21 November 2010

Covering Ariel

I was browsing at the Brattle Book Shop on West Street in Boston in October and came across a book by Grant Uden entitled Understanding Book-Collecting. To my surprise on the back of the dust jacket was a line of books, all but one just showing the spines. The most recognizable being... that of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in that distinctive Faber dust jacket. In the text, Plath is given mention just once, as being a writer who is collected but also of potentially questionable durability. We’ll prove him wrong yet! In the last dozen or so years since I’ve been paying attention, Plath books certainly have risen in value and desirability, particularly those books published during her lifetime. But this is another subject for another time perhaps.

This got me thinking where else I’d seen Ariel.

At some point in some other book store browsing experience, I had seen the Faber Ariel on the front cover of a book which, I recalled, was on book covers. It didn’t take long to find this title again: Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design by Alan Powers (2001, 2006). Ariel does get a prominent spot towards the top right. The image and the dust jacket itself kind of yells at you. The text on inside flap begins, “From the arresting type on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel...readers remember the jackets and covers of the books they read.”

So true. I read Front Cover cover to cover and when it actually got to Ariel found the coverage it received a little disappointing; it weakly says, “Published two years after her suicide, this collection included five poems written in the last week of Plath’s life” (99). Front Cover runs the gamut giving details on how the cover can be either subtle or in-your-face as an interpretive device about the books contents or something completely abstract as well. The blurb on Ariel concluded, “The poetry list at Faber and Faber first achieved eminence when T.S. Eliot was the editor, and has continued to include many of the best British poets ever since.” I shut the book in frustration. My expectations were dashed. I wanted the blurb to say something about how jacket design looks like the letters had been displaced by an earthquake; that they read louder than the neon signs at Piccadilly Circus. In fact, the flap text about the “arresting type” is far more poignant. But that page on Poetry books wasn’t a total let down, what was interesting to learn was that the the designer of Ariel, Berthold Wolpe, was also the designer of a 1960 book of poems called Lupercal.

In Front Cover, the author Alan Powers says the following in his discussion of “Classic Novels”: “One of the pleasures of book-collecting is to come across a famous book in its original jacket, and to understand the relationship between the contents and the image. An original jacket still says something about the world into which the book was launched, and the publisher’s expectations of the kind of reader he was hoping to attract” (24). This is the way historicist's approach texts and the value inherent in this form of criticism cannot be understated. While it is often valuable to know a circumstance or the circumstances by which a Plath poem or story or novel came to be it is of crucial importance also to understand when a book - especially a book like Ariel - was published. We are where we are now because of it!

Powers’ thoughts on the book collecting of classic novels above is applicable not just to classic novels, but to books in any genre. For Sylvia Plath - for Ariel in this instance - what does the 1965 Faber jacket say about the author her reader and the “world into which the book was launched”? I’ve written my thoughts on the Faber Ariel above. But what about its cousin across the Atlantic, the 1966 Harper & Row edition?

By contrast, the first American edition of Ariel published by Harper & Row (1966) could not be more different. The vibrant primary colors have been replaced by a starkly designed book that graphically resembles a headstone. If you stare at the cover long enough; the letters appear three dimensional, they appear almost to be in motion; rising up, towards the left out of the off-white background.

There was one other place, recently, I had seen the Faber Ariel. And that was on the bookshelf of Anne Sexton. I re-read the excellent Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook earlier this year. One cannot speak highly enough of this book but this is not the post for that. No. But, page 128 is illustrated with a photograph of Sexton ca. 1966 and just behind her typewriter is the 1965 Faber Ariel.



Of course you can see more Plath book covers over at A celebration, this is.

5 comments :

panther said...

The sight of Sexton's typewriter alone makes me feel we've come into another era !

Julia said...

Glad you mentioned Berthold Wolpe. He and his wife, Margaret Smith, were fascinating people. Wolpe was a Jewish exile from WWII Germany. He and his wife were both very interested in the mysticism and alchemy of earlier decades--very suitable friends for Plath and Hughes. Outside of the Lupercal/Ariel connection (which I don't believe was by chance, as Hughes cared very much about art and was especially close with another famous Jewish artist, Leonard Baskin), I have yet to find evidence of Plath and/or Hughes hanging out socially with Wolpe and Smith. Have you come across anything?

Smith and Wolpe did hang out with Trekkie Parsons, best-known as the lover of Leonard Woolf after the death of his great writer wife, Virginia Woolf.

This incestuous community of artists and writers has always fascinated me!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Julia!

I've never thought to look into this. Neither Wolpe nor Smith appear in Plath's address book. This doesn't mean they didn't know each other, but my guess is that there was a barrier between author and book designer: the editor! I believe I read recently somewhere that Hughes wanted a Baskin illustration on the dust wrapper for Lupercal; this obviously didn't happen likely because it strayed too far from the Faber poetry image, which has always been distinctive. I think later in Hughes' career he got his way (think Crow, Gaudette, Cave Birds, etc.). Plath's Winter Trees and other books (Johnny Panic, Crossing the Water, Faber's The Colossus etc.) are all absent of illustration: just lettering. The first Faber/Plath book to feature a design was The Bell Jar, but this was fiction. The first to feature an image was Letters Home, a non-fiction title. In the middle-to-late 70s/early 80s' Faber did a redesign of their poetry books and Plath's books had little illustrations such as mushrooms on The Colossus, a path on Primrose Hill for Winter Trees, and tulips on Ariel, and a very little couple on a boat on Crossing the Water. I think I was aiming for New York and hit El Paso here, sorry. But, I don't think they met. Certainly with Plath there could be a stronger argument that they never met; after all, by the time he was working on Ariel, she was gone.

pks

Anonymous said...

Truly one of the great all time jackets. I was lucky enough to find a first edition second printing in fine condition last year at a book fair here in Northampton... for just $65.00. It sits face out on the book shelf directly in front of my reading chair so that I see it and enjoy it daily. Richard.

Julia said...

While I hadn't planned on going to El Paso, it was an enjoyable trip nonetheless. ;-)

Thanks. That's one less trail of breadcrumbs I'll have to follow!

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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