We all know the feeling: when a book starts going wrong, everything that could go wrong does go wrong. Maybe this is the way they felt at the University of California Press when they were doing Robert Duncan’s Collected Poems. Robert Bringhurst tells in The Times Literary Supplement of 17 October, 2014 the sorry tale of the Greek in the two volumes making up Duncan’s Collected Poems.

imagesDuncan, allegedly didn’t know Greek when he developed a passion for the language; he described his love for the language as “a poetic analog of the transference in Freudian psycho-analysis”. Maybe this was a connection he felt to Homer, to the blind poet/seer able to see beyond mere appearance. He too had eye problems. At the age of 3, he slipped in the snow in Yosemite while wearing sunglasses; they shattered, and the injury resulted in strabismus — a condition in which the eyes appear to be looking in different directions.

It’s not only his gaze that went in two directions. His very name was an amalgam of two separate family histories. “He was born Edward Howe Duncan on January 7, 1919, in Oakland, the tenth child of Marguerite Duncan, who died within hours of his birth. After her death, her overburdened husband was at a loss; the household fell apart, and the infant Duncan was put up for adoption. He was rechristened Robert Edward Symmes by his new parents, Minnehaha and Edwin Symmes, also from Oakland, who were directed to him by the edict of an astrologer. They were Theosophists . . . According to Minnehaha and Edwin, the life of their adopted son was thick with mystical truths: he had lived on the doomed continent of Atlantis in a previous life; it was necessary for his birth mother to die so that he could achieve his destiny with his true parents; and it was considered ‘very lazy’ of him to want to be a poet. ‘You have been a poet already in so many lives,’ his Aunt Fay chided.” (The Nation)

Pound’s Cantos were a definite influence leading Duncan to collages of different languages, including Greek and occasionally Chinese. Bringhurst tells us that “Duncan’s Greek was never fluent, but he spent many happy hours with dictionaries and texts, deciphering and carefully copying passages that intrigued him. In the 1950s and 60s, when he sent these polyglot poems to the small presses and magazines that had opened their doors to him, he encountered linguistic incomprehension, typographic naivety and hopelessly inadequate material resources. When the Greek was set in type, mistakes were frequently made. On occasion, Duncan’s handwritten Greek quotations were simply photographed from the manuscript and pasted in place in the typeset galleys.” Shortly before his death in 1988 Duncan discussed a collected edition of his work with the University of California Press. One of the benefits he sought from this edition was the correction of the Greek quotations in his works, which he recognized to be faulty.

Bringhurst relates that there are about 200 words in Greek in The Collected Early Poems and The Collected Later Poems, and he detects 130 typos in these words. These are new typos, not the fewer original ones which Duncan was so keen to correct. Bringhurst was himself involved in the preparation of the manuscript, and even “set all the Greek and Chinese quotations in Unicode-compliant digital type, so that each such passage could be electronically copies and pasted into place by whatever typesetting firm was given the job.” Apparently the Press refused this tape, saying they would take care of the Greek themselves.

I guess we can imagine a scenario. Someone says there’s no need to give us the tape; the Press knows its Greek. Somewhere in the paperwork however, there’s a note referring to the tape and suggesting to the next person handling the job that that side of things has already been taken care of. For the production editor, if the Greek was correct going in, then it’ll be correct coming out, so there’d be no need to check it in proof. Here we might want to shout, “Wait a minute”. Nothing, especially not Greek, should ever be assumed to be correct and not in need of proofing. But maybe proofreading was done, but against a flawed manuscript which Mr Bringhurst’s electronic copy was designed to tidy up. Result: the books are out there warts and all, and winning prizes. I wonder if there’ll ever be a time when Duncan’s Greek will be published in a corrected edition. I don’t imagine he’s a huge seller.

Moral: never assume anything. As Felix Unger says “Assume makes an ass of ‘u’ and me”.

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