Sunday, 15 April 2012


Serif or Sans serif? – that is the question.

I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s fascinating and entertaining book Just My Type and I’ve discovered there’s a fine line between cutting edge design and nerdyness.  Font is a word that has escaped from the closed shop of the print works to everyone’s PC.  Type anything on a computer and there’s a bewildering array of fonts to choose from once you stray from the default Times New Roman, Calibri or Arial.  But the basic division is between Serif (with curly bits) or Sans serif (without).
Serif says tradition and authority but can appear a bit old-fashioned and formal.
Sans serif says contemporary, design, innovation but can have an air of blandness and functionality which is difficult for it to shake off (think Hospital Direction Signs).

“Type is like music in having its own beauty, and in being beautiful as an accompaniment and interpretation” (J H Mason – a mid 20th century printer).  This set me thinking about the type used in poetry.  I picked a few books off my shelf.  Several publishers use sans serif on the covers of their books and serif type for the poetry within.  Some (eg, Carcanet) use serif for the covers as well as the contents.  I particularly like the publishers who discreetly mention the type used – “typeset in Bembo” (Cape – Adam Thorpe Voluntary), “typeset in Palatino” (Cinnamon Press – Kathy Miles The Shadow House), “typeset in Swift” ( Salt – Melanie Challenger Galatea) and – a beautiful one – “set in Perpetua” (Hamish Hamilton – W G Sebald Across the Land and the Water).  A particularly nice touch is Chatto and Windus setting Ruth Padel’s Darwin: a life in poems in Fournier an 18th century type which would have been around in Darwin’s day.  All the books I checked were unanimous – serif type = poetry.  Then there are Faber and Faber’s default covers consisting of the title and name of the poet in
     Very Large Serif Type
– I find that just a bit threatening.

Pamphlets are less uniform, perhaps because they can be more experimental.  I still found quite a lot of serif poetry but also some sans serif eg, Pinkfoot Press (Lesley Harrison Sea Stories) and Calder Wood Press (Jayne Wilding sky blue notebook from the Pyrenees).   With poetry magazines there is again a mix of serif and sans serif.  I particularly like the elegance and clean design of Magma’s sans serif type.
If poetry books are uniformly serif, poetry on websites is frequently sans serif.  

I have a couple of theories about poetry books = serif and poetry on the web = sans serif. 
First of all serif is more forgiving.  If the print size isn’t quite right it still looks reasonably OK in hard copy.  But get your poetry in sans serif in the wrong size or font and it can look like an Accident and Emergency or instruction for bargain basement flat selving pack.    My second theory is that serif is more pleasing, easier on the eye for a whole book.  Serif says “trust me, listen to what I’m saying” and it is ingrained into the optical part of our brains from centuries of use in books and newspapers.   Perhaps that explains the oddly old fashioned serif type (Monotype Caecillia) on a kindle.  Sans serif on the web says google it, read it, move on.

As for me I’ve fallen for Garamond, a classy 18th century serif type, slightly eccentric in italics, especially the CAPITALS.   Maybe I’m becoming a print nerd.

Follow-up to Leaping the language barrier 2 March post:
After my complaint about the lack of women’s poetry translations at the Keswick translation day, many thanks to Timothy Ades who has sent me a long list of women poets translating other women poets (see also his comment on that post).  Here is the list:

Women poets translated by women

Arc Publications
Valerie Rouzeau by Susan Wicks
Bejan Matur by Ruth Christie (two)
Rose Auslaender by Jean Boase-Beier
Anise Koltz by Anne-Marie Glasheen
Sabine Lange by Jenny Williams
Doris Kareva by Tiina Aleman
Translated jointly:
Meta Kusar by Ana Jelnikar
Vera Haugova by Viera Sutherland Smith
Ewa Lipska by Barbara Bogoczek

Sappho by Josephine Balmer
Classical Women Poets by Josephine Balmer
see: Sylva Fischerova, Tua Forstrom, Ioana Ieronim

other publishers
Tsvetayeva by Elaine Feinstein
Akhmatova by Judith Hemschemayer
Tatiana Shcherbina by Sasha Dugdale
Elena Shvarts by Sasha Dugdale
Alejandra Pizarnik by Maria Negroni
       and also by Cecilia Rossi
Ana Becciu by Cecilia Rossi

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