The Font of Poetry, the Poetry of Font


On Design

Adventures in typography.


Photo: Willi Heidelbach

I was a teenage font addict. On Microsoft Word I’d lovingly scroll through the drop-down font menu: Avenir Book, Baskerville, Goudy, Goudy Old Style. For every story or poem I started to write, I first spent hours choosing the font. The dystopian soap opera could only be in Geneva; surrealist time travel, Book Antiqua.

In college, my writing was corralled into twelve-point Times New Roman, regardless of how beautiful it might have been in Hoefler Text. I chafed at this restriction, but a true typographical enthusiast finds ways to express her creativity. Font manipulation became a tool to avoid real editing. To make a paper longer, change the spaces to size fourteen; make the punctuation thinner to squeeze more into the page.

At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, things changed again. A font subculture spread among the poets. One poet arranged her tiny capital letters in text boxes, adjusting the serifs for every stanza. Another persisted in stoic, twelve-point Times New Roman; as she put it, Anything else seemed like putting a dress on top of a dress. Font trends went viral. One semester, we gradually started using smaller and smaller typefaces: eleven-point, then ten, then nine, disappearing into the page. When one poet finally broke the cycle and submitted work in fourteen-point Verdana, it felt like he’d plopped a highway billboard inside the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1992, Robert Bringhurst, an accomplished Canadian poet and typographer, published The Elements of Typographic Style, a history and style guide modeled on William Strunk and E. B. White’s famous grammar manual; it’s now in its fourth edition. Like an expert sommelier, Bringhurst demonstrates how font functions and how it should be paired with content. “Allow the face to speak in its natural idiom,” he writes. “Don’t restate the obvious.” “Bring the margins into the design.” “Bring the design into the margins.” “Mark the reader’s way.”

But Bringhurst draws a bright line between graphic design and writing a poem. “The relation between a poem and its font is often neurotic fixation,” he wrote to me in an elegant fifteen-point Constantia. “Only a writer with nothing to say should find himself distracted by the letters in which he says it.”

Font doesn’t have to be invisible, though. Medieval scribes prided themselves on the intricacy of their alphabets. Illuminated manuscripts featured elaborate lettering in which worlds lurk within the words. Calvin Bedient, a poet and critic who publishes Lana Turner Journal, is adamant about fonts: submissions must be in an aesthetically approved setting (e.g., Cochin, size eleven), and in the journal itself Bedient selects a specific typeface for each poet’s name. He chooses a different font for the poems themselves. All this stylistic brio might seem distracting, but the flair breeds its own kind of invisibility. Baroque becomes the new normal.

Font is everywhere. This June, Hermann Zapf, a titan of font design, passed away at age ninety-six. It’s impossible to see the world of modern typeface without seeing Zapf: imagine word-processing programs without Palatino, or the Vietnam War Memorial in a font other than Optima. Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary, portrays this ubiquitous sans-serif font—found in New York’s subways, the Space Shuttle orbiter, and everywhere in between—as one of the most iconic representatives of the modern machine age. If there’s one thing to know about font, it’s that Helvetica is around us at all times.

Helvetica, though, might not be great if we’re trying to remember where we are. In 2010, psychologists at Princeton University published “Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized),” a study demonstrating that people have better recall of what they’ve read when it is printed in smaller, less legible type. Texts presented in unusual typefaces, such as Comic Sans and Bodoni, created “disfluency” in readers, triggering deeper processing and significantly improved retention. When people are forced to stare at something to decipher what it says, it sticks with them.

This doesn’t mean you should use Comic Sans for everything, though. In July 2012, when scientists at CERN announced that they’d possibly found the Higgs boson, their study was nearly undermined by its font: the physicists presented their findings in Comic Sans, the sans-serif scapegoat once reserved for sparkly MySpace pages.

I’m a stickler for fonts when I read; it’s one of the reasons I lug around paper books instead of a Kindle. But writing is different. When I’m writing, I’m in twelve-point Times New Roman: I want a default that will allow me to get what I’m hearing in my head onto the page. If I find myself fussing over font, I know there’s something much deeper that’s wrong. Fidgeting with font, for me, is a procrastination technique, like picking at my hangnails or chewing gum.

Bringhurst warned against the easy font manipulation that the computer provides. “Poetry, like other things, is caught in the cultural charade we call the digital revolution,” he wrote to me:

This has led to some lively experiments, but I’m not sure it has led to any great literature. For generations, we’ve implicitly taught poets that their job is not to make words good to speak or good to sing but to arrange words expressively on the page. This reduces poetry to a ghost of its former self.

But fonts can play an important role in how we write. As one poet suggested to me, “Maybe it’s a third element, something that we can manipulate beyond the poem.” Anglo-Saxon riddles embed runes as clues into the poems, the ancient equivalent of suddenly changing to Wingdings or emoji. E. E. Cummings played with embedding meaning into typographical innovations, mirroring a newly born horse’s wobbly legs in the shaky capital letter.

At the Writers’ Workshop, though, the days of free-flowing fontificating have come to an end. According to the Graduate College at the University of Iowa, twelve-point font must be used for the text of the thesis, and a limited range of “book fonts” may be used; Garamond, Goudy, Palatino, or Times New Roman are recommended. Ultimately, we’re all bound to an appropriate serif.

Adrienne Raphel is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Ph.D. student at Harvard, where she writes about poetics and plays word games. She contributes regularly to The New Yorker online, and her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Lana Turner, the Boston Review, and Prelude, among other publications.