Over time, as it ages, a book of poetry begins to resemble a yearbook, reflecting both the style and the aesthetics of the year it was published, the conscious and unconscious choices applied to its artwork, layout, typeface, size, and shape. In American poetry, the class of ’62 combined austerity and simple imagery, best exemplified by James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break. The class of ’72 featured abstract geometry, as in W.S. Merwin’s The Carrier of Ladders. The class of ’82 moved toward representational art, keeping the austere titles of the previous decade while adding reproductions of artwork to the jacket design.
As the 1980s and 1990s become way-back-when, as fads and movements and icons of those decades give way to new ones, the enduring, albeit mostly out-of-print, accomplishments of that generation of poetry-book designers become clearer. The designers of that era’s exemplary poetry books turned each individual volume into part of a collection and into an object that precisely harmonized with the voice, approach, and subject matter of the poems themselves. Designers Harry Ford and Cynthia Krupat led the charge.
Cover art gives a poet and publisher the chance to ground a collection in a particular context before the reader gets to the poems themselves. After the reader has entered the book, the artwork can give context and reassurance—if one poem turns maudlin, the Impressionist art on the cover can reassure; if another turns difficult, the cover art can guide the reader into forgiveness.
I imagine that I’m not the only one who concretely identifies W.S. Merwin’s poetry with the physical books of his from the late 1960s through the 1990s: the consistent typefaces, layout, all-cap titles, the laid paper. A different reader might always remember a particular Merwin poem when first published, in the font and layout of Poetry, or Antaeus, or the New Yorker, and for him or her, that original reading experience will always remain part of that poem.
A volume of selected or collected poems can be disorienting if you know the original books well. Was something lost in the transfer? Is it pretentious to assume so, when the words on the page are exactly the same? Seeing a poem first read in a journal, or an anthology, can have the same effect. I visualize the poems of Keats, Tennyson, and Hopkins in tiny type and on the almost transparently thin paper of the Norton anthology in which I first encountered them. How different a Hopkins poem would appear if given the expanse and white space of Jorie Graham’s Sea Change or Mei-mei Bressebrugge’s Empathy.
Harry Ford was not just an editor but a host: he designed the books he published at Knopf and Atheneum. Vividly, and visually, Ford helped poets create a body of work. As a result, the individual books that he designed create a collection. Similarly, Cynthia Krupat—whom Maurice Sendak once called “the greatest designer living”—gave that same gift through her graphic design, primarily with Ecco Press and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
The poets for whom Ford and Krupat designed—including Donald Justice, Philip Levine, and W.S. Merwin for Ford; Elizabeth Bishop, C.K. Williams, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney for Krupat—ended the 20th century with a body of work that was indeed a body: a particular shape, a particular look that reflected the being inside—the poems themselves. Ford and Krupat each developed a consistent, reliable, surprising, ancient, and simultaneously grand and intimate house style, presenting and reflecting the poems within.
What Ford and Krupat offered their poets in those years was consistency. Each successive book became another piece in a diptych, triptych, and so on. Krupat developed a set of design parameters that allowed for individual poets’ styles without imposing an untoward aesthetic on them—rather than making each poet conform to the visual brand of the publisher, each book had artwork on the cover which fit that particular volume.
For Charles Wright and Philip Levine, the design consistency of their mid-period books matches the consistent approach they had reached in their own poetry. Wright and Levine both found a literal shape to their poems—a rhythm and a visual appearance, a “voice” in rhythm and content as well as a visual shape. They had reconciled where to break their lines (something arguably only visual), and so it’s almost unconsciously satisfying when their collections of poems in this period reflect this same consistency and integrity. Since one book by a poet informs the next, within defined parameters, it’s sensible that the other elements of these books (the type of paper, the layout) remain consistent as well.
On Ford’s books for Levine, the cover font has the solemnity of a tract or guide—both the cover and the poems inside find beauty in ruins, in industrial spaces, in the past. Each has a historic photograph on the cover, letterboxed, widescreen.
