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Angus Sinclair on Typography

During a poetry workshop I was taking last year one student (prefacing her question with I know this is silly but…) asked the person whose work we had been discussing why he chose to print his poem in 12-pt Arial. Frankly, I had been wondering the same thing and was further perturbed by the fact it was double spaced. This may seem like pedantry or typographic elitism, but actually type is terribly important. It just so happened that our workshop tutor also had a background in publishing, so unfortunately for the poet in question our critique veered from the content of the poem to a discussion on its appearance.

Now of course a good poem is good regardless of how it is printed. I’m fond of an idea put by forward Don Paterson in his TS Eliot prize lecture:

A poem makes a fetish of its memorability. It does this, because the one unique thing about our art is that it can carried in your head in its original state, intact and perfect. We merely recall a string quartet or a film or a painting, actually, at a neurological level we’re only remembering a memory of it; but our memory of the poem is the poem.

However, poems are mostly disseminated as printed or digital text and as such we perceive the poem before we experience it. The poem is to some extent aestheticised, this being the case we must also make a fetish of the poem’s appearance. I should like at some point to extend this argument further than type, to argue the case that in an increasingly digitalised world, the poetry book ought to be of the highest standards of production and fetishised to the highest degree, but for the time being I shall stick to type.

In the 1930s Beatrice Warde gave a lecture to the British Typographers Guild on the function and nature of typography. Her analogy that good type is like a well-crafted crystal wine glass, ‘because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain’ has become fundamental to the way we approach type. Type then is a vessel which should facilitate the poem’s memorability, if we accept Paterson’s idea that ‘a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself’, then the type is the thing powering that machine.

Warde goes on to postulate that ‘we must distinguish readability from what the optician would call legibility. A page set in 14-pt Bold Sans [or for our purposes 12-pt Arial] is, according to the laboratory tests, more ‘legible’ than one set in 11-pt Baskerville.’ The idea of readability then, is something that operates at a subconscious level. The Roman fonts have been widely used since the Middle-ages and variations of Claude Garamond’s typefaces have also been popular since the Renaissance. As a result they have become part of our collective unconscious; they are the crystal glass. The fonts in our paperbacks, poetry volumes and newspapers are by and large variations of these fonts. Generally these are different to the standardised versions which are pre-installed on computers, the subtle differences giving the text a certain gravity, setting it apart from something one could have printed at home.

I’m not the only typophile on the Lighthouse team, and as such there has been some to-ing-and-fro-ing on these matters. The desire to have a font which is at once full of character and at the same time invisible is difficult to fulfil. As I briefly mentioned earlier, I believe the poetry book or magazine should be a handsome and cherishable object. During our discussions regarding the magazine’s design the word printerly has been used a lot; we want a look that harks back to the painstaking labour of early printing. We want the type and overall design to on some level imply that there are real people speaking here, real people curating and editing the content.

Fortunately, Meirion came across the website of Igino Marini, an Italian civil engineer who has spent years of his spare time devoted to the cause of digitising the typefaces designed by John Fell, a Bishop of Oxford in the seventeenth-century. There is a detailed history on Marini’s website, but what I really love about these are their imperfect lines, the weight and the inky feeling of the letters. The care which has gone into their creation, and perhaps also their subsequent digitisation, is entirely evident and reflects perfectly the time, care and craft that will have gone into the writing we will be publishing in this font.

Posted 9 years ago

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