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SCOTUS On Cellphones And The Privacy Of Poetry

Posted: June 27, 2014

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To put a literary spin on the Supreme Court's recent decision to limit warrantless cellphone searches, author Craig Morgan Teicher turns to A.R. Ammons' book of poetry, Tape for the Turn of the Year.

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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