Setting poetry to music

For the cover of Faber’s landmark edition of The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, designer Mark Swan played down the poet’s typically austere image by referencing his love of jazz. The result is a beautiful tribute to Larkin’s work

For the cover of Faber’s landmark edition of The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin, designer Mark Swan played down the poet’s typically austere image by referencing his love of jazz. The result is a beautiful tribute to Larkin’s work…

Larkin has been perhaps unfairly regarded as something of a bleak figure in English poetry. Many of his poems are blunt and unforgiving, but equally there are plenty that, while plain speaking, attempt to convey the complexities of love, life and death.

The new Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett, brings together all of Larkin’s published work and features poems from typescripts and workbooks, stanzas of verse discovered in letters, and an extensive commentary on the poems, often including Larkin’s own remarks. Its cover is in part an attempt to redress the sombre, black and white image of Larkin that dominates his oeuvre; using colour, shape and a sense of movement that, in particular, reflects the poet’s taste in music.

Swan, who works under the studio name Kid-ethic, says his brief was “to take inspiration from the Faber type-led poetry covers but give this a more ‘celebratory’ feel. Larkin was known for being glum,” he continues, “so I wanted the cover to have some dark and monotone shades but these would be changed through the use of dramatic angles and textures; making the cover feel more human, not flat and dull.”

It’s an attempt, Swan suggests, to reconcile what the poet and critic Andrew Motion referred to as “the life-enhancing struggle between opposites” in Larkin’s work. So there are, the designer says, “energetic splashes of colour to show the life and beauty here, that this is a celebration of his work.”

To make the cover, Swan cut out various shapes from bits of carbon paper and photocopies and also produced a series of “paint textures” in different styles. These were then photographed and the cover constructed on the computer. “I always like to get some sort of hand-made element into my work and use the computer more as an editing tool,” says Swan. “With this particular job, I felt the more organic looking style would lend itself well to the subject.”

For the typography Swan used a Faber classic: Albertus. “I wanted the type to look like part of the cover and not just plonked on as an after-thought,” he says. “I’d always liked Albertus as a font and felt it captured the time and still had a modern edge – it’s irregular, jaunty angles complimented the design perfectly, and its curves added a friendly playful side to an otherwise hard edged design.”

As well as a committed music fan, Larkin was also a prolific jazz critic and contributed reviews to The Daily Telegraph from 1961-1971. This upbeat persona is often deemed at odds with the private, solitary librarian who turned out four collections of poetry, one in each decade from 1945 to 1974, and a self-published edition in the 50s.

In referencing “how jazz album covers reflected mood through shape and colour,” as Swan has it, the design of The Complete Poems enlivens this extensive collection of work, offering a refreshing take on how we might see Larkin’s poetry. In that sense, this is a book cover that does its job perfectly.

The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin is published by Faber & Faber; £40. More details on faber.co.uk. Mark Swan’s website is at kid-ethic.com. While we were discussing his designs for the new book, Swan also sent over these alternate versions for the cover:

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