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Bob Cobbing: and the book as medium; designs for poetry

- Lawrence Upton


I shall hardly touch in this paper on the performance aspects of Cobbing’s work; nor on the classification – poetry, graphics, music -- of that work.

As someone said to me recently of their own practice, we can call it Ophthalmology if you like. 

My subject consists of two not always separable aspects of Bob Cobbing's work as a poet: his making of poems and his making of poetry publications.

I want to show something of his modes of artistic progression where many commentators miss even the progression; and also I want to emphasise the fact of the poetry executed via ink duplicators at a time when that methodological fact has been dodged out from some accounts.

Important facets of his work are overlooked, sometimes in favour of the rather boring history of what happened and what didn't happen in the basement of The Poetry Society in the mid 1970s.

Cobbing was largely a designer and maker of his own publications, a process which was part of a wider publishing enterprise.

Therefore, I shall start by considering his general care, with a text which was not his, but mine, Easy Kill, text by Lawrence Upton writing with a photocopier, book designed and made by Bob Cobbing in the latter half of the 1990s.


[Figure 1 – Easy Kill cover]

It's hefty, A3 pages within A3 card covers. It opens one way only, which is not always the case with Writers Forum books. There's so much toner used to create large areas of grey, it has a particular feel of stiffened paper. The pages are printed one side only; and, because they are large, one is aware of them as they are turned cumbrously, but not cumbersomely. Moving through it, a slow pulse.


[Figure 2 – Easy Kill page]

Moving through it a slow pulse.

Publisher's text is minimal, allowing the writer’s images / text to predominate. One is immersed in image without much distraction.

As writer, I wrote each page during a single copier cycle, somewhat rehearsed and prepared for improvising, the result accepted or rejected by myself.


[Figure 3 – Easy Kill page]

Performance decisions will reflect the form of the book [1] which is their starting score, connecting the performance with initial image making. The book's form follows the form of the text's making.

These attributes of the book are there, to be seen if one will see them. Attention is not drawn to them; but I suggest that the more one looks at the book the more one sees that the main design decisions are right. I loaned Cobbing the originals and that was the end of my contribution.

Compare Easy Kill, as a book, with Cobbing's own Lightsong 2 [2], the data of which would fit in their entirety on one big page, but only by violation or denial of the book's potential page space.

Notice the care with which the specific size of Lightsong 2 has been chosen. Its dimensions are non-standard; and in fact they fluctuate slightly from copy to copy, the pages roughly hand-cut. The pages are far darker, largely black, than Easy Kill. A different layout would alter the impact substantially.

Remember that Cobbing was his own printer. So any such decision meant more work for him. How much easier to have chosen A4, A5, A6.

The size of Easy Kill created a problem of storage and carriage; but it came to him as an A3 work and he followed.

Lightsong 2’s size is not to be modified by a general house style overriding the aesthetic demands of the individual publication. (I shall have a little more to say on this in connection with bill jubobe [3], Cobbing’s first selected poems, prepared for the press with Sean O'Huigin.)

Now to triptychs. The triptych was a favourite form for Cobbing; and it appeared in a variety of its own sub forms throughout his poetical career, sometimes on cards joined together, often cards of different sizes, as with Are your children safe in the sea; or cards of the same size, which might be formed of one card folded.

When the cards were to be joined together for publication, he used clear adhesive tape, standard office issue but of a good quality. It was done painstakingly; just as every staple would be checked for roughness.

These publications were then offered for sale very cheaply; sometimes, I believe, they were offered below cost price; but, repeatedly, he behaved with the care one would expect of the making of an artist's book to be sold at a high mark up. This was a deliberate and political policy.

When I had described Writers Forum's output as a species of artists’ books, in Jerome Rothenberg's Book of the book[4], Cobbing denied it; he did not like the comparison.

Cobbing's resistance to the idea of the artists’ book was to do with accessibility. If the books were not very cheap, and often artists’ books are not, then they could not be purchased by anyone who wanted them. That offended him. Yet

• Writers Forum books were generally hand-made; and well made
• form followed content to a great degree
• the books tended to be pleasing objects in their own right
• Cobbing did cooperate in the production of limited editions, for example, Ruby Editions 2, discussed later

The book was, in the main, Cobbing's chosen medium. With the book, he could distribute his works and others’ cost-effectively; and sell them to some degree, although the economics of Writers Forum have always had as much to do with white magic as with economics.

Cobbing could have made images without putting them into books-as-such; or he could have assembled his images into installations although I can only think of one occasion when that happened. There was no demand, he said.

However, he was strongly committed to ideas that one might loosely characterise as democratic, where that is used to mean general public access; and also to a sense of a community of artists.

