What poetry books looked like in the 60s
A look at The Drunk in the Furnace (1960, The Macmillan Company) beside The Lice (Athaneum, 1967) gives a sense of how Merwin’s poetry books, and that of many other poets, looked in the 50s and changed in the 60s.
Side by side, we can see that Harry Ford’s design is a departure from the corporate feeling of The Macmillan Poets series design (credit Gilbert Etheredge). Ford’s design embraces letterpress aesthetics with bold, traditional letterforms. The Macmillan book is perfect bound and glued. The poor quality paper is now browned with age. The Lice on the other hand, is on laid stock with sewn signatures. It opens and lays flat without breaking the spine. It is a nice book! The prices: $1.25 and $1.95. I’d say Ford gave us that extra 70 cents worth.
Take a look at the interiors. I’ve added a design from the 1950s on the left:
In context, Harry Ford’s design belongs in the lineage of fine book design from Knopf (Atheneum was founded by Alfred A. Knopf, Jr. in 1959). Harry Ford had been a production manager at Knopf, but had been hired away to become production design director of the new Athaneum.
Known for his 1993 quip about poetry publishing: a money-losing proposition, Ford supported and edited poetry throughout his publishing career. The crafty exhuberance of his design for The Lice signals that the 1960s were in full bloom.
The Lice interior design uses metal-type thinking, i.e. common metal set sizes with even leading: 10/14 Bembo text, 14 pt cap italic titles and, notably, 14pt folios.* Everything hangs from the top of the page except second pages of poems and the epigram opposite the title page. The title page doesn’t center on the entire page, but is blocked up to the upper right. Seems a strange choice to my eye. My guess is that Harry Ford had a set of specs he handed to the compositor, and they took care of the rest. The frontmatter items have some interesting features, like the small cap book titles in the acknowledgments on the copyright page. There, someone seems to have given the work extra attention, and these pages are especially beautiful in the first edition, where the type was fresh and the paper stock fine.
*You can see those folios above in Figure 2. above. The page at the left shows the 14pt folio. These large folios were popular in the 60s-70s, and they have a certain appeal in that they show off the typeface’s numerals and make a nice anchor for the poetry page frame, which may have a large portion of whitespace. When I tried to use those anchor-sized numbers early in my career at Copper Canyon Press, Sam Hamill told me that he did NOT like them. So, I didn’t use them. I’ve come to agree with him that the large folios are a wayfinding element, outside the text, that has been made precious by the designer.
The Lice by W.S. Merwin: 50th Anniversary Edition