Levine’s poems center as well on the handmade: on work, on pride and sufficiency, on dehumanization and humanity, on the social and the personal, on the forgotten and unarchived. Ruins and souvenirs.
The credit for the cover photograph of Levine’s A Walk with Tom Jefferson practically reads like a poem itself: “Charles Scheeler, Ladle Hooks, Ford Motor Company Rouge plant, Open Hearth Building (now demolished), 1927. From the collections of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.”
The photograph explicitly depicts scale: the two visible workers are dots at the bottom of the vertically aligned picture, one standing in front of a hook at least 15 feet high, and the room itself extended at least another 50 feet up from there. The room is mostly empty except for the hook, the two workers, and daylight streaming in from outside. (The author photo of Levine on the back cover contrasts with the image on the front: soft sweater, wool jacket, tree, yard, appropriate scale.) The photograph, while visually representing Levine’s stomping ground of Depression-era Detroit, also gives the poems the appropriate, almost operatic (or Whitmanesque) scale: showing an industrial palace that, seen from a particular direction, indicates mercilessness, hubris, exploitation, employment.
Even Ford’s chosen typeface relates to Levine’s collection, American ideals and reality: “This book was set in Monticello, a Linotype revival of the original Roman No. 1 cut by Archibald Binny and cast in 1796 by the Philadelphia type foundry Binny & Ronaldson. The face was named Monticello in honor of its use in the monumental fifty-volume Papers of Thomas Jefferson, published by Princeton University Press.”
This is followed by credit given to both the printer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the lithographers in West Hanover, Massachusetts, who printed and bound the volume. It’s an appropriate and dignified close to a volume—and a series of books—about handiwork.
Similarly, What Work Is has a haunting and historic photograph on its cover: “Spinner, Cotton Mill, 1908–1909” by Lewis Hine. Just as the poems inside (including “What Work Is”), the image focuses on the anonymous and powerless.
In her designs for Charles Wright’s Zone Journals (1988) and Black Zodiac (1998), Krupat uses focused artists’ sketches: immediate, intricate, spontaneous, matching the journal form that Wright himself was using for his poems, walking the line between representation and abstraction. Zone Journals features a detail of a drawing by Cy Twombly, a multicolored, dense, but roughly and intuitively drawn hive. Black Zodiac, published in 1997, has a detail from Autobiographical Essay by Huai Su, an artist active in the T’Ang Dynasty. Both drawings are offhand—spontaneous and deliberate. Each reflects, in a different way, Wright’s approach and influences—exemplified in the title poem of Black Zodiac. Each cover is not independent—together they form a whole, an aesthetic, an approach, an occasion.
With Wright’s collection The World of the Ten Thousand Things, Krupat chose a Cezanne painting, A Bend in the Road, another image with an explicit connection to Wright. This impressionistic, subjective plein-air portrait introduces and prepares the reader for a series of poems that have a wide range of subjects and themes and imagery, but are often confined to and grounded in the same backyard.
Whether on a computer screen or a broadsheet, in a literary magazine or a hardcover book, fonts, typefaces, and margins form the necessary vessel for transporting the words of a poem to the reader. The package and design of a book of poems, from the cover to the page layout to the font, are an integral part of the reading experience. Any poem read on page or screen is experienced through these elements, provided by the book designers.
When a publisher changes its designer and its templates, a collection comes to an end. When the layout, the fonts, and the rules of design remain consistent, a publisher creates a body of work, a true collection. At best, the designer’s choices match the publisher’s choices and the poet’s own voice: the volumes become a consistent experience. On one hand, book design, like book titles themselves, can be seen solely as decorative or promotional, but occasionally designers truly collaborate. When a poet, designer, and publisher work together over time, the result can be a wonderful visual consistency—like that seen in the opening credits of each Woody Allen film (white Windsor-EF Elongated titles on a black background), for example, or in the consistent lettering on the spine of every one of John Updike’s books—conveying the message that this is a single, complete body of work, authoritative and distinct, even when jacketless on a library shelf.