translate from the visual and not spoken.
Say you look at a boat you know, with a person on it with whom you are connected. That boat’s soft text has many other lines, exponentialised by the potential utterances between you and that person, the soft text between you. Line boat shoe turn then love now if soft wind plan eyes mouth body speaking: this description also cannot be soft text, see as above. It’s a hard text example of the soft text that cannot be exemplified, though its lingual omnipresence can be pointed to.
Soft text is a textual theory analogous to the social space theory of Lisa Robertson’s ‘soft architecture,’ a term for embodied interactive living in devices, history, and circumstances of culturally built and imagined areas. In Robertson’s Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), the ephemeral shack and the fountain, and our bodies walking near them, for example, are soft architecture amidst hard (stone, ‘lasting’) architectural constructions.
So amidst hard texts, soft text goes unsaid. The said is the selection from potential soft text — not necessarily controlled selection — in oral text. The spontaneous said is the partial waiver of the potential of soft text in the oral encounter, no scribbled speech notes around, no social media script. Say you are speaking on the phone with someone: soft text occurs in the moments when no-one is saying any words aloud and yet you know the line is open.
Hard text and the line is another matter. Hard text is inscribed or uttered in or on or through some recipient surface(s). A hard text line stays the potentiality of soft text, even as soft text hovers around the line with alternate instance. Soft text is the alterity, ghost, futurity, prefiguration, and/or potential otherness of the hard text line.
Soft text has nothing against hard text. After all, hard text has the incarnate virtue. It generates yet more potential for soft text in relation to the said and inscribed. Where would soft text be without incarnate textuality? Who would learn its rhythms? Who would imagine its absences?
Where would hard text be without the potential othernesses of soft text wreathing around and inside it?
Say you are in the Metro and hard text defines many spaces around you, where to go, what’s here and there, what to buy, what people are saying to each other. Soft texts are the spaces among those incarnate textualities. The walls glow with what might be said about them. You might answer a sign in your mind ‘what fucking way out?’ and your irritated silent soft text links you to that Metro text without your saying a word to anyone.
Say you are looking at a hill and speaking nothing nor writing in that relation with the hill at that moment. The hill has things to say — reports from other encounters, possible verbal descriptions of its dimensions and past shapes and inhabiting animals. You say nothing and the hill says nothing. Yet the potential for utterance wreathes in your encounter. You imagine partial sentences, words that flit between you and the hill, language matters in your thoughts. You say nothing and write nothing, not deliberately leaving out hard text, just walking and thinking in relation to that hill. That is a structure for the potential presence of soft text.
Everyone makes soft text in dreams. Text that can really/almost/never be told, though its reports ricochet through poetry.
In a hard text poem, soft text is conceptual breath opening verbal potentiality — perhaps even without regard to the degree of openness of the set line, or at the least in a discorrelate relation with cloistered strophes or open page layout. Soft text is potential alternates within phrases inside the lines, potential letter chiasms that conjure the bodies of other, absent letters, the partly lingual gestures of the interface hand touching the screen, unarticulated contiguities and potential lettrified recombinations. The more opportunites there are for soft text, whether within lexical strings (words, phrases, lines) or across the composition (shaped correlations, transmediality, conducted surface area), the more the line can breathe ideas, feelings, and presence.
Of course, a poetic line can be theoretically and practically any articulation and response, from visual (page/ screen/ cloth/ glass/ floor/ wall) to sonic (live/ recording/ voice/ instrument/ ambience) to biological (tattoo/ cellular etch) to conceptual (posited with a translucent poetic or without any instance at all).
A hard text line is a unit of order from potential. It is a locutable, a Hello, an attention moment, a space in time or a time in space, an irruption in the scrutable, a node, a clasp, an extension, a rhythm across time, a yell in one spot, an echo from one place to another place right away or across what’s called history, a touch on the page and thus to you, a link on the screen to another node that catches it and throws you on, a tiny roseate cut whose reading makes it blossom, an audible yelp or flutter brought into hearing by your hand as you touch the arrow pointing > then you || it and you make it > again you || it and you stutter it with your digital flick or control button your finger tip or if you’re aural/oral you flint it with your mouth you tell it to Act, that’s a line on screen a line inscreen like inline skates you go a direction you touch the > || n you make it start pause stop you make the line as a unit of continue or Force Stop.
A line proves the rule of language’s constitutive inability to foreclose, it’s a freeclose, it opens up a claim on your attention, the Hello a unit of welcome toward a potentially limitless otherness of switching on your head to a shaped attention
A line is a ridgeway on a topomap and a lit path on a screen, paper page and illuminated text lit in your relation
A line is a soundwave, a sound moving its arm across the ready air you notice it, you make its airwave ripple
A line is a sightmark, a deep cave surfing its opening on a held page, miniature hugeness echoing inside your cavernous eyespace
A line is a mindlight, scattered blink city or like bridge lights one by one by one by one by one by one by one your mental car’s attention turns them on you pass through turning on the lights.
