Starting with this post, Gary Sullivan has been talking about the aesthetics of poetry book covers. I thought I'd get in on the act and post a short sampling of recent covers that I think work particularly well. This is not an absolute "best" list, just a grab bag. I may post more later.
Joshua Clover, The Totality for Kids (University of California Press, 2006)
Cover Design: Jessica Grunwald
Cover illustration: Constant Nieuwenhuys, Gezicht op New Babylonische sectoren (View of New Babylon Sectors)
This cover works for me on several levels. It evokes the Situationist-cum-Frankfurt School theoretical itchiness of Clover's vision, with its synthesis of elegaically desolated spatial and affective details arranged into an architectural landscape whose muted ironic undertones match the laconic biliousness of the appropriated Raoul Vaneigem title. The art is balanced well with the textual elements (on the back cover as well, where the designer skillfully lets the compositional balance of the illustration guide the placement of the blurbs). It also sort of looks like one of those Hipgnosis prog rock album covers from the seventies, which seems right for Clover, approximately.
Juliana Spahr, Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
Text Design: Dean Bornstein
Stick Figure Illustrations: from Otto E. Ryser's A Teacher's Manual for Tumbling and Apparatus Stunts
Another university press design. They do tend to have the budget, I guess. But I really like the bold, basic red/white/black/blue/white color scheme [note: I can't find an image file that doesn't make it look muddy, which it really isn't], and the use of retro typographical styles without resorting to obvious period pastiche. The stick figures have an almost Keith-Haring-like feel, the cloying sunniness of which is offset by the geometrical severity of the layout, which is in turn a perfect complement to the deployment of neo-Steinian repetitive grammar as a vehicle for the self-reflexive interrogation of "sensitive liberal values" in Spahr's writing.
Hannah Weiner's Open House (Kenning Editions, 2007)
Cover Design: Quemadura
Yes, I know, we're all tired of drooling over Jeff Clark. And some of his designs do verge on an obscene corporate hypercompetence. His luxurious vices are evident even here, in, for example, the ever-so-barely skewed setting of the original "Hannah Weiner's Open House" flyer, complete with paper crease: it looks like it could be an album cover for some impossibly hip indie-folk diva. Which, in a sense, it is. But it just looks so great, and the entire edition is a model of intelligent and attractive layout. Ditto his design for the Zukofsky issue of Chicago Review (the same design, in slightly altered form, that is used on Mark Scroggins's critical book on Zuk).
[Addendum: I was going to include Jennifer Moxley's Often Capital (Flood Editions, 2005), with its gorgeous detail of a Twombly canvas, on this list, but I just realized that it's yet another Clark design, so forget it. Who the hell does he think he is?]
Michael Earl Craig, Yes, Master (Fence Books, 2006)
Cover Design: Brad Bunkers
Cover Photograph: Jacques Tati, 1954, by Philippe Halsman
Fence covers are hit-and-miss. They can sometimes look like Toyota owner manuals. The back cover of Yes, Master is singularly unimaginative: a tiny bit of the bottom of the cover photo (one of Tati's feet), and below it a big bland blue expanse framing ... a poem that also appears inside the book. And all these books have ISBNs on the back, but on Fence Books they look like they were stamped there by zealous totalitarian drones, as though they were intended to be the very center of the buyer's visual focus. But. First of all, that's an awesome photo of Tati. Second, I don't know whether it was Craig's idea or the designer's, but I can't look at the way the title is used as a caption for Tati, who is thereby transformed from a guy trying to catch a ball into a supplicant ogre, without laughing. It's nothing more than a basic verbal/visual gag, but it's a good gag, and it's effective as an index of Craig's poetry, which is among the very best in the otherwise generally unfortunate trend of James Tate imitations (unkind: I should say that it transcends that trend, but I don't do transcendence). Don't let me be misunderstood. I genuinely like these poems. There's one that says Klaus Kinski should have been raped with a carrot.
Michael Magee, My Angie Dickinson (Zasterle, 2006).
Cover Design: Christian Palino
What is there to say? Sheer brilliance, just as with Katie Degentesh's The Anger Scale (2006) and Sharon Mesmer's Annoying Diabetic Bitch (2008), both from Magee's press, Combo Books. Palino's work for Combo has been unfalteringly excellent, even if it does look like he "borrowed" the cover concept of Lyn Hejinian's The Hunt for my A Thousand Devils.
Jennifer L. Knox, Drunk By Noon (Bloof Books, 2007)
Cover Design: Charles Orr
Cover Painting: Charles Browning, "Booger," 2005
Or for that matter, the earlier and very similar cover of her A Gringo Like Me (Soft Skull, 2005). Here's a case where not just the illustration itself, but the overall sensibility of the painter, is wonderfully in tune with the poet's twisted mind. Browning's work (check out his site) is a lovingly hateful series of variations on themes by nineteenth-century American painters like George Caleb Bingham, and somehow translates into a fit parallel to Knox's barbed embrace of contemporary "white trash" culture. The proudly unsubtle Americana touches in the framing and lettering--it doesn't really show up in the image file, but that dark blue background looks suspiciously like denim--are just right.
Ryan Daley, Armored Elevator (BlazeVOX Books, 2007).
Book Design: Geoffrey Gatza
Cover Art: Thomas Keeley
Dude's finger is cut off! That's messed up.
Lyn Hejinian, The Beginner (Tuumba Press, 2002)
Cover Design: Ree Katrak
Cover Art: Emilie Clark
A thin, pretty little book. Too pretty, maybe? No, I say.
Hung Q. Tu, Structures of Feeling (Krupskaya, 2003)
Cover Design: Frank Mueller
Cover Photograph: Catherine Opie, Untitled #30 from "Freeway" series, 1994
Krupskaya Books always look pretty good, even when the art on the cover itself is nothing special, because they have a strong, uniform formula for the proportions of text and image placement. This also means that they all tend to look alike. But some of them do stand out, like this one, which depresses me in all the ways I prefer to be depressed. The book, by the way, rocks extra hard.
John Ashbery, Three Poems (Viking Press, 1972)
Cover Design: ?
No, it's not recent. But I just don't understand why poets don't have covers like this anymore.