Reading Word, Image, and the Body of the Book: Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin's Cave Birds

By Loizeaux, Elizabeth Bergmann | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Reading Word, Image, and the Body of the Book: Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin's Cave Birds


Loizeaux, Elizabeth Bergmann, Twentieth Century Literature


From Yeats and Pound to Stein and Williams and the writers of the Harlem
Renaissance, fine-printing work, the small press, and the decorated book
fashioned the bibliographical face of the modernist world.
--Jerome McGann (7)

When John Millington Synge declared "All art is collaboration" (vi), he anticipated by some 80 years the arguments such textual scholars as Jerome McGann have been making since the mid-1980s for the collaborative nature of literary production. Synge was thinking about the contributions the peasants he met on the Aran Islands made to his flamboyantly imaginative language; textual critics would add the whole panoply of those involved in all stages of literary production from initial drafts through print or electronic artifact. As recent material readings of modernism suggest, creative partnerships--both visible and not so visible--have especially contributed to the vitality and variety of twentieth-century literature: The Waste Land (Eliot and Pound), Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins), Paul Bunyan (W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten), and Stones (Frank O'Hara and Larry Rivers) are only some of the modern examples of the collaborations among writers, artists, composers, editors, publishers, and printers that have challenged what Jack Stillinger aptly calls "the myth of solitary genius." (1)

Such partnerships in the twentieth century often thrived at the small, innovative presses--themselves collaborative affairs--that encouraged and sometimes commissioned collaborations, ventured to publish their results, and created "the bibliographical face of the modernist world." The boom in small-and-fine press printing that began with William Morris's Kelmscott and continues through Hogarth and Cuala to Gehenna, Janus, Arion, Perishable, and Granary has been especially important in creating opportunities for collaborations between writers and visual artists. (2) Deriving from the European modernist tradition of the livre d'artiste as well as from Blake and Morris, the nexus of fine-press printing and verbal-visual collaboration made possible much experimental twentieth-century literature, especially poetry, that sought to cross the perceived boundaries of media. If the twentieth century can be characterized by a "pictorial turn" into our current culture of images, as W. J. T. Mitchell has argued (Picture Theory 11-34), poets participated in it from the start, both in an increasing awareness of the visual body of language itself (from Dada and Pound to Susan Howe) and in collaborative ventures in texts combining words and images. One thinks of such modernist work as the first three volumes of Pound's Cantos with decorated initials and headpieces by Henry Strater, Gladys Hines, and Dorothy Pound; of Laura Riding's The Life of the Dead with John Aldridge; of James Weldon Johnson and Aaron Douglas's God's Trombones; and of such postwar work as Thom Gunn's Positives with photographs by Ander Gunn, Susan Howe and Susan Bee's recent Bed Hangings, and numerous volumes by Robert Creeley including Numbers with Robert Indiana, A Sight with R. B. Kitaj, and Signs with Georg Baselitz. (3)

Though not often placed in the company of such poets as Howe and Creeley, Ted Hughes belongs to this tradition. A poet who produced much of his work for both adults and children in collaboration with visual artists, he frequently published that work with small and fine presses. Throughout his life, Hughes paid particular attention to the textual bodies of his poems, habitually working with such small presses as Gehenna, Bartholomew (at Exeter College of Art), Sceptre, and Janus. Like many of Yeats's works that appeared in limited editions from his sister's Cuala Press before publication by his commercial publisher, in the 1970s many of Hughes's volumes first appeared in limited editions from the Rainbow Press, which he owned with his sister Olwyn. (4) Established in 1971, the press declared its lineage as a modern descendant of Blake's radical experiments in material textuality; Blake's picture of moon, dove, and rainbow (fig. …

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