Poetic covers for modern poets

Black & white photogram of feather
Cover design and illustration by Alan Spain,

Graphic use of photographs brought style to book covers

Penguin Modern Poets is a series of 27 poetry books published by Penguin Books in the 1960s and 1970s, each containing work by three contemporary poets. Each volume was to be “an attempt to introduce contemporary poetry to the general reader”.

The series had striking modern covers – black backgrounds with graphic black & white photographs full-bled. They were part of the reform, steered by art director Germano Facetti, to introduce a modernist cover regime across the different categories: fiction, non-fiction, classics etc. The Marber grid had shown the way in 1961/62 and the grid format was then applied in different ways throughout Penguin, including in Modern Poets.

The cover text was set in Univers, the new Swiss typeface, in condensed fonts, coloured for the authors names. Placement accommodated the individual photographs. The first series shown here are from 1962-65, and use black & white photographs or photograms by Roger Mayne, Peter Barrett and Alan Spain. 

The dominant black with cropped black & white photos type sent the message that each book was about “art”, that it was sort of an art object in itself. Compared to the earlier traditionally styled poetry imprints, this treatment was stylish and contemporary.

Black & white photogram of reeds/////Black & white photogram of seed pods

Blacl & white photogram of sponge/////Black & white photogram of thistles

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Full cover of paperback with front, back and spine, with two dramatic photograms of feathers
Full cover, front, back and spine

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Design Alan Spain. Full cover, front, back and spine
Full cover, front back and spine. Design and illustration by Alan Spain, 1967

Subsequent editions featured different forms of experimental photography including abstracts in acid colours but they were less elegant as a series than the black & whites. One of them, with a pop art cover by Alan Spain, was The Mersey Sound from 1967. It became one of the most successful poetry books ever published, with sales of 500,000! I was one one of those customers.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Greg, great to see this site continuing your devotion to photography from a most intriguing angle…I still treasure my ‘Mersey sound’ Penguin and the poetry within. Have you heard from Phil Quirk about the Prahran alumni exhibition – if not, you need to get in touch, but we have no email for address for you. Best wishes, James

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    1. Thanks James. Very nice to hear from you. Thanks for the tip about Phil Quirk, I’ve emailed my new contact details.

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      1. Hi again James. I’m not sure I have the right email address for Phil Quirk. Could you please send it to me here, or to my personal email which is: gregneville1950@gmail.com. Sorry to bother you but I would like to keep up with any Prahran developments.

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