Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Jim McCue

Fabled & Fabulous


On the Occasion of Faber & Faber's 80th Anniversary

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          Faber & Faber could—but never does—make a strong claim to have produced the most important series of poetry books ever published by a single house. Fabled & Fabulous, it remains the list that every poet wants to join. But is “Faber Poetry” an imposter in a discussion of “Uniform Spines”? For far from “exhibiting no, or little, diversity in respect of form, design, or dimensions” (OED), Faber poetry has come in hardback and paperback, in duodecimos and coffee-table quartos, ephemeral pamphlets and scholarly bookends. And there have been at least five separate generations of design. You couldn’t say that these books were in uniform. Yet like people on a bus who are going to a fancy-dress party, you can pick them out at once. 

Faber poetry books are not a numbered series, and there is no published history or bibliography of them. Rarely, if ever, have they had a catalogue to themselves, and there is not even an author list—so that C. Henry Warren and Horace Gregory tend to be forgotten. No one knows how many hundreds of titles there have been over the past 83 years, let alone the number of editions. The total would vary depending on the criteria chosen. Should we include the verse plays that enjoyed such a vogue from the 1930s to the 1960s? Or poetry that Faber distributed on behalf of other publishers or printers? How about the limited editions that have often been published in different dress from the “ordinaries” as a way of charging more for the same content? Do translations count? Children’s verse? Anthologies? If Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes’s The Rattle Bag is included, though not all of it is verse, then why not The Faber Book of Gardens, since not all of it is prose? In every direction, the boundaries are unclear.  

Rather than a ringfenced division, poetry has been the beating heart of Faber publishing. Not only is it what made Faber so well known, but the poets have produced many of its other books as well: Auden’s libretti, Stevens’s essays, Hughes’s children’s stories, Spender’s journals, Larkin’s jazz criticism . . . not to mention the sequence of selected poems, collected poems, letters, and biography which constitutes Faber & Faber’s A list. No other publisher has come near to such success at leading with poetry and letting it ramify. And here the sense of a series is important, both because the grateful poet wouldn’t dream of taking his other work to any other publisher (the imprint is an imprimatur), and because it turns the reader into a collector who wants all of this writer or that. Wanting the whole set is a powerful incentive—perhaps the more so if you don’t quite know how large the set is. And from collecting a Faber poet, it’s not such a big step to collecting Faber poetry.  

Geoffrey Faber himself was a scholar-poet whose collected poems the firm published as The Buried Stream in 1941 (his posthumous Twelve Years was issued privately, so is and yet isn’t a Faber poetry book). His greatest piece of fabrefication, though, was the appointment of another scholar-poet as a Director of the firm at the very beginning, in 1925, and of course it was on and around T. S. Eliot that the whole enterprise turned. His Poems 1909-1925 appears to have been the first poetry book from Faber & Gwyer (as the firm was first named), and over the next 40 years he nominally wrote or contributed to 55 other Faber books—and still they come and are to come. Yet his contribution was greater even than that, for he gave Faber its extraordinary gravitational pull—securing not only Ezra Pound, Herbert Read, Louis MacNeice, and Edwin Muir, then Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath, but also James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, so that Faber became the British vortex of modern writing. Other lists, such as Penguin, may have bought in more than 11 Nobel prize-holders, but has any other house found and nurtured so many future winners?  

Eliot’s hovering presence set a tone, audible in the factual, unenthusiastic blurbs he wrote for his poets, and in the announcement of his 1936 Collected Poems: “It is a chronic malady that Mr. Eliot’s poems are dissipated through numerous emaciated tomes, and that some have not yet been clothed with the respectability of cloth bindings . . . To our occasional nagging, Mr. Eliot has invariably replied that if he did not have to read so many manuscripts he would have more time for writing poetry.” The comedy is wry because the charge is true—he would have had more time—and the blankness of “Mr. Eliot", who needs no introduction, made a personality cult out of the impersonal poet. How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot, and how every young writer longed to.  

The blankness and playful severity extended to the dust jackets. The first Faber books came dressed in very plain clothes indeed: drab jackets with centered lettering, but thanks to Richard de la Mare they soon improved, and after the war Berthold Wolpe brought a fitting modernist flair. Individually designed, his jackets continued to eschew illustration in favor of abstraction, using simple panels of color with large lettering—sometimes in his own slab-form typeface Albertus—also treated virtually as abstract shapes. The designs had no relation to the poetry inside, but were themselves a lesson in the classical virtues of restraint and concentration upon form. And individual though they were, they constituted a tradition, the central run of books that we think of as “the Faber Poets”. The identity contained multitudes, yet had such integrity that it was subtly evident when something didn’t quite belong. However many of his books they published, one sensed that Walter de la Mare was never quite a Faber poet. Nor were D. H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Roy Campbell, or Edward Thomas. Yet there were Faber poetry books by all of them, in the Sesame sub-series which cleverly extended the list’s range still further. And at the more exclusive end of the market, the Ariel Poems included Hardy, Chesterton, and Yeats as well as the usual stalwarts, and gave a chance to commission artwork from Barnett Freedman, John and Paul Nash, and McKnight Kauffer. Whether as keepsakes or Christmas cards, they made smart advertisements for Faber Poetry. 

The number of new editions, resettings and reprints of Eliot’s poems must be over a hundred. Most Faber poetry books were only ever printed once, and despite what appears to be a lifelong commitment to its authors, many poets have been quietly dropped from the list. But the triumph of a good series is that it gives interest to the unknowns and the duds, and makes you want even the ones you don’t want. 


Editor's Note: This essay was written for “Uniform Spines”, a symposium on publishers’ series, at the 2008 conference of the Association of Scholars and Literary Critics.

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