A NEARLY PERFECT BOOK.

Nathan Heller has a good piece in Harvard Magazine about Andrew Hoyem’s Arion Press , “a fine-edition publisher in San Francisco. Some of the books it has produced are set by hand, and all are printed in small editions whose volumes sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Following tradition, Hoyem either melts down the type or returns it to its cases after the run is complete, preserving the volumes’ uniqueness.” I have very mixed feelings about this. Intellectually, I can appreciate the fine-art appeal of such editions, and I can imagine admiring the physicality of Hoyem’s edition of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror“:

In pursuit of that perfection, …[Hoyem] imagined the printed pages as a physical object shaped by the poem’s imagery and cultural vernacular. He decided the pages would be round, rather than rectangular, with an extra-large 18-inch diameter. He printed the lines of the poem like spokes, radiating outward from the center of the page, with generous space between. He stacked the round pages in a custom-made, film-reel-like canister for each copy, in lieu of binding, and, on each canister’s exterior, fitted a convex mirror in which the viewer would see him- or herself. (“I see in this only the chaos / Of your round mirror which organizes everything.”) He commissioned eight artists, including Jim Dine and Willem de Kooning, to respond to the Parmigianino painting, and interpolated these new works among the wheels of text. Ashbery [’49, Litt.D. ’01] contributed a recording he’d made of the poem, and Hoyem included the LP, with the Parmigianino on its cover.

And he got Helen Vendler to do the critical introduction; they’ve been frequent collaborators ever since. But there’s no getting around the fact that these are luxury objects for rich people, and while in the abstract I have no objection to that—why shouldn’t rich people have works of art, and why shouldn’t publishers get some of the dough?—it rankles my populist soul. Oh, and then there’s this: “When Hoyem and Vendler hoped to produce an edition of Emily Dickinson poems, the Harvard University Press, which still holds rights to Dickinson’s oeuvre and exercises them actively, wouldn’t let them be printed even in a small fine-press edition.” The hell with Harvard! At any rate, I like my late-’70s Viking/Penguin paperback of Ashbery’s poem just fine; here’s a nice bit:

That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.

(Thanks, Paul T.!)

Comments

  1. Emily Dickinson died in 1886. How is it that anyone still holds the rights to her work? According to the US Copyright Office “all works published in the United States before January 1, 1923, are in the public domain.” Some of her poems were published in 1890. Some other poems were not published until 1955, so they would be eligible for 95 years of protection. (“For works already under statutory copyright protection
    before 1978, the present law provides a similar right of termination covering the newly added years that extended the former maximum term of the copyright from 56 to 95 years.”) But the ones published in 1890 should be in the public domain now.

  2. Yes, that was one of several places in the profile where the author got a little carried away. The Emily Dickinson Museum has a page explaining the situation.

  3. But there’s no getting around the fact that these are luxury objects for rich people, and while in the abstract I have no objection to that—why shouldn’t rich people have works of art, and why shouldn’t publishers get some of the dough?—it rankles my populist soul.
    Should a person of masterful talent, a creator of something rare, desirable and unique leave his work in the ghetto garbage only to be absconded by a “populist” pauper more likely to wipe his arse with it than recognize its artistic qualities? How will your “populist” brethren, without reference to something valued beyond the banal, maudlin and tawdry, ever rise above the lower depths of their own ignorance? The concept of Popular Man, ever ready to vilify Exclusivist Man, could not even exist without the political perennisation of this negative archetypal construct.

  4. Emily Dickinson died in 1886. How is it that anyone still holds the rights to her work?
    There’s no copyright in her work per se, which is why they were able to publish the book using a much earlier (and inferior) edition. Harvard holds the copyright to the more recent (and far better) editions.
    that was one of several places in the profile where the author got a little carried away.
    Huh? How is it getting “carried away” to point out that the publishing overlords at Harvard, while within their legal right, were being jerks to refuse to license their edition for this minuscule project which could not possibly threaten their property in any way? I could name various other copyright holders who have sat on their (almost always) relatives’ works and refused to let anyone quote from them, but I don’t want to get all wrought up.
    Today, filling in for John Hodgman, LH’s own deranged millionaire: Hozho (formerly known as Hozo)!

