Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Printed Snow; noticing things

In March last year I was driving through tree-lined Norfolk country lanes with Michael Mackmin, on the day of the nature tour prize for the Rialto/RSPB poetry competition.  I said I’d recently started to feel frustrated that I couldn’t recognise different trees in winter.  So Michael enumerated them as we drove past: ash, oak, oak, ash, oak, some alders over there, poplar, poplar, poplar, oak… 

Spring was about to burst out, but when winter came I started trying to learn the shapes of trees.  I think I am now quite good at oaks.  The same thing happened with birdsong a few years ago – beyond already known songs by woodpigeon or blackbird such learning is a slow and painstaking process for someone with a poor ear.  The wren, singer of the same set of flourishes again and again, was my first success.

When HappenStance publisher Helena Nelson announced that she was producing a pamphlet on typesetting poetry by poet and Dark Horse editor Gerry Cambridge, I was intrigued.  The Rialto is expertly designed by Nick Stone, so when we get the pdf proofs back it’s mostly to check for missing lines, verse breaks gone wrong, etc.  Our occasional discussions about the presentation of a particular poem on the page are my only experience of the design side of typesetting...  Apart from choosing Verdana for this blog because it’s plain and supposed to be easy to read online.  And having a discussion with Helena Nelson about whether a long-lined poem in my pamphlet should be printed vertically rather than horizontally – she said No, it would draw attention to the poem’s vertical appearance rather than the contents. 

I’d already benefited from Cambridge’s typographical skills because he’s advised HappenStance on design.  I ordered The Printed Snow (here) and it was austerely elegant, as one would expect.  With lovely blackberry-coloured end papers.  One feature of it is this: in several places the first word in a line has an inverted comma before it, to open a quote.  The inverted comma lies slightly outside the left-hand margin – it sticks out.  Presumably that’s a characteristic of this particular typeface, Trinité 2 Roman.  Would I have noticed, had I not been reading about typography? 

The Printed Snow soon had me reaching for the pile of poetry books on my table (two piles actually) to look at, and for, things I hadn’t noticed before. Or things I’d only noticed in poorly typeset books: as Cambridge says,

Setting inner text is a scrupulous business in which, like the art of forging banknotes, a creator’s invisibility is a sign of success.

One of the pleasures of reading this pamphlet-monograph is its physical form.  It’s nice, and rare, to hold in the hands a short, pocketable piece of non-fiction prose that’s not part of a newspaper, magazine or website.   

The pamphlet isn’t a comprehensive treatment of the subject but an “idiosyncratic essay” (with a bibliography for those who want more).  Here are some of the things that struck me, a mix of unknown unknowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns.

Design perfection on the computer screen may be something else entirely on the page.  A pamphlet page can be read almost to the central gutter but the binding of a paperback reduces page width by up to 20mm. 

Some typefaces are more economical than others with space across a page. 

Typesetters enjoy finding or making links between the typeface chosen and the writer and/or subject; Cambridge used a typeface called Tacitus (after the Roman historian famous for his irony, unusual vocabulary and the extreme compression of his writing) in a pamphlet on the Gaelic poet and scholar Derick Thomson. 

There is a typeface called Turnip. 

Unlike prose blocks in a book, the varying shapes of poems can lead to ‘show-through’ of type from one page to the next.  I suppose I had noticed this, but not enough to… notice.

Poetry dilemma: do you set the same left-hand margin on each page, or use an imaginary centre line to place the poems?  The latter may be necessary for a mix of long- and short-lined poems.  Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap happened to be on the table: I opened it and read with new eyes.  Her poems may be mostly blocks but the line length varies from middling to quite long.  Cape, her publisher, chose the centred approach.  This does – now – look slightly odd when one leaves through, but the other options would have been to squeeze the shorter-lined poems right over to the left, leaving lots of space on the right; or turn the longer lines over, ie run them on into the next line.  “Love” must have been maddening to arrange on its first, full page: the left-hand side of it almost disappears into the central gutter so as to accommodate all the lines … except line 1, which has to be turned over.  But then this is how the first few lines read:

I had thought it was something we were in. I had thought we
in it that day, in the capital
of his early province – how could we
not have been in it, in our hotel bed, in the
cries through the green grass-blade.

