Books On Books Collection – Ian Tyson and Neil Crawford

Poème: Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897)
Poem: A cast of Dice never can annul Chance (1985)

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897)/A cast of Dice never can annul Chance (1985)
Ian Tyson and Neil Crawford
Embossed cloth-covered clamshell box enclosing two set of folios, each in a blue folio folder. Edition of 40, consisting of 30 numbered copies, of which this is #7, and 10 copies marked I-IX. Acquired from Roseberys, 2 November 2021.
© Ian Tyson and Neil Crawford. Photos: Books On Books Collection. Permission to display from Neil Crawford.

As Mitsou Ronat and Tibor Papp were preparing their mise-en-page edition of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard(1897/1980) following Mallarmé’s corrected proofs, Neil Crawford came across a copy of Robert Cohn’s Mallarmé’s Masterwork and was struck by its reproduction of the set of proofs sold by Pierre Berès to an American collector – the so-called Lahure proofs. Crawford, too, was determined to prepare a “typographic translation” of the proofs — but in English. In an essay providing a rich background to the poem, his meeting with Tyson and the publishing of their homage, Crawford explains how he went about his typographic translation.

First, using Cohn’s reference to the original’s size, he enlarged the reproductions photographically and then began puzzling over how to squeeze an English version taking up 10% more space than the French into Mallarmé’s careful layout. Compromising on the use of Bodoni in place of Didot as the typeface (the latter was not available to English typesetters when the poem was first pubIished anyway), it would take Crawford seven years of evenings in tracing letters, translation, transcription, adjustment, retranslation and retranscription to generate hand-crafted layouts that could be stored away until the day that photocomposition would be sufficiently advanced to accommodate the word and character spacing necessary to follow them. The original of Crawford’s typographic layout resides at the University of San Diego. Below are iterations toward the double-page spread that completes the appearance of the poem’s title within the poem.

Courtesy of Neil Crawford.

When Crawford and Tyson met in the early Eighties, Tyson had already established Tetrad Press and was planning his own livre d’artiste version of the poem. His aquatints in a separate folio cover would occupy the position Mallarmé expected for Odilon Redon’s prints in the abortive limited edition in train at the time of his death in 1898. In an ironic reversal of Mallarmé’s concern that the Redon prints might undermine the typography, Tyson and Crawford were concerned that anything less than letterpress printing would not ensure the density of black on the page that would complement Tyson’s aquatints. This led to phototypesetting output as patch setting, then hand pasting according to Crawford’s layouts, and then creation of process line blocks for the relief printing in letterpress.

At a glance, Tyson’s aquatints present a puzzling juxtaposition with the poem, but we can thank Crawford’s essay for a clue to the puzzle.

© Ian Tyson. Permission to display from Neil Crawford.

The poem’s reference to LE NOMBRE (“THE NUMBER”) has sent plenty of scholars on the hunt for its identity. Mitsou Ronat had argued that the magical number has to be 12. After all the classic Alexandrine line of French poetry numbers 12 syllables, and the larger type sizes that Mallarmé chose for the poem are 36, 48 and 60. Unconvinced “typographically”, Crawford points out that “at the time of composition – faces above 24 point were cut in multiples of twelve as standard”. Nevertheless, he also writes, “It would appear that the number 12 (the number of feet in the classic Alexandrine verse form) had great symbolism for Mallarmé” and notes that Tyson’s images

reflect the undertones of the Poème’s symbolism with a composition based on a duodecic permutation corresponding to the measures within the Alexandrine metre, referring in an oblique way to Mallarmé’s recurring imagery ….

Duodecic refers to the Base 12 system, which has the arithmetic advantage over Base 10 of making fractions easier as can be seen from the following image. To apply that image’s Base 12 grid to Tyson’s permutations, however, requires modifying it from 3×4 to 4×6. In other words, there are 24 small squares underlying Tyson’s images, not 12. Mallarmé intended the double-page spread, not the single page, to be the unit for page layout. So perhaps Tyson’s oblique reference to the Alexandrine is also “doubly oblique” (2×12), referring to Mallarmé’s preferred canvas.

“The Curious Case for Base 12 …” Steemit.

Tyson’s geometric approach would be echoed in later works of homage such as Michael Lechner‘s Les Ondes de sable; Un coup de dés / d’ordinateur (1986), Geraldo de BarrosJogos de Dados (1986), Ellsworth Kelly‘s livre d’artiste (1992) and Michael Graeve‘s Hexagram 12: Heaven and Earth Shall not Meet (1998). Neil Crawford has kindly shared the following image of Tyson’s preliminary study for the print suite. Ian Tyson passed away in France on 2 October 2021.

© Ian Tyson. Photo: Neil Crawford.

Further Reading

Cohn, Robert Greer. 1966. Mallarmé’s Masterwork: New Findings. The Hague: Mouton.

Crawford, Neil. December 1997. “A typographic translation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de Dés”. Unpublished.

Dave __. 2017. “The Curious Case For Base 12 (Why Dozens Are Easier For Everyday Maths Than Tens)“. Steemit. Accessed 28 December 2021. (Base 10 has 1, 2, 5 and 10 as factors; Base 12 as 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12).

Meillassoux, Quentin, and Robin Mackay. 2012. The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

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