His commitment to cheapness of product in a society where many are sometimes inexplicably and casually well off, and proud of themselves as a result, may sometimes have hindered distribution. Presumably some potential customers equate low price with low quality.

A reading of documents of Association of Little Presses and Poets Conference will indicate that what Cobbing thought he was doing in publishing and other organisational activities was more than putting on gigs and running a press. In return, he hoped for a mode of loyalty and commitment which was not always available to him; and that caused him disappointments.

There was a time when one heard his products dismissed in some quarters as messy ink-duplicated pamphlets. This is the kind of observation which at best judges a book by its cover price rather than the book itself; because one of the distinguishing features of an ink-duplicated Writers Forum publication was that it was not inky except in the right places. If a publication seemed to be all ink, then that might well be, probably was, because the image was rather black and extensive. If that ink was still tacky, then that was probably because Cobbing had rushed to get the publication ready for a lately announced deadline of the poet's.

Cobbing and I spoke of triptych performances and the need to avoid his voice being lost - not drowned by - the output of musical instruments in poor acoustic space. There was to be a celebration of them. There was an exhibition at Klinker [5], but that was it as far as I know.

On one occasion, when I raised this worry over the loss of his performance voice to the general other sound of the performance, he shrugged, laughing, and said "I should just be louder". However, clearly he thought about it; and, next time we met, he presented me with a stack of enlarged triptychs.

The enlargement took the form of doubling their size, using A3 card for each panel.

The analogy of size with volume is simple, but good; just as deep black may be read as lower down the vocal scale than a mid grey.

These analogies are more intuitive, I believe, than the products of many Human-Computer-Interface designers. Anticipated response to a picture of a desktop largely depends upon familiarity with and training in the use of a real desktop and suspended filing system or similar.

Differences of size and differences in shading are known to us all, from the cradle to the edge of the grave.

I like the monumentality obtained by increase in page size. It does not make for easy use; but the texts are no more easily performed than they are easily interpreted. That Cobbing went to the expense and considerable trouble of making that set, implicitly so that I might join him in a suitably loud performance, indicates that he recognised the potential need for such encumbrance as a performance instruction.

All the older publications bound in clear adhesive tape are beginning to disintegrate now; even the best office supplies companies do not make tape which outlives a human being of normal life span. Yet they lasted a long time; and their final failure points to an attitude inherent in Cobbing's approach, which was not to be greatly concerned with what happened to his work after his death. When he knew that he would die soon, it seems his first curatorial response was to ensure that his press's work and his workshop did not cease with his death. It was only with some pressure that he paid any attention to the need to preserve his own work. [6]

Cobbing's poetry has an aspect of system dependency in the way that much contemporary “e-poetry” has - What happens when the web browser, or even the computer you wrote for, no longer exists? (And the same applies to collaborative performances such as those of Domestic Ambient Noise by Cobbing and Upton, when one of the makers is no longer available.)

Incidentally, with the widespread disappearance of typewriters, there goes too our access to the physical experience behind much spatial scoring of poems where part or all of the composition once took place at the keyboard.

There is no simple click to one and a half line spacing in MSWord and its look-alikes as there is with, for example, the portable typewriter of dsh. The wonderful phrase "a complex choreography of pacing spacing and rests", of Duncan's Bending the bow [7], comes to mind. [8] The spacing can be simulated, but that is not the same thing; spacing of type has a physicality which the word-processor elides. [9]

Cobbing's Writers Forum publications in the 1960s and 1970s often came smelling of white spirit. The smell quickly fades, though it was still there in 2004 when I opened a packet of undistributed winter poems; and the slight tackiness of the ink was still detectable. Both qualities faded quickly as air flowed over them; but, for a moment, there was a recollection of their youth.

Ink, paper and the tints in paper discolour eventually; and, in such work, part of the poem-in-print itself has faded, although Cobbing tended to use high quality materials (within the bounds of Reprographics’ standards rather than commercial Fine Art’s).

Printed cards in envelopes were another Cobbing favourite. Poems on cards in envelopes enable the poet to make a set of images into a book rather than a portfolio, but without binding, to help say: This is to be read aloud. There are other readings of the book form; but, in the case of Cobbing's own work, the separation on to cards declares each image's autonomy. They come as part of a codex, yet separately.

However, similar and more heterogeneous gatherings of items could be received at the same time from Chopin's OU, a magazine which sat at the intersection of different artistic pursuit labels in a different way to Writers Forum. It might contain images which Cobbing was quite prepared to accept as textual and in his own sphere of operation, but which clearly had been made for display on the wall or similarly. The work of John Furnival, included in GLOUP & WOUPby Cobbing, would be a good example.

