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William Blake brought me face to face with my literary fundamentalism | Rick Gekoski


Blake's poem The Tyger shows how the relationship between form and content can shape meaning – a lesson we should heed

We are all here, reading and thinking and perusing the Guardian Books pages, because our lives are defined by letters, and by combinations of letters. Not just us, of course. We are no elite. Letters do that for almost everyone, but for those of us obsessed by literature, rather more so.

In the garden of his house in Connecticut, Philip Roth has a studio in which he writes. Pinned to the wall next to his desk he has put up a bunch of fair-sized individual letters: a "B", an "N", and so forth. They remind him, he says, when things get sticky and the pen refuses to engage with the paper, that it is, after all, only a matter of letters, and of putting letters together into words – nothing too intimidating about that – and then, which takes more nerve, putting those words together into sentences. That, as Roth's creation Nathan Zuckerman observes in Ghost Writer, is what a writer does:

I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again.

I cannot recall – I only saw Roth's studio in the interview he gave with Kirsty Wark– what sort of letters Roth had affixed to his wall, what typeface they were in, and of what size. They were, if we accept such a category – "normal" letters – they were capitals, and might have been set in Times Roman, Baskerville, or even (which would have been rather fun) Bookman Old Style. They were certainly not in Gill Sans, Bauhaus, or Old English Text.

I rather doubt whether Roth would know much about such typefaces, or (if for some reason he did, since he knows about most things) whether he would much care. He would appear not to have been interested in how his books were set – as long as they looked nice and read clearly – and to my knowledge has not allowed finely printed limited editions of his work. His view of letters – in common with the majority of writers – is that they are utilitarian tools, and must not call attention to themselves, must not make a fuss.

The majority of academics would agree with him. I spent many years of my life – first doing postgraduate work at Oxford and then, for 15 years, teaching in the English department at the University of Warwick – in the intense scrutiny of literary texts, and the occasional production of commentary upon them. Like all English departments with wide-ranging syllabuses, we needed to recommend easily available, reliable, and reasonably priced examples of our key texts. We were heavily reliant on works such as the Oxford and Norton anthologies, because it would have been onerous to insist that undergraduates buy a complete – or even a selected – works of each of the major poets. When it came to fiction, Penguin was the bird of choice, and most of the essential texts remained in print partly through the reliance of schools and universities upon them. (When Kafka was once allowed to go out of print by Penguin, we had to drop The Trial from the syllabus.)

Norton, Penguin, Wordsworth, and the many other admirable purveyors of cheap classic texts did their job admirably, and no one (that I knew of) had any problem with the assumption that this essential content was separable from its modest form. The way in which a text was set had no influence on its meaning. We can all recite the poem:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

There, that is it. Set it how you like, it will read like that. That is the poem.

Or is it? It was on the basis of this question that I quarrelled with my long-suffering colleagues, fell out with my chairman, and publically and rather ostentatiously refused to teach our course on 18th-century poetry. Because Blake himself set the poem in an engraved, illustrated plate, some 20-odd times for over 30 years from its first appearance in 1794. These plates differ markedly in colouration, but all show the tiger in the foreground, with an immense tree up the right-hand margin. The tiger, whose "fearful" symmetry is crucial to the poem, has a curiously quizzical smile upon his face, which is – clearly, palpably – part of his nature, and the implications of that whimsical look are crucial to a correct "reading" – viewing! – of the poem. How does his apparent benignity relate to that of the lamb in Songs of Innocence? The smile on the face of the tiger. Discuss.

So that's it. It is what Blake intended and provided: the illustration is not something extra, however admirable, like Quentin Blake's illustrations for Roald Dahl. And the problem was that our anthology produced the words only, not the original plate.

No plate, no poem, I said. My colleagues, being intelligent and agreeable, if pragmatic, rather agreed. Bring a copy of it in, they said, show it to your seminar group. And the departmental lecture on Songs of Innocence and Experience will use it too. What are you, some sort of fundamentalist? And – to my surprise – I was, and still am. We must resist the formation and dissemination of texts that do an injury to their obvious meaning, and nature.

This goes for typography too, though I did not know it at the time, being as ignorant as most academics are about such matters. But it is obvious to me now that the typography and layout of the pages of the 1896 Kelmscott Press Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (regarded as the finest of English privately printed books) would be grossly inappropriate to a transmission of, say, The Waste Land, much less to the poems of John Betjeman. Indeed – for this is a book that I have come greatly to dislike – it seems to me inappropriate to The Canterbury Tales themselves, its overstuffed cod-medievalism distorting and masking Chaucer's great qualities, which Matthew Arnold nicely enumerates as "largeness, freedom, shrewdness and benignity". It is a remarkable achievement, the Kelmscott Press Chaucer: it renders one of the greatest of our greatest poets well-nigh unreadable. It is a self-testimonial by William Morris, at the expense of his subject; not the right way to encounter Chaucer.

Relations between a text and its setting are negotiable within limits, but rules and consequences pertain: form and content cohere, are not extractable from each other. How you print a page matters, not aesthetically, or merely aesthetically (though there is that) but as a matter of meaning.

Only a few years later, as if to provide an example of my newfound typographical interests, I became a private press publisher myself. Having found that Faber and Faber had no intention of publishing William Golding's Nobel prize lecture, I was given permission to do so myself. But first, my new press had to have a name. I returned to Blake, my first and still best reminder of how important it is to get form and content into proper alignment. I reread The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and went back to the section entitled The Printing House in Hell, in which there are six chambers, the first five of which house various metaphorical representations of the forces of inspiration. Then, in the sixth chamber – in an ironic denial of what has caused them imaginatively – "the books are received by men and arranged in libraries". The Sixth Chamber Press! No one got the joke, or even recognised the allusion, and I was asked if the name was a reference to Russian roulette? I considered a logo with a portrait of William Blake holding a revolver to his head.

The press – each work designed and printed by the estimable Sebastian Carter – survived for five or six years and, as well as Golding's Speech, published works by Gavin Ewart, Peter Redgrove, Paul Theroux, and John Updike. It died in 1989, collateral damage of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Our book, Two Stories, contained a story by Rushdie called The Prophet's Hair, that was apparently pretty objectionable to the same parties that disliked The Satanic Verses. Oops. Who knew?

By that time, anyway, I'd grown bored of producing finely printed bits and pieces, for a private press publisher rarely gets offered more than that. Never again, I promised myself. The main profit of such publishing is that it stockpiles potential Christmas presents for one's friends. Not that I ever had enough friends to get rid of my 500 spare copies of Golding's Nobel speech.

I still have some, if anyone is interested.

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