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Tapping the Poem

By Harriet Staff

We’ve been thinking a lot about codes, coding, and the relationship to poetry lately. So we were interested to see this article from the New York Times about John Borling’s experience as a POW during the Vietnam War and his unique method of composition—tapping poems in a code to help lift the spirits of his fellow prisoners. Bill Keller writes:

WHEN I heard the story of John Borling’s poems, I thought of Samuel Johnson’s quip about a dog that walks on its hind legs: it doesn’t matter whether it is done well; the surprising thing is that it is done at all.

Borling’s poems were tapped out in code, letter by letter, on the walls of a wretched cell in Hanoi during his six and a half years as a prisoner of war. Borling and his fellow captives committed the verses to memory and, 40 years after his release, they have been compiled in a book.

It doesn’t matter that “Taps on the Walls: Poems From the Hanoi Hilton” will probably not be taught in Ivy League English lit classes. His poems were spirit-lifters, mental calisthenics, acts of defiance and a way of improving the odds that his memories would make it home to his wife and daughter, even if he did not. That it was done at all says something heartening about the human spirit.

Captives at the Hoa Lo prison, the notorious North Vietnamese prison and torture mill known to its inmates as the Hanoi Hilton, communicated using a popular alphabet grid:

1. A B C D E

2. F G H I J

3. L M N O P

4. Q R S T U

5. V W X Y Z

You tap the number of the row, then tap the number across to reach the letter you want. So “poem” is (3,5) (3,4) (1,5) (3,2). For the letter K, use C or (2,6). Sometimes the verses were passed along in syncopated coughs; or a captive sweeping the prison corridor would scratch out the code with strokes of his bamboo broom. But mostly they were tapped on the walls. With practice, and using shortcuts, they could rap out up to 40 words a minute, Borling told me. If the inmates were caught tapping — and they were often caught — they were beaten.

Make the jump to read more about Borling’s life after his release from the Hanoi Hilton.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, February 25th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.