While in GLOUP & WOUP [10] the folder was intended to be employed in a way different to that proposed here for Cobbing's own envelopes, one thing which links it and Writers Forum envelopes and the folders and boxes of Editions OU is a denial or subversion or interruption of the expanding bookshelf upon which individual titles are institutionally imprisoned "as fragments and isolated portions" in Shelley's (appropriated) words [11].

Having established a class of publication to work with, Cobbing varied it. Why Shiva has ten arms from 1969 is an envelope of sheets of paper, not card. On being opened, it has an entirely different feel to those using card. The use of paper makes the autonomy seem, to me, ambiguous.

And there are many variations on the triptych. Vispo for Eric [12], for instance, runs four triptychs together in pamphlet form where the binary of the pamphlet's double-page-spread runs through the triptych sequences, in counterpoint. The original triptych version of Are your children safe in the sea [13] introduces the form as an asymmetrical structure, a large central panel and smaller side panels.

Are your children safe in the sea started as a permutation poem; and remains so. It started with what, in 1966, Cobbing called the ear version.


[Figure 4 – Are your children safe, ear version]

There is also an eye version, in which one can see - if one wishes - breaking and dangerous waves rolling in and over each other, and a visual representation of what one could do aurally with that ear version; and both can be found in Extra Verse 17, published in 1966.


[Figure 5 – Are your children safe, eye version]

He had been experimenting with tape and what could be done with aural overlay, both to a score and by chance. Such experiments were, to some extent, commonplace.

Anyone who has ever used an ink duplicator routinely has experienced, by accident, the overlay of disparate texts [14].

Most machine operators throw them away. Cobbing saw them as visually interesting and put the two experiences of overlay in different senses together.

The text of Are your children safe in the sea is notational, but perhaps by example. It is indicative. In a tape version or live performance of the text, there would be no attempt to have each sound heard matching each page mark. It would be very unlikely although not impermissible.

It is a coherent approach. [15] Cobbing had much faith in accident; and, if the eye version were good enough for one to imagine that possibility, then why bother realising it?

Every version and performance he made was slightly different, but they all had their family resemblance, his phrase.

It is important to realise what a big departure from previous practice this text represents. Cobbing as a minor star (to quote Peter Finch's poem from memory: "Woke up. Still famous.") was fairly new.

What we now know as ABC in Sound was published as Sound Poems in January 1965. Cobbing claimed that he had knocked it off (my words, his tone) over the previous Christmas under the influence of influenza and the whiskey he swallowed to alleviate its symptoms. Such stories were rarely without foundation [16]; but he was a good story teller.

Attentive reading of ABC in Sound surely leads to the conclusion that it is something more purposeful and crafted, however quickly it was made, than an output of the delirium of flu and strong drink.

In itself, ABC in Sound suggests a tremendous soaring of his poetic imagination from what he had published previously, e.g. the linear concretion from within; and that is quite easily believable, because throughout his career he continued to make such leaps, taking his work in an unexpected direction. It seems to be how he thought imaginatively.

In almost all, perhaps all, of his series or sequences, there tends to be at least one element which derives or arises quite reasonably from its predecessors and companions but which also is in an entirely unexpected conceptual space and which recontextualises what has gone before. His life's work itself might well be thought of in this way, because he circled back upon his themes and procedures in a way uncannily reminiscent of the general structure of the relatively late Domestic Ambient Noise, though that was only half his.

The folder, Picnic at Bondi, from 2001, if viewed in Cobbing's original packing order, follows just this pattern-changing pattern. Its opening image, if one is conversant with Cobbing's work, is, while surprising and quite new, also quite familiar; the whole set has a continuity, with surprises, to it; the last few images, and the very last especially, are opening up entirely new ground and ground far from the starting point [17].

The pamphlet sequence Domestic Ambient Noise was simultaneously a visual poem and a set of visual poems, made collaboratively by me and Bob Cobbing between 1994 and 2000 and published one by one by Writers Forum.

There never was one fixed plan. The plan evolved. I won't go into the details of its evolution because that has been documented elsewhere.[18]

Briefly: when we had done more than 150, we knew that we were going to do 300 and discussed the question of presenting the 300 elements as one.

Ideally, we would have boxed them, perhaps with some additional material, probably in a fairly small run for friends and collectors.

It never happened for a variety of reasons; but, by the time we decided to let it not happen, it had ceased to be a thing that excited us. We would have liked it to happen, but no more; we did not expect it to happen.

I'd say that boxing DAN [Domestic Ambient Noise] might have been to familiarise it. It's all right, we would be saying, because it's a boxed set. As it is, it remains something of a sprawl…

What we had agreed on, some years before, was a DAN installation at the end of the project. That idea had evolved from a desire to make something unusual of a modular stall at a bookfair.

We had imagined the booklets hanging from the ceiling. That just wasn't possible the first time, but Jennifer Pike, Bob’s wife, strung a considerable number of the pamphlets asynchronously in an intriguing way, using the structure of the stall, which avoided being overly decorous.

Following that, Cobbing and I agreed that what we wanted to do, when the series was complete, was to hang the entire series, in no particular order, at average head height from strings. The strings would be secured in a grid (e.g. 20 x 15, or 10 x 30), with the nodes perhaps as close together as 6 inches.

There was nothing set about that beyond the use of a measured and regular grid. It would have depended upon the nature of the space for its exact size. The intention was to create something intriguing and disorienting, a space where one would come into tactile contact with publications but in an uncomfortable and disturbing manner.

And, on the other side, there might well be a library of the whole series. [19] Random projections of the images were also hoped for. Increasingly, as Cobbing and I performed our way through the work we were making, we were performing from projected and often partially-animated texts rather than the books, although we never quite left the books behind if only for lack of facilities. This process grew out of innovations by Jennifer Pike in Birdyak and involved largely her as projectionist.

I had hoped that it would be possible to display DAN properly, as we had planned, at the Bury Art Gallery exhibition, but the suggestion was declined repeatedly; and, after a while, I gave up. I left them to present it as they did, which pleased no one apart from them, least of all the surviving artist.

ABC in Sound / Sound Poemshad apparently risen without trace, earning their maker international recognition from those who now realised they were his peers; and earning too a number of years of prestigious commissions. Yet, within a year, he had gone from that admittedly radical notation of sound to just as radical a further leap. Compare the eye version of Are your children safe in the sea, for instance, with worm, derivative of Lewis Carroll's mouse's tail [20], to see the speed with which he could develop and change practice.

And that went on. Some commentators, because so much of his poetry is so different in their eyes to what they accept as proper as poetry, apparently beyond the limits of their sensibility, to quote Shelley’s Defence again, assume that it is all the same. They do not look. They do not listen.

Co-presentation of eye and ear versions dates, then, to the start of his publicly poetic career. Yet, it was said on Radio 4 at the start of the 2005 Bury Art Gallery exhibition, by one of that exhibition’s curators, that Cobbing moved from the words and conventionally written text to the non-lexical sign.

Bury Art Gallery says: "Cobbing is famous for his use of the photocopier to generate visual pieces that explode the conventions of reading and even the very idea of words." [21]


[Figure 6 – Bury, false information]

Are your children safe in the sea
was not made on a photocopier and couldn't have been because the copier works differently. Nor were many of what Bury Art Gallery called his "classic poems" made on a photocopier. One may reproduce them with a copier though that is problematic.

Whatever the curators mean by "explode", Cobbing clearly did not do it to "the very idea of words"; and contrary evidence is readily available.

In 1999, Alaric Sumner, making apparently the same error, asked us [22]: "Though you both use words in DAN / DAM, you both also tend to obliterate them. Is there something less direct, truthful, communicative about verbal language than non-word-based communication?" and we both answered "No".

In that same discussion, I said "I think that just sticking to the lexicon doesn't allow you to express a great deal that one would wish to express." and Cobbing retorted: "Well, I think it gets pretty near it, but one needs a bit of aid from time to time; and non-vocal is that aid.

He also said "I am quite sure that our reading of our verbal poems is very much fuller and richer for experimenting with sound."

Cobbing's 80th birthday reading at Sub Voicive Poetry, in 2000, lasted two hours and consisted entirely of linear verbal poetry spanning half a century. Peter Manson wrote almost immediately after: "The variety of the work was astonishing… It was surprising to hear how interested Bob was in emphasising the semantic element… Cobbing's verbal work isn't really that different to his visual / soundtext work" This was on the web in the public domain. Although it was been removed since the original talk in 2005: it was there at the time of the exhibition.

Cobbing never abandoned the word; never abandoned the linguistic; and denied his work was abstract. Eric Mottram called his approach “a prosthesis of poetry”, and Cobbing was very pleased with that judgement, publishing his own print of the essay [23] when the original went out of print.

In fact he retrieves the word, often; and asserts it. Look carefully at the content of Vispo for Eric [24] and you will find a curious simultaneous use and inversion of the palimpsest where copies of what Eric has written are worked into what Cobbing is saying, leaving their paper behind them yet retaining and carrying over the signs.

Perhaps similarly, you will find in some copies of an issue of Kroklok a Furnival image which has been augmented by the name "Agfa" due to a darkroom accident when Cobbing was learning to use the new plate-maker at the COLP Printshop. The image itself was of a devil trap and Cobbing said it had worked; and, true to the moment, he published the image as it had appeared and not as he had expected it to appear. That raises a number of issues regarding ownership and copyright which I cannot go into here; but it is I believe also instructive as it stands.

Regular use of the photocopier accounts for 17 to 18 years of his artistic life, from around 1984 until his death. His first duplicator print dates from 1942. The photocopier -- though important -- came late.

His manner of using the photocopier has been described by one of the Bury exhibition's curators on the same programme as being like "Jackson Pollock given 100 photocopiers and allowed to run amok"…

An examination of the originals will show how different Cobbing’s method is to Pollock’s – even for those who cannot see that his style is different.

I leave you to judge the quality of the judgment by basic textual analysis of the critical utterance; but it needs answering as the only comment on Cobbing's technique I can remember on radio - what an opportunity wasted.

Many of Cobbing's originals survive and many are being preserved; and the various manners of their making will be quite clear from looking should it not be apparent to anyone from the published version. One exciting aspect of Cobbing's work is that he never sought to hide the method of his making nor to fetishise it at the expense of the work itself.

I saw him, in the COLP Printshop, make Winter Poem 1, physically cutting and pasting tiny pieces together.

He made 2 images, one dark, one light, which he printed on one sheet of paper by using 2 passes of the machine, superimposing one page image on the other. And each image is made up of many much smaller images, collaged together painstakingly. All the images were, I believe, from material which had been found.

Registration is not an ink-duplicator's strong point; and some results were rejected by Cobbing, leaving available for distribution a large number of composite images, none of which was quite the same as another.

In republishing the poem since Cobbing’s death, Writers Forum has had to choose one, fixing that version as the version in terms of registration; but I favour ink jets over lasers for giving something of the quality of the ink duplicator. [25]

There were two main systems of ink duplicators in this country, Roneo and Gestetner, but both were a kind of automated silk screen.

For type, the image was cut with a typewriter on to a stencil made of waxed paper or an equivalent. Making a stencil well this way was a skill. Few could manage to make a stencil which did not lose the middle of letters such as o and p. Too soft a pressure might produce nothing. Electric typewriters could be preset to an otherwise appropriate pressure; but, unless they were the very expensive ones, they rarely fulfilled their promise. There was a jerkiness to their impact.

For images, considerable dexterity was required and many who could cut a typewriter stencil well stuck there and never managed to add images satisfactorily.

There were special drawing tools for the purpose; but they facilitated pre-existing manual agility. There was special correcting fluid which obscured a mistake so that it could be re-inscribed; but it had to be used in just the right quantity or it made reinscription difficult or impossible.

In any case, it was all too easy not just to need correcting fluid but also then a whole new stencil. Too deep a cut and the ink flooded through too greatly; or the stencil might even disintegrate.

The stencil was applied to the machine which both propelled the paper through itself and against the stencil; and pressured ink against the stencil so that the ink went through where one had made the holes.

Pressure of ink could be controlled to some extent; but the machines were not designed for vastly different areas of black to be printed at the same time.

If one persisted in trying that, as Cobbing did, the ink oozed out in every direction, gobbets of it, because flow control was basic.



[Figures 7a & 7b – Winter Poem 1, left and right]

If you look at Winter Poem 1, you can see some of those gobbets.

With Fugitive Poem one may see its origin in a reversed used stencil monotype (which has been scanned at some point). It needed skill to get anything worth while. Cobbing made and collected those monotypes.


[Figure 8 – Fugitive Poem]

Duplicator ink took a long time to dry. One used absorbent paper made for the purpose and the marks were slightly blurry compared to the sharpness of a photocopier.

Even so the results could stay wet for some time. Gobbets of ink could stay wet for years. This is an art which requires one to be willing to become blackened.

It took time to ink up the machine so one kept the waste and ran that through. The stencil had a limited life and the image degenerated or transformed, depending how you look at it, over a run of some hundreds. You can see much of this if you look at the posthumous Cobbing book Destruction in art that Adrian Clarke edited for Writers Forum in 2004.

In all the unwanted smears, overprints and spillages arising from Writers Forum mimeo production, Cobbing saw the makings of some aspects of his art (through collages, offset and changes of context) from the mid 60s to the mid 80s, and on.

When he came to daily use of the photocopier as an artistic tool, Cobbing exploited its potential as he had the duplicator's, as opposed to using a photocopier as a utilitarian image reproduction machine, which he had already done before owning his own machine (e.g. Fencott & Cobbing in Miami from 1982) and continued to do. He sought from the photocopier the same range of tones and created depth that ink duplicating had given him; and, in the written judgment of Robert Sheppard, achieved even finer work than he had from the ink duplicator - but let me stress, even finer; and the ink duplicator effects, which had built an international career, needed the ink duplicator. The move to photocopying, as he managed it, demonstrates his adaptability.

Writers Forum reproduces his ink duplicator work with other systems now. It is nearly impossible to get mimeo materials; and, because of the variability of output, it would not be any more authentic to try to reproduce his method.

These are, generally, specific problems for anyone handling art images after their maker’s death, especially when changing technology is involved. Cobbing of course could decide to photocopy an ink-duplicated image; and then it was an authentic Cobbing, surviving or not on its own merits, subject to curation.

For an example of what was possible, by applying as transforming agent the photocopier to an ink duplicator image, see Open Folios [26] where Winter Poem 1 has been varied considerably.


[Figure 9 – index page of Open Folios by Bob Cobbing]

Cobbing continued the Winter Poem series - he made the cards partly as Christmas greetings - with photocopier images after he no longer had the ink duplicator. Similarly and quite differently, he revisited old themes, so that, for instance, there are three ABCs!

One of his last collections is Sign writing, dedicated to his father, a sign writer… cycling and cycling.

It will not do, as some are doing, even as some of them speak of the materiality of the text, to treat a photocopy of an ink duplicator work as the same as the original. It is not; as there is a difference between looking at a reproduction of a dsh text and one of his originals. Most of us make do with art reproductions when there is no alternative; but let us remember that we are making do.

Technically, Cobbing worked brilliantly within huge constraints; and one can see a willingness to compromise implicit in the standardisation of his selecteds, bill jubobe and the later companion volume bob jubile.

The compromise was complex.

He made it work for him. In the later kob bok (Etruscan Books, 1999), with the same format, he had reduced editorial control; and, for me, the flair of the earlier books isn't there.


[Figure 10 - from Chamber Music, first mimeographed publication]

What I believe to be the first printing of Chamber Music dates from Christmas Day 1966, a private publication: 50 copies dated on 25th December 1966. At that time, it was common Cobbing practice to produce cheap and cheerful private publications.

A comparison of, for example, the first page, ink duplicated by typewriter-cut stencil, will show it to be closely similar to the top left corner of the same poem in poster format published in Futura 19 by edition hansjörg mayer in Stuttgart in 1967. The latter however was typeset and printed as a "score of poem for six or twelve voices or for electronic treatment".


[Figure 11 – from Chamber Music, litho]

There are typographical differences and the shapes that Cobbing made with the lines of his poem have been regularised and therefore emphasized.

Line spacing has been changed. Some of the words are different. “Esau” is no longer capitalised, for instance; and compounds such “kow-tow” have lost their hyphens

Some of the changes may well have been the action of the publisher; but, clearly, it was accepted by Cobbing. It seems to me that the editing of the textual words themselves is probably different in kind to the other revisions; but I leave that line of thought for future exploration.

It is probably appropriate to see these as author's revisions including those made in the light of opportunities afforded by publication - the poster format for instance.


[Figure 12 – variations on a theme of tan, typographically enhanced]

Cobbing was always open to taking other people’s suggestions. The typographically-enhanced version of variations on a theme of tan, where, by practice at least, type size indicates audio volume, was not I believe of his making; but seeing its quality he took it over.

A bit of the hansjorg mayer version finds its way into bill jubobe, over which he had great influence. Fitting into that page format has provided us with another form, an example of what I mean by Cobbing making the constraints work for him.

Beethoven Today is normally met as a black and white poem.

I was first aware of the poem as a single circular verse; and that is how Cobbing chose to represent it in his anthology GLOUP & WOUP.

I assumed a reference to the globe, a world made in great part culturally by Ludwig Van Beethoven; but there is more to it than that.


[Figure 13 – Beethoven Today, polychrome]

There is a polychrome version of three circular verses and three square verses. It was published that way as a poster by Covent Garden Press in 1971. But, in what also appears to have been its very first circulated printing, 20th September 1970, there are also three circular verses and three square verses, one per page, interleaving.

This was a private edition of 42 copies on quarto duplicator paper (tinted) in black ink. Interestingly, the cover utilises a square verse; and then Cobbing has hand-written "Purcell Room 25 Sept", the number of the copy and his name and date, 20 Sept 1970.

