Happy New Year, Old Chap | Page 13 | Newberry

Happy New Year, Old Chap

            While I was away in the wilds of Caucusland (five to seven phone calls a day from candidates who called just to chat and see how things were in…what do you call that state of yours again?) the world of books apparently went on without my assistance.

            I did get a question from one of my faithful readers (There are three).  This is a gentleman who blogs himself, and has occasionally committed poetude in his column.  Some people have asked if he has plans to print these poems in some permanent form, and, after some quantum cogitation on the matter, he admitted he might consider publishing a slim volume of verse.

            His inquiry was, “So how many poems do you need for a slim volume of verse?  Is there a rule?  Answer that, Bookman.”

            Aside from the compliment, I’m glad he addressed me as Bookman, because this gives me the opportunity to discuss the chapbook.  (A bit of of a play on words, see: book-man, chap-book?  It’s…oh, never mind.)  The word comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for business, ceap, which is pronounced “cheap”, and is, indeed, the root of that word in modern English.

            The chapbook, however, was a booklet printed quickly by people whose business it was to leap on any event and immediately bring out something printed to exploit the moment.  Hence “business” but hence, also, “cheap”, since most of the early chapbooks were badly printed, illustrated even worse, involving subject matter that deserved no better.  To make them more saleable, many of these were written in verse.

            The chapbook quickly became associated with poetry.  Whether the early works of say, Elizabeth Barrett, who might publish six of her new poems in a little booklet (generally with good paper and printing) constituted a chapbook I’m not certain.  But poets everywhere seized on the format because it was inexpensive (ceap) and might make some money (ceap).

            At some point, the people who make rules took hold of the concept, and decreed that a chapbook, to be a chapbook, had to contain a maximum of 40 pages.  So there is kind of an answer to the question: if by “slim volume of verse”, you refer to the chapbook, traditional vehicle for poetry, you need to stop by poem #40, if not before.  (Presumably, you would like a title page and a page to thank the models who posed for the illustrations, but it’s a matter of individual taste.)

            Of course, there are now short story chapbooks and art chapbooks, and there are, of course, slim volumes with, say, 48 pages.  These are not strictly chapbooks, but they’re slim.  (I also feel disappointed if a chapbook isn’t saddle-stapled.  This is not an official part of the definition, but it just seems right to me.)  The fact of the matter is that most books of poetry we get at this Book fair are slim.  It’s only the late career retrospective—“Poems by Ladislas Brosniky, 1925-1969” that are thick…in width, I mean.  Poets can be thick no matter how slim their volumes.

            I, myself, once wrote a slim volume of verse.  It had 40 poems in it, for no good reason I can recall, and I called it “Forty Poems”, which may have been the cleverest part of the book.  I have also, generally by mistake, reviewed books of poetry, which would have been as grueling for the poet as it was for me had anyone who requested the review ever been foolish enough to print the result.  Really, the only poetry I ought to be reviewing comes to the Book Fair in the annual volumes of a Chicago society dedicated to naughty limericks.

            Which brings to mind, “A lass at the Iowa caucus….”

            Shoot.  Used up all the space for today.  I’ll finish next time I get an inquiry from a poet.


Well done! Which is rare, so that would actually be a medium. But then you knew I would say that. I need to get back to the grill. I had forgotten your tome of poetry. Are we now in competition to become the new US Poet Laureate? *I think we should do a tag team poet laureateship. Do you want Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays or Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. We could do alternate Sundays.*

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