Very pleased to bring you today the favorite poetry covers of David Lehman, poet, occasional painter, and founding editor of the BAP series. The image above is a picture of Larry Rivers, next to Grace Hartigan's hat, both of whom (Rivers and the owner of the hat) are also, as we have seen, primary interests of Don Share. (For more poets on covers, see Nick Flynn & Jesse Ball's picks.)
In a more intensive way than for Don, however, David's interest in collaboration is at the heart of his interest on covers.
It's a great subject, the cover art of poetry books, especially considering the overlap in sensibility between practitioners of the literary and visual arts, and how often it happens that a painter writes poetry (and really good poetry) and a poet makes watercolors or collages.
In descending order, beginning with one out of many of Rivers's covers for Koch, here are David's choices and the larger questions they seem to raise.
3. Kenneth Koch's New Addresses (2000).
Question: Shall a cover be the canvas that sponsors a literal collaboration between image and lyric text?
"The complementary nature of Rivers's art and Koch's poetry is remarkable and worth examining in detail..... The cover of New Addresses splices reproductions of poems, adds a cameo photo of Koch, and uses splashes of color not so much to highlight a text as to show that beyond their meaning, the words function as visual signs and markers. It's exceptional, and I find it inspiring.
As one who paints when he gets the chance, I can testify to the purely visual pleasure of alphabets -- including those of foreign languages little known. Some of Franz Kline's black-on-white drawings look like Chinese calligraphy smuggled behind the occidental curtain."
Question: Shall a cover serve as a second title to the work, a visual title that elaborates the linguistic title? If so, should the poet not choose the second title just as he chose the first?
Ashbery got to pick the covers for a number of his books: "Houseboat Days," "As We Know," "Your Name Here," "Flow Chart," as well as for his art criticism, "Reported Sightings." He has marvelous taste and many friends who are painters, and a look at such covers as I've mentioned gives you an idea of the extraordinary range of his affinities[...]
My favorite Ashbery cover is the one featuring the black-and-white painting R. B. Kitaj did for "Houseboat Days (Viking, 1977). A young woman in an old-fashioned dress holds a paddle on a boat. But the chiaroscuro effects (the sky is an uproar of clouds), the look on her face, and the strong diagonals in the picture combine to create an eerie or uncanny feeling as if someone from another decade were serenely paddling into our pond.
Question: Shall a cover reveal what the poems themselves reach out towards and seek but cannot obtain?
"The covers of James Schuyler's books spring to mind... I'm torn between Darragh Park's cover for "A Few Days" (Random House, 1985) -- lush purple loosestrife on light green grass amid dark green trees -- and Fairfield Porter's almost abstract rendering of a tree for the cover of "Hymn to Life" (Random House, 1974). Both pictures are so right for this poet who turns to landscapes not simply as an aesthetic choice but as a way of dealing with the anxieties and actualities that make such pastoral tranquility so attractive and so hard to come by."
Thanks much for these haunting, impossible dreamscapes, DL.
Do the questions that David's covers suggest resonate for you? Mary Jo Bang has different questions, as we'll see soon. What are yours?