Sign In using your Campus Account

CAMPUS Debate: Poetry Books – Do Looks Matter?

Can you judge a book by its cover? There’s only one way to find out – CAMPUS debate time!  

For the ayes we have Annie Freud, and the noes with have Patrick Davidson Roberts. Let the literary death match begin…


Annie Freud

When I say that looks matter when it comes to poetry books, I don’t mean that I want them to have a florid appearance, or to look somehow precious or arty. I want them to have a beauty that is so intrinsically theirs that when I go to the shelf to get one down, its familiar look is inextricably bound up with the pleasure of handling it, rereading the poems and thinking about the person that wrote them.

Two examples stand out: Tim Wells’s A Boy’s Night Out in the Afternoon (Donut Press 2005) with its brilliant and mysterious reworking of Peter Blake’s cover for Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band, and the Penguin edition of The Metaphysical Poets with its repetitive pattern of laurel crowns and wavy lines of dots against a red background, suggestive of the complexities and symmetries that lie within.


Tim Wells cover

Metaphysical Poets cover


Having said that I find that I do have a few prejudices and reservations, mostly to do with a feeling of resistance when poetry – either by its content or appearance – seems to be trying to make me feel something or other. For example if a new contemporary poet were to have a collection published with an excessively pared-down look, devoid of any hint of decoration, I might think: and who might you be to be so plain? Landscape formats I also jib at for their pomposity just as I get annoyed when I find a poem chiseled into some stony crag instructing me to genuflect at the wonders of the universe.

I get excited about contradictory covers that go to great lengths to beguile such as that of Roddy Lumsden’s forthcoming collection entitled Melt and Solve (Salt), depicting an almost hysterically saccharine image of a little girl with her hands clasped seemingly in prayer over her breakfast tray, complete with boiled egg, kitten and puppy poised for tidbits on each side.


Roddy Lumsden cover


I also delight in small poetry books that fit neatly into a pocket and whose modest exteriors belie the magnificence of their contents such as CH Sissons’ translation of The Regrets by the 16th Century French poet, Joachim du Bellay (Carcanet).  I love the cover image of the wooden carving of the weary pilgrim in his fustian garb with his satchel and distaff.


Joachim du Bellay cover


A poet whose work I have recently discovered is Jean Sprackland. Her poems are so beautiful, clear and deep, I can only read two or three at a time. Tilt, (Cape 2007) is a particular favourite. I love the velvety carbon black of the cover with the picture of the spade, illuminated by the sun, casting its shadow onto the brick wall.


Jean Sprackland cover


Another poetry book whose looks I admire is Bewketu Seyoum’s In Search of Fat, (Flipped Eye Publishing) beautifully translated from the Amharic by Chris Beckett. Its vellum-smooth olive green and white cover with the small leaping human figure forming the central piece of a slingshot is the perfect complement for these beautiful urgent poems.


Bewketu Seyoum cover


Finally I have to mention Wen Zhenming, a Chinese poet of the 15th and 16th centuries whose work I saw for the first time in the exhibition of Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He achieved the ideal integration of the ‘Three Perfections’, poetry, calligraphy and painting. My poem ‘Once a Small Pavilion’ in my new collection The Remains was inspired by one of his.

 Wen Zhengming cover

Annie Freud cover


Patrick Davidson Roberts

When Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy was posted through my door, in late summer 2013, I could only remark on its appearance. Red, smudging into green, to blue, to pale blue and up to white. It looked like a bible, and not just any old bible, a bad bible – one of those ones you see in the background of chintzed-up bungalows, while Priscilla fixes you with that floating gaze and waxes for hours about spirituality.


Clive James cover


However, after twenty minutes, I was able to get over this. What had begun to matter – tossed in my bag as the James book was and off to lead a poetry workshop on Ted Hughes (whose Collected Poems was also in the bag) as I would soon be – was the weight of the thing. This was an actual problem, as in a problem that would cause pain to anyone bumping into my bag. It was eight-thirty on a Monday morning as I neared the tube stop – people were going to be bumping into my bag. As any fool knows who eschews the kindle as antichrist, you do not judge a book by its cover but by its edges.