Questioned about the poem in interview [27], he had this to say:

Bob Cobbing: I did this one especially for a performance at the Purcell Room at Festival Hall for a programme called Beethoven Today. In a way I suppose we were paying homage to Beethoven. In a way we were taking the piss out of Beethoven. The whole thing was devised as an entertainment, and this particular piece was used on tape, not live. On tape. There was a tent on the stage and as the flap was drawn back the guy playing the piano inside the tent could be heard very loudly and as the flap dropped back into place again his piano became softer and softer till you could hardly hear it. As the flap fell into place and the piano became softer my tape became louder and louder, and the tape went down again as the tent flap opened and the piano sound came up. That was how it was done in performance.

Steven Ross Smith: Was the tape fade related, equivalent, to each stanza?

Bob Cobbing: No, no. It was completely arbitrary. I've no idea who decided when to open the flap and when to shut it. But everything was geared to that. ... "

Compared to the Covent Garden Press version, the duplicator prints are clear; but the polychrome copy I have referred to is a proof signed by Cobbing. So he accepted it, perhaps as a variation, along with the colour. It is striking and provides a wide range of readabilities so that one tends to look quite hard to be sure that all it says is indeed "beethoven". This difficulty emphases the patterns which emerge from the repeated overlays, an apparent abstraction achieved by accretion and made more striking by the use of colour.

The private publication declares its process by publishing a page including the label "beethoven today" at the bottom and the mirror image of that, made by reversing the stencil; and yet another with the name "bob cobbing" similarly reversed.

A comparison of the private publication of the last page and the last verse on the poster will disclose that the verse has been turned upside down on one of them.

In bill jubobe, there is one of each black-and-white, circular and square, and on separate pages.

It alters the poem entirely. It doesn't make it better or worse; it makes it different.

In this poem, as in so many others, one easily imagines Cobbing genuinely enjoying the plasticity of language through praxis rather than just talking about it. The total semantic content-as-input is the word "beethoven" (just as he celebrated Shakespeare with the string "s h a k e s p e a r e"), but repeated and overlaid and chopped, printed in obverse and reverse (where, in Shakespeare Kaku, he shattered the letters into familiar-looking previously unseen signs).

He is enjoying the idea that, if we can make sounds from written language, which consists of marks, then we can make sounds from other marks, which may, as here, be created by overlay and collision of conventional marks.

It wouldn't have been easy then unless you had an ink duplicator; and, if you had an A3 machine, you could turn the paper through all four points of the compass. He did.

Cobbing told of hearing his own voice distorted via tape-recorders, slowed down or speeded up for instance, as well as overlaid; and finding that he could reproduce the effect live. Here we see the visual equivalent, by producing signs which had not been seen before, isolated as potentially significant and utterable.

Ruby Editions 2 in 1975, is a large folder of silk-screened visual poetry edited by Henri Chopin. It contains an untitled poem by Cobbing, interestingly alongside images by Tom Philips and melo de castro.

It uses colour.

Colour was very expensive, and / or a lot of work. Writers Forum used it when it had to - e.g. The Five Vowels, one of his masterpieces in my opinion -- but even in the very late 1990s, when costs were falling, it was used carefully.


[Figure 14 - i from The Five Vowels]

[Figure 15 - an unpublished polychrome collaborative poem by Cobbing and Upton]

Colour was a nuisance if you had one machine. Unlike toner for a photocopier, which largely remains in its manufacturers' cartridge until the machine demands it, duplicator ink was drawn into the machine pathways ahead of time; and, once in the machine, stayed in the machine. It was slightly worse from this point of view in the Roneo than the Gestetner, which Bob used; but both were bad.

There were ways and means of running it dry, but they had an effect upon quality of output and / or the level of waste.

The easiest way was to schedule jobs where it didn't matter what colour the ink was and use them to change colour. So one changed the ink tube and ran the machine; and, slowly, the new ink colour replaced the old. Look carefully at Writers Forum duplicated publications which came out just before a publication which used colour and sometimes you will see this has been done. When the colour stabilised, you ran the job that you had changed the ink for.

The stencils for these and all the other graphic images in this context were cut on a stencil cutter. It was referred to as the electronic stencil cutter, but that is not quite electronics as we know them now.

It was slow, very smelly, possibly carcinogenic, and unpredictable. It had a little dial in it that reminded me of the sort of instruments one found in a school physics laboratory half a century ago. One looked at that and interpreted the needle as it flickered across a calibrated face… Cobbing's interpretations were by far the most reliable.

And often it broke down.

Cobbing made only a relatively few excursions into colour - many solo, like Picnic at Bondi, some in collaboration, like our Fuming.

