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The Graphic Line Johanna Drucker The graphic line displays a modern aspect when the metrical units of poetic form are matched by their lineation on the page (Schmidt). Graphical conventions of lineation are not modern devices, and when thought of as a basic material support for poetic expression, they track to the origin of writing. The notion of a phrase as a lexical unit extends into Babylonian times. The culture of the ancient Near East, in which writing emerged from earlier sign systems used for accounting, developed the first known use of lines to divide a surface and to group signs into semantic units. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, renowned archaeologist and scholar of cuneiform , has shown that cuneiform scribes developed graphical conventions for the rational, systematic representation of language. Her work emphasizes the importance of the ground line as a feature that organizes and rationalizes the graphical space in which the relative position, size, scale, direction, orientation, and clustering/proximity of signs gain value. This organization in turn provided conventions adopted for pictorial presentations of narrative. This cultural event took place in the third millennium b.c.e., and like the graphical conventions in Egypt in and around the same time, serves as an example for the ways written texts are organized after. Other graphic lines are also conspicuous in cuneiform tablets, used to frame and group units of signs in a gridded surface. The lineation of Hammurabi’s code on the eighteenth-century b.c.e. stele is a masterwork of graphic design for its regularity, efficiency, and textural beauty. The law code is not poetry, but it uses the enframing techniques of other cuneiform as well as the implied ground line for each lexical unit. The oldest examples of written poetry are cuneiform texts from the middle of the third millennium b.c.e., such as the celebrated hymn by Enheduanna to the goddess Inanna.1 Lineation and phrasing exist, but not in the forms we use today. 78 | Drucker The complex relation between the two modes of transmission—written inscription and verbal phraseology, with its dependence on and engagement with breath, pause, song, hymn, prosody, and poetic forms—has many variations and detours in the history that follows. But the notion of a ground line is foundational to all verbal sign systems that function to register language in a stable communicative system. We know, but often forget, that writing is not a direct transcription of verbal writing, but its own parallel, semi-autonomous system. These insights allow us to track the articulation of graphical conventions in a codependent relation with verbal ones. Because we encounter poetry in conventions that prevail in print culture, we tend to overlook how the forms on which our sense of the poetic line depends have come into being in graphic terms. Look again, and imagine the ground line dissolved, the line-breaks dubiously rendered, and the graphical function becomes strikingly clear. 1. See Roberta Binkley’s “Biography of Enheduanna, Priestess of Inanna,” and John H. Walton’s Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context. works cited Binkley, Roberta. “Biography of Enheduanna, Priestess of Inanna.” . Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. When Writing Met Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. Schmidt, Michael. The Story of Poetry I: From Caedmon to Caxton. London: Weidenfeld, 2001. . Walton, John H. Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan , 1994. ...


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