Ted Hughes cover


A year or so later, the paperback of the James Dante appeared, and I felt annoyed again. Black background, golden flames – that was the cover it needed. I bought it, out of bitterness at the hardback still in my bag. Opening it, the words had not changed. I frowned, reached into my bag and produced the hardback. I placed one open on one knee and the other splayed wide on the other. I read them comparatively, as my undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature had in no way been about me so behaving. The words remained the same, Led Zeppelin did not have to tell me.


Clive James Paperback cover


A year with the same hardback in my bag? I’d set up a magazine in that year, broken out of a relationship in one of the messier movements of my life. My doctoral studies were ground in the mud, and my own little Oedipus had recently appeared in the poetry workshop I led, with an eye on my end and a plan to it too. I had a heart condition and a nerve disorder which I’d obviously had beforehand, but now they’d been diagnosed. Why did I have the same, huge, book in my bag, why had I just bought another version of it – on the basis of the cover – and could I blame the book for the above litany of woe?

No. Because these words on the page are black and white, and you can wrap them in wattle and daub, or in Sulphur. No effect impacts upon them, nor on our judgment as to why we need them. Even when a classic of design exists – the Faber and Faber plain texts for example – there is no infallible air to that sight. Because a bad poetry book looks the same as a good one, and a design can kid you into mistaking the one for the other, but a bad poet can’t. Book covers are what they are: cardboard and edges that blunt and scrape, and a few more wrappings of paper around. The weakness within is no stronger, nor the fire contained any cooler.


Faber Poetry Covers


What do you think? Are book covers just cardboard and wrapping or repositories of pleasure and excitement? Share any favourites with us below!






  • Giles L. Turnbull

    I talk a lot (well quite a lot) about the visual in poetry and books! I’m blind and, although you may assume that the visual doesn’t interest me at all, it most definitely does! If you consider a book, from haiku right through to War and Peace, there’s a writer putting words on the pages. I admit this is something that would not have occurred to me in my sighted days, but how challenging would it be for an author (or publisher) to write a brief paragraph describing the cover artwork, especially if it has a visual connection to the writing.

    Do you see such a caption often? No, hardly ever! If you read a newspaper the vast majority caption their photographs. It’s not hard. It doesn’t require more than one or two sentences. But it adds an extra dimension to the story for anybody who is blind or visually impaired for whatever reason. I don’t feel that it’s asking too much to hope that authors themselves would work with their publishers and write that short text description.

    In direct response to the question do book covers matter? Absolutely! I have bought many books over the years inspired by the covers. The first book of poetry I owned was as an 8 year old and I bought Sir Walter Scott’s The Lord of the Isles for 2p from the school jumble sale because it was really small and had a tartan cover and looked like it might be a spell book. 30 years on and I still love The Lord of the Isles.

    In theory, much like cigarettes, there’s no reason that books couldn’t all be sold in plain packaging with a health warning “this book may damage your mental attitudes”. Surely it’s what’s inside that matters. Imagine how many spur of the moment book purchases would not be made though if every book looked like every other book.

    I’ve rambled rather too much here, sorry everyone. The pamphlet I’m currently preparing for publication is called “Dressing Up” and in relation to one of the poems that incorporates fashionable high heel shoes alongside flip flops, I have used a photo that shows such an arrangement. I was able to select the photo because it came with a caption on the website. I had welcome assistance from a sighted acquaintance who whipped it up into a pamphlet cover. For the lower vision half of the population I provided the following descriptive annotation and would encourage EVERY other writer, whatever your genre, to take the time to include a similar short description for your cover images too.

    Book covers are very important but let’s make them accessible to everyone.

    Example ALT text for a cover photo from my pamphlet “Dressing Up”:
    “Cover photo: A woman standing is shown from her feet up to her knees. The woman is wearing a pair of red flip flops that have round brown glass beads and light orange shell discs dangling; the woman has maroon red painted toenails.

    Alongside her flip flops are two pairs of high heel shoes to her left and another two pairs to her right. From left to right these are: cerise pink platform sandals with ankle strap; bright orange pointed toe stilettos; turquoise pointed toe stilettos with cream t-bar strapping; and patent red round toe high heal sandals with ankle strap.