A line intervenes in soft text as a rendering. In whatever passes for oneself as ordinary existence, a line is a moment of attention. You give yourself to it and it is glancing, fleeting, a trace, or you give yourself longer and it asks for more and it’s sustained, prolonged. It exists by itself with your attention or it adds to another line and you make something together with your holding the hand of the line.
In trauma or in ecstasy, we could say the line is obliterated: experience blares, you are integrated by being split and holding excess with your body. The line in this case becomes a report from elsewhere, a translation and medial stasis within that rupture of your ordinary existence. The soft text of trauma is a swamped blare. Its hard text can produce lines that are anything from sliced glare to careful pulses, depending on when you make lines out of the record.
In Bill Direen’s Enclosures 2 (2016), the death of his father is explicitly part of what swerves the otherwise-prose of Direen’s book into a prolonged poetry. Here are some of his lines from the long poem ‘Centre’:
Light scales, optometry puddles on the walls,
Tempera touches as just-audible matter.
Pods deliquescing as matt shade, joining fingers,
It all throws me across a parallel to be of one mind,
Before snapping me back to a correlative hamartia,
Where stems swish and proudly seed.
Spinning disks of coal shiny vinyl once voiced
Scripts of unsatisfied longing.
I drew the odour of turpentine and wrote tabacco blue,
Edging inches further away from home,
Then miles, oceans away from God,
I added sulphur to the provocative incendium.
Away away we are nothing silver can exalt
Nor lurid signifiers demean.
Backward flaps of days! What we were!
Breasts bared, up naked rocks struggling,
Self-scratching till the skin ran and tears,
Tears through and thoroughly.
All those lines, and only two punctuate enjambments! Only twice does the line accede to the cliff face of its end. Otherwise control, control: formal capitalized initial safety letters holding on to the left margin, gentle commas and full stops delivering the line to the right margin, one cry (the exclamation points line), and otherwise the lines pull their trauma inward, where soft text turns quite mental.
That mentality can be partly private enigma in the opened text: what the writer thinks or knows or partly-thinks or used-to-know that doesn’t leave denotative (semantically and contextually curtailed or ‘clear’) marks in the text.
That mentality can be the interpretive presagement of ‘It all throws me across a parallel to be of one mind’, a line whose interpretive opportunity can be irresistable to the hard-text imperative of the critical reader. And if that reader knows you cannot score all the opportunities of reading that line, if you know that its contexts and recombinations are theoretically infinite, then you know soft text is part of the breath of that line. The scrutable releases the infinity of the inscrutable, thus interpretive penumbra always glows with soft text.
In other words, possibility intrinsically exceeds actuality, thus there is always more soft text than hard text anywhere and any time.
Some of the breath of soft text inheres in the breaks between strophes in Direen’s poem. In the blank line between the first and second strophes, time, experience, and the unsaid or mentally part-formulated language of being alive has infinite denotative, biographical, and soft text opportunity, while time is hastier, more whiplashed, in the strophe break between ‘incendium’ and ‘Away’. Those larger breaks tap into the smaller rivers of page areality that run around and through the words in each strophe and line. And then, at a letter scale, the lettrified inflections that shape sound patterns – for example, ‘ds de es as a ade ‘ from line 4 above (‘Pods deliquescing as matt shade’) and ‘l iny vinyl o ce voice’ from line 8 (‘coal shiny vinyl once voiced’) — are legible strikes, one aspect of the innuendoes of soft text that can constellate implosively or explosively in a reading.
These latter observations participate in the pleasure of poetics, as in calling out assonance and alliteration in the line. In Harmonium (1923), Wallace Stevens writes about the difference between an event and its aftermath:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ (93)
The interpretive mind of soft text sounds some of the infinity in hard text’s inflections, and the breath of soft text is theoretically infinite innuendo. That’s one reason why line breaks, as well as blank lines between and around hard text lines, participate to differential extents in the potential of soft text. That’s one reason interpretation never ends.
And while this essay is getting more and more involved in the soft text of book language, the soft text of conversation, digitality, and encounters with the non-verbal world are transcendently beckoning to think about. Happily, the membranes among these soft textual apportionments cannot be delineated with absolute fixity, even as they all defer from hard text.
For this essay I was asked to speak to my own writing, so the final section considers soft text in relation to my experimental memoir of childhood, Anti M (2013). This book resulted from a long process: I wrote an extended work, turned its drafts in various directions, and then finally took out the majority of the words, initially leaving the retained words in the page areas they had inhabited when all the now-gone words were around them, then finally re-shaping the layout with codical energies in mind. I called the resulting genre ‘omitted prose.’ This writing and revising process, from first draft to book-accepted-for-publishing, took fifteen years.
By then, Anti M’s pages were deep with alternatives and potentiality, certainly the thickest palimpsest I’ve yet created. A palimpsest always of course complicates writing’s surface, encourages the sense of writing as unfolding on deep surface. In Anti M the line is a sculpted occurrence within the conceptual vellum of its ‘omitted prose.’ Here’s an excerpt from chapter 3, ‘Florida’:
She begins to try
to read to dividing
of the outer world.
Her color is
in a large car hitting the front rider.
Dash blacked out to ambulance all right,
up at the side, by having an unsafe story
playing on the unpaved sensation
provoked by an animal against whom we had no
go to protect
however much we know a malleable imagined
Daisy to the hilt, swinging
that got under my skin.
One might describe part of the potential text here as what was once present, the palimpsest of multiple revisions and erasures. But Anti M’s palimpsest is only a special (prolonged and peculiarly motivated) case of what happens with all published books that go through processes of writing, revising, omission, substitution, and editing. All books we see have reams of missing pages, scores of drafted words, that were present in composition and are absent in the published book form.
The inherent soft text of Anti M, however, is what was never there across the years of its composition, its multiple turns toward other versions of itself, and its final hard text form published as a book. Soft text scopes around all those moments: it’s the not-yet-imagined, silently unremembered, words wedged in the muscles of the heart, unthought or thought but not written in any version. Then, in reading, soft text performs in the newly seeable and hearable potentials that privately resound in readers encountering the hard text constellations.
We can consider areas of conceptual overlap between revisionary palimpsests, with their hard text ghosts, and soft text. In the gap effects of poetic layout — intralinear and interlinear blanks, letter-scatter, typeface shift, morphemic floaters, upside-down lines, and more — we may perceive some absent presences that might have once existed, that are versions of palimpsestic revision, and others that are exclusively potential, that are true soft text. Poetic lines can work both registers of suggestion, absent presences as well as chambers for soft text infinitude. Indeed, both registers can be seen in the above Anti M excerpt, in both the cloistered lines and the open layout.
In the excerpt’s cloistered lines — in which words occur in normative position one after another, aligned with a set margin — we can perceive denotative omissions that have been re-sutured in the lines ‘Dash blacked out to ambulance all right’ and ‘up at the side, by having an unsafe story’[.] The palimpsest has been occluded by the cloistering of the lines: there are no evident blanks to perceive. Yet catachresis shows the jam of missing former word partners — a dash does not black out until, here, it does — as well as perhaps sparking potential other word partners in the soft text imaginings of a reader. And the prepositional appositions perform a kind of bodily catachresis: one cannot be, until one is, up at by. What a reader may think within the cloistered slippages of those lines is an occasion braiding the palimpsestic with soft text. In these cases, omitted prose means that some intervening word(s), and also the spaces created by those word omissions, were taken out. The process of writing, revising, omitting, and re-suturing is unrecoverable across the book’s fifteen compositional years: reading these lines isn’t a matter of asserting what has been textually present and what has been taken out and re-shaped. Instead, these lines are compression examples of both palimpsestic absent presences and soft text.
Anti M’s omitted prose proposes that a line can be this kind of margin-held syntactic unit as well as other things: a word, a floated cluster, and an opening or blank in the areas of the page. For this particular book, line blanks showcase both palimpsestic absent presences and soft text. But this is simply an intense case, perhaps a limit case, of the truth that a blank line is also a line. As with the nature of timing and context in any social performance, silence as well as articulation makes communication.
Among its other possible time and context effects, a blank line can stage soft text between lines, in interlinear gaps, and inside a line, in intralinear gaps. Consider the intralinear gap in this line from the above Anti M excerpt:
She begins to try
The blank line between the word-pairs both pulls them together, because of their grammatical magnetism (‘She begins to try’), and registers the possibility of all sorts of something and nothing thought or undertaken in the area in which the word-pairs are apart. The blank intralinear is partly an occasion for omitted prose, the absent presences that are crucial to this memoir. In terms of soft text, though, that intervening blank line is expansive with infinite potentiality: it plummets meaning. Soft text tells us that nothing decides what happens in that blank except, silently and momentarily, the encounter it has with you.
— Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, January-June 2017
Thanks to Murray Edmond for reading a version of this essay and making suggestions that improved it. Tēnā koe.
Direen, B 2016 Enclosures 2, Dunedin: Percutio
Robertson, L 2003 Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Astoria: Clear Cut Press
Samuels, L 2013 Anti M, Tucson: Chax Press
Stevens, W 1968 The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York: Knopf