  5. The Cornell copyright chart shows just how complex U.S. copyright law is, and how tricky it is to know whether something is in the public domain or not. “Before ’23 it’s free” is a good rule of thumb, but applies only to works published in the United States; the corresponding rule for unpublished works is “Dead before ’43, it’s free; written before ’93, it’s free.” What is more, if you are dealing with a work (a) published outside the U.S. (b) in a language other than English between 1909 and 1978, and (c) without subsequent republication with a copyright notice — then it is considered unpublished, but only if (d) the would-be user is in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, or the Northern Mariana Islands!
    But as Lytton Strachey said about papal infallibility: “For, while the offence remained ambiguous, there was no ambiguity about the penalty. One hair’s breadth from the unknown path of truth, one shadow of impurity in the mysterious light of faith — and there shall be anathema! anathema! anathema!” In this case, for “anathema” read “$50,000 statutory damages, trebled if the violation was ‘willful’”.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Is Arion really publishing anything that is otherwise unavailable? Perhaps the specific contents (e.g. some specially-selected anthology from a poet’s work) are unique to Arion in terms of having those poems and only those poems between the same two covers, but as long as the poems themselves are available much cheaply via various other contexts, the expensive version isn’t interfering with anyone else’s reading.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    I suppose perhaps the Vendler introduction(s) might be proprietary to Arion? You would think she would be hurting herself (and her presumable desire to have her work read) if she wrote something where a limited edition of 300 very expensive copies or whatever would be the only way in which it would reach the public. Indeed, perhaps Harvard should institutionally take the view (she may be emirita by now so this would not currently be relevant to her specific situation) that its faculty are given a light teaching load in order to write, such that their scholarship is considered produced on company time and as a condition of their salaries they are not to publish in a way that will make it unduly difficult for their writing to be disseminated to a hypothetical general audience. Of course, no doubt lots of Harvard faculty write monographs that end up being published by those Euro academic publishers at >$200 a copy, so . . .

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    One might also note that when the previously unpublished Dickinson works were published in 1955, the state of U.S. law was then such that they would predictably have fallen into the (U.S.) public domain by now. That they have not is the result of subsequent Congressional action thought imprudent by many, but life can be like that.

  9. Ah, Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait”, my favourite poetical-optical solecism (if such a thing can exist).
    “As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
    Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
    And swerving easily away, as though to protect
    What it advertises.”
    RIGHT hand?? Really? I can never decide whether this is deliberate or a perfect illustration of a “two cultures” problem…

  10. Is Arion really publishing anything that is otherwise unavailable?
    Well, yes, the artwork. In the case mentioned eight artists, including the de Koonings. Emily Dickinson is by Kiki Smith. Ulysses by Motherwell. Sappho by Julie Mehretu; if you get extra prints not in the book, the price goes up $10K.

  11. Gerard Manley Hopkins is in a similar situation to Emily Dickinson when it comes to copyright, which is why a volume of his prose works will set you back a couple of hundred bucks.

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    But “original” visual artwork is, as a matter of current market structure and social expectation, supposed to be only for rich people (at least if it’s by de Kooning etc.), and strictly limited editions (I think sometimes w/ assurances that the plates will be destroyed etc. to make sure the original run is the only one), thus ensuring artificial scarcity, are I believe the only way to get the customers to pay premium prices for prints and other things like that that are by definition not unique the way a painting is. Whereas there are perhaps contrary expectations for texts (even high-falutin’ things like poetry) that they are meant to be available in some inexpensive form to Everyman, with as many copies run off the presses as demand requires.
    Maybe 15 years ago there was an exhibition at the New York Public Library with one of the tiny handful of surviving copies of the Tyndale New Testament of 1525 or 6 on display. It is a physically unimpressive object, especially compared to a Gutenberg Bible — but that’s because it was more or less pocket-sized (maybe they didn’t have pockets back then, but you know what I mean) and meant to be produced cheaply and in bulk so that it would be owned and read by a mass audience of private individuals rather than living only in institutional settings. It was therefore much more revolutionary.

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