    Above the photo image, at the top of the cover can be seen two lines of text comprising the pamphlet title, “Dressing Up” followed by the line “Poems by Giles L. Turnbull”. The title “Dressing Up” appears in the same colour red font as the patent red round toe sandals. The text “Poems by Giles L. Turnbull” appears in smaller black font.

    (Poetry School readers – requests to see this actual cover image are very welcome, just comment here)

    Please do bear this message in mind as you work on your next book of poetry, and pass the idea on to other writers that you know. Many thanks for reading!

    Giles Turnbull
    (south Wales)
    Twitter: @bix_cool

  • Alison

    Cover images: I’m a sucker for them. Latest favourite image is an A5 thin card advert for Simon Barraclough’s Sunspots tour. I don’t know whether the book cover is similar; what’s delightful is the image of the poet, white, middle-aged and balding, wearing ‘unsuitable’ orange-framed sunglasses, grinning, and backed by the sort of blue that might be called ‘sky blue’ (of course it isn’t; I know zilch about art, but maybe you can’t do ‘sky blue’ because the sky isn’t just one colour). What I’d expect is, say, a map of the solar system, or Kepler and a telescope, or the CERN tube. This bungs a human, with a high risk of sunburn, at the centre of the solar system. As someone with small bits of the most treatable and trivial form of skin cancer, the title makes me think of my childhood (which I’m told is when the damage was done) out on a bike in baggy hand-me-down boy’s shorts, teeshirt, and childish possibly orange-framed sunglasses and not a dab of sunscreen, which didn’t exist. The cheerfulness will persuade me to get the book. (Miserable pictures don’t do it for miserable poetry, even though sometimes I want to read misery.)
    But I’m contributing to this discussion as an excuse for slipping in a point about the Campus website. I have MS and my sight for reading is failing – see double, then if I persist I see a blur (print or screen), and enlarging the screen isn’t much help. I haven’t boned up on what web designers should do to make screens as readable as possible for as wide a range of readers as possible. For me, the paleness of the text in many sections of many pages in Campus used to look ‘stylish’ and now doesn’t look like much aside from a pale grey blur. I don’t think more contrast would make everything ok for me (books have plenty of contrast, almost always near-black print on near-white paper), but it would give me longer before my eyes clapped out. Anyone know sources of advice so I’m not just saying ‘Please make Campus more readable for me’ but ‘Here’s something that might make Campus more readable for many people whose eyesight is dodgy’? (I looked for somewhere, eg messages to the administrator, to post this, and couldn’t find it – maybe it’s not there, but eyes limit willingness to hunt! I’ll copy it to poetry school.)

  • Lavinia Singer

    reply to Giles: Thank you for your comment, and for bringing up an issue I hadn’t initially thought of in this discussion of books and looks. It strikes me as a very good idea to include a caption of some kind, and not difficult to implement. How language can most effectively express the visual is its own debate, but from your example one can see how sensuous and evocative such writing can be: e.g. “light orange shell discs dangling”. Thank you for sharing your insights, and I’m sure we’d all like to see the cover image!

  • Lavinia Singer

    reply to Alison: You’re right, often the least expected covers are the most effective, creating a mood and story all of their own. It’s fantastic you’ve been convinced to buy the book on this basis – shows how powerful an image can be! Thank you for contributing your thoughts. I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties you’ve been having, and will forward this on to someone at the Poetry School just in case there’s anything that can be done.

  • David Scott

    Hi Alison
    If you don’t use it already you might want to try the most up to date version of the Firefox browser, which has a menu option: View / enter Reader view
    This simplifies the visuals on a page and uses easier to read fonts , which you also have some control over from a sidebar.
    Other browsers might have their own version of this: Firefox is just the one I know best (You’ll get a link from here if you want to install it )

  • erikleo

    Faber were (are?) famous for publishing ‘bare’ poems without any intro or commentary- whereas Bloodaxe books have colourful covers and lots of commetary usually or at least an Intro. I like both approaches!

Add your Reply

Image Credits:

Image: “The inconveniences of a crowded drawing room”, a famous May 6th 1818 caricature by George Cruikshank

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons