theory, typography

It’s All in the Margins

I’ve been thinking a lot of late of the relation of the poem—be it visual, concrete or lexical (this last being the term I’m most inclined to employ when discussing standard lineated poetry, i.e., the kind most people think of as poetry, though I would include prose poems in this last field, as it is lineated in a manner defined by the page rather than the author)—to its field, which we can think of generally as the page.

I stumbled on this line of thinking in part through a post of Geof Huth’s at his blog, dbqp: visualizing poetics. The post is called “In the Margins,” and discusses a minor hubbub re. some layout decisions made in the recent publication of the collected works of Larry Eigner. While I can’t reasonably reproduce the whole of both the initial negative response (though those interested should see the post at Steve Fama’s blog) and Geof’s criticism thereof, I would like to expand on both my comments and Geof’s responses thereto.

Here’s what seems to be the provisional end of the conversation:

Geof: The left margin as a distance of space is not integral to our writing; the left margin as an imagined line of ending is. The latter always exists in these poems unchanged. It is the former that is the question here.

John: Granting that the imagined line of ending remains in these poems, what of the concrete line of beginning that the left margin always is? That still seems formative of a piece to me. (To allude to your stretched metaphor: yes, i suppose a cloud could possibly be beautiful “as cloud,” but its context matters terrifically … in other words, it’s not a question of necessity, but of contingency: a poem is also contingent on the place it appears.)

Reviewing these comments this morning, I realized the vast contextual difference experienced by the poet and the typographer (i.e., layout artist) in constructing their respective works, the poem and the book. As I’ve had experience performing both works, I’ve known and worked with the distinction for quite a while now; only this morning did a way to verbalize it come clear:

The poet composes upon the page, while the typographer composes across the spread.

While both artists are working to create a whole, something connected and contiguous (at least, most poets I know end up working that way—in the beginning the individual composition takes a definite front-seat), the ways in which they approach that whole are dramatically different. The poet works with an eye to content, and, if sensitive to the visual dimension of the poem as it appears on the page (as, I would argue, all poets are to a more or less conscious degree) the ways the space that engulfs the poem works with or against the semantic content of the poem. The best typographer will work with an eye to the meaning, and if working with content produced by a poet conscious of the way the poem works upon the page, the typographer will have a huge first step already taken for him or her. The great distinction arises when we consider that the poet, even when working with a consciousness of the poem’s appearance on the page, thinks only of its appearance on the page — in other words, in isolation, upon a single field divided from all other contextualization.

I admit with chagrin it was this point I had difficulty understanding: in other words, what Geof meant by “the left margin as an imagined line of ending.” At first I had no idea what he meant. Thinking, for a moment at least, as simply a poet, I could think of nothing but the piece in its context of page, not spread. Only the left margin as “concrete line of beginning” seemed to matter to me.

But thinking as a typographer makes Geof’s imagined line of ending as concrete as my line of beginning. In terms of the spread, the space between the ending of a line and the beginning of a line in the next poem make these lines of end and origination identical, meaning that its affect upon both poems must be taken into account. It is this detail that the poet, unless he or she does layout work as well, is likely never to notice. And it seems that this is the problem that has evoked the current discussion of Eigner’s work.

But whether you compose for the page, the spread, or the book, the fact is that  context remains important: in fact, there is never a way of separating the cloud from the sky. And that’s clear simply from taking the metaphor to its logical extreme: the cloud cannot exist without the physical context of the sky, just as the poem cannot exist without the context of the space around it. Once again we are forced to consider a binary: absence and presence exist commingled within the poem, the spread and the book, and that union has to be considered.


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