‘The Printer’s Error’ by Aaron Fogel


Introduction by Daniel Bosch

In his too little-known poem, “Strange Type,”novelist Malcolm Lowry’s speaker bemoans a writer’s subjection to the vagaries of printing:

I wrote: in the dark cavern of our birth.
The printer had it tavern, which seems better:
But herein lies the subject of our mirth,
Since on the next page death appears as dearth.
So it may be that God’s word was distraction,
Which to our strange type appears destruction,
Which is bitter.

I appreciate Lowry’s speaker’s use of the archaic term “mirth” for how we feel about the predicament named in the poem — it seems to name an ideal attitude that is not so easy to make real.  The speaker knows there is nothing strange about mistakes of this type, that it’s weirder to make-believe any text we produce is error-free. The most poignant sense of “strange” in Lowry’s poem suggests our estrangement from right reading, even though we make the most of our mistakes, and even though the mistaken ways we read constitute our literary and our religious traditions.

The speaker of Aaron Fogel’s fiendish poem, “The Printer’s Error,” is one of the diasporic great grandchildren of Lowry’s speaker, grown up and grown accustomed to cobbling the present together from mis-remembered snatches of the past called religion, history, literature, and popular culture. He dwells in the land of Not-Quite-Right (well east of Eden, to be sure—but what a view!)  The deftly measured lines of Fogel’s poem evince a mastery of craft to emphasize a paradox: you can never stray from your central premise if that premise is the mystery of human waywardness.

Fogel’s fictional “Frank Steinman, Master Typographer,”has divined the fact that errors are not only human, that “trembling is part // of…creation itself.” No friend of editors who would idealize, Fogel makes this and other powerfully strange poems from humane, forgiving words like “stet.”

The Printer’s Error

Fellow compositors
And press workers!

I, Chief Printer
Frank Steinman,
having worked fifty-
seven years at my trade,
and served five years
as president
of the Holliston
Printer’s Council,
being of sound mind
though near death,
leave this testimonial
concerning the nature
of printers’ errors.

First: I hold that all books
and all printed
matter have
errors, obvious or no,
and these are their
most significant moments,
not to be tampered with
by the vanity and folly
of ignorant, academic
textual editors.
Second: I hold that there are
three types of errors, in ascending
order of importance:
One: chance errors
of the printer’s trembling hand
not to be corrected incautiously
by foolish professors
and other such rabble
because trembling is part
of divine creation itself.

Two: silent, cool sabotage
by the printer,
the manual laborer
whose protests
have at times taken this
historical form,
covert interferences
not to be corrected
censoriously by the hand
of the second and far
more ignorant saboteur,
the textual editor.
Three: errors
from the touch of God,
divine and often
obscure corrections
of whole books by
nearly unnoticed changes
of single letters
sometimes meaningful but
about which the less said
the better.
Third: I hold that all three
sorts of error,
errors by chance,
errors by workers’ protest,
and errors by
God’s touch,
are in practice the
same and indistinguishable.

Therefore I,
Frank Steinman,
for thirty-seven years,
and cooperative Master
of the Holliston Guild
eight years,
being of sound mind and body
though near death
urge the abolition
of all editorial work
and manumission
from all textual editing
to leave what was
as it was, and
as it became,
except insofar as editing
is itself an error, and

therefore also divine.


“The Printer’s Error” is republished here by permission of Aaron Fogel.  It has previously appeared in Bostonia, in The Best American Poetry 1995,  in The Best American Poetry 1998, and in the book The Printer’s Error (Miami University Press, Oxford, Ohio, 2001, 96 pages).

“Strange Type” appeared in Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry, Pocket Poets Number Seventeen, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1962,  p. 79.

About the Author:

Aaron Fogel is an American poet from New York City.