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ESSAY: The Books That Should Be Written

The Books That Should Be Written
Appeared in Quarry West 32, 1995.

            If you believe, as I do, that every poem is a prayer, then every book of poems is a sacred text, and printing is a sacramental trust.
            In his discourse, “The Poem As Icon—Reflections On Printing As A Fine Art,” William Everson is explicit when he draws the connection between poetry and printing. Poetry, he contends, is the highest form of literature and consequently offers the printer a typographic absolute. “The poet needs a printer, and the printer needs a text.” In their mutual desire for a transcendent mode, each will seek the other out. The connection between poetry and printing is, in fact, so profound, that when Everson identifies himself as a poet/printer there is a penetrating resonance to the conjunction. We acknowledge the association as natural, and assume these vocations are commonly conjoined. This assumption is false.
            Everson identified and located himself within a hybrid archetype, one that subsumes the archetype of poet and prophet with that of laborer and artisan. In the western tradition William Blake provides the only real precedent for this fusion, but the correspondences are ultimately superficial. Each man surrendered to a specific calling, and each realized a specific identity.
            In his famous statement announcing the establishment of the Equinox Press, Everson located the “parallelism” that would define his life as a mature artist: “As a creative man, the richest thing I can do is to write a poem, and the next is to print it.” The order is not unimportant. There are many superb printers who also write poetry, but we will never hear anyone identified as a printer/poet. The artist who surrenders his or her life to poetry, and surrenders to the press as well, is always a poet first.
            Behind the English word ‘poet’ stands a Greek word meaning ‘to make’. Simply put, poets make poems. Poets must imbue an insubstantial utterance with the character and quality of a thing. This is one of their chief obligations—to articulate the ineffable, to make it tangible and real.     Distinctions are too often drawn between those who work with their hands, and those who work with their heads, and the denigration of labor in our age has served to dissociate poetry from work, from the world of the maker. Poetry has suffered as a result, and reestablishing this connection between the world and the word is one of the printer’s principle virtues.
            A quarter century before his death, William Everson and I entered the University of California at Santa Cruz together, he as teacher, I as a student. In retrospect it’s both ironic and fortunate that I did not study printing with him at that time. In those early years of our acquaintance Bill influenced me solely as a poet, and woke me to the possibilities of a poet’s life. Vocare, he would say, it’s your calling.
            In graduate school I devoted my energies to that calling, but even as I gave myself over to the passions and demands of a poet’s life, I was perplexed by the insubstantial nature of the poems I was writing. Everson had said “the poet deals with concretizing imagination,” and what is the printed page, I reasoned, but poetry itself concretized, embodied? To substantiate this notion I started a magazine, Greenhouse Review, and embarked on the parallel vocation that would consume me.
            After completing my graduate studies, I returned to Santa Cruz and enrolled in a high school night course to learn offset printing. I intended to save money by printing the journal I was editing. I soon discovered I had a facility with paper and with presses, and before mid-term I had finished the course. There was a hulking Chandler and Price platen press in a corner of the print shop, and I asked the instructor if I could tackle the old machine. He told me the press was soon to be scrapped, and added, “forget about it, letterpress is obsolete.” I ignored his advice, set a poem, printed it, and knew at once I’d found the missing aspect of my creative life.
            I had printed four books before I knew there was such a thing as fine printing. I had only a dim awareness of the tradition of the private press, and of great books as works of art. Working in ignorance, I felt that the printing press I’d bought, and the books I somehow coaxed from it, were there for me alone. Every page coming off the press was an astonishment. In those first, heady years I lived under a spell, intoxicated by the sensation that I had somehow invented printing. In a way I had; artists must always reinvent their materials and methods if they’re to own their art.
            I had always dreamed of being a visual artist as well as a writer, and although I loved to draw, some flaw of temperament or vision disallowed mark-making as a worthy activity. I believe my trepidation was rooted in a fear of preciousness. The printing press liberated me from that apprehension. The impulse to draw or to paint was somehow sanctioned by the knowledge that I could create multiples. I can’t explain why this is so. “We are the tools of increase”—that’s how I described it in a poem, and now printing, drawing, printmaking and wood cutting are all aspects of the same design, a constellation of activities orbiting around the poem.
            We are each of us called to many vocations; we cannot answer them all. Our lives are determined by those we heed, and by the complex of devotions we suffer and embrace.
            My study of printing history, of type faces and bindings, has been haphazard. I am promiscuous in my enthusiasms. I develop an obsession, and bury myself in it until another subject or activity seduces me and I follow that new passion. This is another defect of character, but one with which I have become comfortable. In relaxed moments I can almost appreciate the fluidity it offers, the freedom and range. I do not consider myself an expert, and I resist the appellation when it’s applied. I have simply tried to follow my appetites. Now,  after twenty years at this labor, the greatest task is to remain an amateur, that is, someone who works for love.
            I have a fear of expertise. My best work always emerges from ignorance and ineptitude, but after two decades at the press I have gained a certain competence nonetheless. My body entertains specific skills, the gift of repetition and mindless labor. I can judge ink by the sound it makes on the roller, spot a broken letter, or sense a typographic error on a page before I see it, but these are only mechanical tricks. Poetry exists as language touched by grace, and so it is with printing. I have habitualized the mechanics of the craft to allow my ignorance a chance to express itself. In moments of weakness I need reminding—trust your ignorance, trust the mysteries that threaten to overwhelm you. If you’re lucky, and God smiles at your foolishness and your dedication, a page might appear, or a whole book, that embodies the transcendent spirit of the word.   
            Everson believed that a poem is fundamentally for the ear, and that fine printing creates a poetry for the eye. As an aesthetic creation, the printed poem does sing on the page like a poem in recitation, but it is the body of the poem that concerns me. Incarnation is my true design. Each time I set a poem in type and feel the weight of it in my hand, I realize a consubstantiation, the word made flesh.
            As a poet and a printer, I am challenged to integrate contemplation and action. My efforts have been no more than a search for equivalence—poetic utterance and printed page, image and text, body and soul. I approach each book as I would a poem, a sublime articulation.
            The first verse of the Gospel of St. John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Is there a poet who can read that line and not tremble? The title of this meditation is taken from the final verse of that same Gospel, which reads, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” This is the world I have tried to inhabit, a world that begins with the word, and ends with books of devotion for all that we love. It is a world too small to hold them.

By Gary Young
1995

 
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