The initial awkwardness gets read into the argument of the poem.  In this case that works rather well with the emphasis on the forced line break “we / were”, two key words for the poem and indeed the whole book.  So I’m now almost wondering if the turning-over here was deliberate.

Cambridge compares writing poetry and typography because both “require almost neurotic levels of attention to detail”.  I’m no designer but am now engaged in noticing typesetting, along with birdsong and the silhouettes of winter trees.  

PS: I know the text of this blog post starts too far below the title.  I’ve been messing around with it for 15 minutes and have only made it worse…

PPS: I’ve just seen that Dave Coates (at Dave Poems, see the blog list on the right) has won this year’s Saboteur Best Reviewer Award.  Hooray!! and congratulations to him. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith

This book makes familiar things strange from the perspective of space, and reimagines the cosmos, sometimes in earthly terms, as strangely as inadequate human understanding can.  Several months after first reading Life on Mars it still resonates; the stardust has stuck.  I hadn’t heard of it until an American friend chose it for a poetry reading group, and most people I’ve mentioned the book to hadn’t either – it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 but doesn’t seem to have entered the general consciousness here. 

‘The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’ invents that soundtrack and shows how Smith plays with scale.  She is expert at delivering the cosmic dizzyness that comes from looking into space.  It’s hard to extract lines from the six couplets; the whole poem is here at the Poetry Foundation along with several others. 

                  So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

The dark we've only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat.

The description of space travel makes it seem tiny, banal and gimcrack as a stage set.  As for the last half-line – what an extraordinary simile – a reach of association large enough for the subject.  

Smith’s father was an engineer whose job may have taken her imagination into space at an early age: 

When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.

That is from ‘My God, It’s Full of Stars’ (the title a quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey).  This long poem is one of several that is in parts, each part with a different form.  It takes in zombie plots, Charlton Heston and 2001, all supporting passages of metaphysical speculation:

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,

That the others have come and gone—a momentary blip—

When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,

Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel

Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

The whole poem is overshadowed by the death of Smith’s father. So far I’ve quoted only from the book’s first section of four which is the most cosmic in scale, because for me this is what really makes the collection stand out.  But Life on Mars reaches as deeply in to human experience as out to the stars. There are elegies/meditations on the poet’s father; there are poems on love and childbirth and poems that contain gang rape, modern piracy and the torture of Abu Ghraib.  All have the same fluency and energy of form and language, and similar cosmic and metaphysical preoccupations.  Smith probes the nature of reality and strangeness of experience, posing questions such as: where do tangible things go, and things that are not tangible?  This is the end of a ghazal, part of ‘The Speed of Belief’, a poem in memory of her father.

      Perhaps one day it will be enough to live a few seasons and return to ash.
      No children to carry our names. No grief. Life will be a brief, hollow walk.
      My father won’t lie still,though his legs are buried in trousers and socks.
      But where does all he knew – and all he must now know – walk?

From Hubble
She can do strict form – there’s a villanelle whose irony is all the harsher for its precision.  The tone is hugely assured, poised, as any space mission must be.  The poems have a musicality that made me wonder about influences from this side of the Atlantic; then I read that she’d been taught by Seamus Heaney for two college years, and revered him.  Her lines are both weighty and light-footed.  Wallace Stevens is certainly lurking and sometimes the strangeness holds an echo of Marianne Moore, as at the end of the riddling ‘It & Co.’:

Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.

Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-

Appeasable. It is like some novels:

Vast and unreadable.

‘They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected’ (title taken from a Dead Sea scroll) considers five American hate killings, mostly racially motivated, that took place within just over a month in 2009.  In between passages meditating on hatred, fear and ordinariness, each of the victims writes a (prose) postcard to his or her murderer from a celebrated American landmark.  These have the banalities of any postcard, from what-I’ve-been-doing to thoughts and hopes… but altered.  “Tonight I’m at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  I don’t know where I end.”  This is deeply unsettling.  The poem’s final passage begins: “Line them up. Let us look them in the face.”  (“Them” being the killers.)  It is the last thing we want to do, after reading the postcards. 

Life on Mars, Tracy K Smith's third collection, is published by Graywolf Press.  It’s readily available to UK readers on the internet. 

Here is the ending of ‘My God, It’s Full of Stars’. The poem is at the Poetry Foundation.
On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.