When colour was on offer elsewhere, by other publishers, he used it well.

How one might read colour is an open question. With the poster version of Chamber Music, you are told it is a score, but not how to interpret it.


[Figure 16 – Cobbing’s image from Ruby Editions 2]

The Ruby image is untitled. In bill jubobe, we find # 26 of sequence 33 to 25 from, we are told, the Ruby edition a year before.

He has turned an element of the Ruby image through ninety degrees clockwise.

Similarly, with #29 of sequence 33 to 25, also frombill jubobe.

So two images have been put together, in the Ruby edition, which are not numerically together; and in different orientations. Or else he broke apart an image…





[Figures 17 to 20 – simple transformations between Ruby Editions 2 and bill jubobe]

Number 29 of sequence 33 to 25 in the Ruby Edition version had been two colour… An option not available to him for bill jubobe.

I am tracking decisions.

There is no code here and nothing is being decoded, merely noted; because what works in combination needs the alteration he gave it to stand alone in that smaller book format.

Where the original of Winter Poem 1 gave us the whole thing on one landscape page, bill jubobe breaks it across two non-facing pages, which emphasises difference and underlines the change in tone and volume that Cobbing gave each half in performance.


[Figure 21 – Portrait of Robin Crozier]

Portrait of Robin Crozier
was made at the invitation of Robin Crozier: he invited a range of artists who had never met him, to make portraits of him for an exhibition at Ceolfrith Gallery in Sunderland; and Cobbing responded.) [28]

As I have remarked before [29], Cobbing was very much an occasional poet, and that is praise, responding to events to be celebrated, changes of season and invitations. If he went to a place then likely he would make a poem about it. If he did a gig, he might turn up with a dedicated pamphlet e.g. Totally Barton for Totleigh Barton.

There are a number of versions of Portrait of Robin Crozier. My favourite is a version on brown wrapping paper - he was always experimenting - but such a choice of medium must count to make the print a different version to copies on other media. The published versions were black on white.

Within examples of versions, there are slight differences between versions - a little less or more pressure on the ink pedal, or a slightly different scanner setting…

Look carefully at the portrait figure’s head, in so far as it is that, in the published version and you can see the unintended output of an ink duplicator harvested and arranged.

Again and again one may experience a double take when reading Cobbing’s imagery in an area, or perhaps an entire page, which seems figurative-as-opposed-to-abstract at the same time as it seems abstract-as-opposed-to-figurative. And, there, as the mind interprets and reinterprets the ambiguity, may be the intersection where the performer reads the image as text. This is a matter to which I intend to return in later study.


[Figure 22 – Cobbing’s Crozier’s head from Ruby Edition 2]

Structurally the portrait is tripartite like the Ruby Editions image; and, though it is not named as part of sequence 33 to 25, it is placed after one of the two selections from it in bill jubobe; but there the sequence is disrupted from its numerical ordering, according to its own notes, and broken because the book's arrangement serves the book's aesthetic purposes, making it a kind of poem in itself. Cobbing gets some remarkable graphical consonance - he called it rhyme - across page spreads. Of all the selections of Cobbing's work, it is the most satisfying.

For the student of Cobbing, bill jubobe provides a ready index to some important texts. For instance, note the use I have made of it in this paper. On the other hand, it disrupts chronology; and, by reproducing images by lithography instead of their original printing processes, unavoidably disguises something of their manner of construction; and so makes his work less accessible in a way needed by anyone who would follow him as a practitioner, whilst making available to them the actual images.

A new selected poems is in preparation


This article is a revised and expanded version of the paper (Bob Cobbing - an introduction to his methods) delivered at Re-visualising Writing: Page, Canvas, Screen a one day conference at Centre for Cultural Poetics, University of Southampton. Many thanks are still due to Adrian Clarke for very welcome advice on a late draft of the 2005 version, advice upon which I am still relying (without attributing any blame to him for errors I may have made.
Copyright © Lawrence Upton 2005, 2009


General References and related material:

Editor’s comments on the reissue of Lightsong 2 by Bob Cobbing by Lawrence Upton, 3rd Feb 2007 at Writers Forum --

hot mazing on time by Lawrence Upton – aspects of writings and performances made by Upton in collaboration with the late Bob Cobbing in Pores #

Bob Cobbing: a worker in progress by Lawrence Upton --



[1] There has been only the book, rather than the work itself. I left the originals with Bob Cobbing in case there was a reprint; and they seem to have vanished

[2] Lightsong 2 by Bob Cobbing was reissued by Writers Forum on 3rd Feb 2007

[3] Bill Jubobe: selected texts of Bob Cobbing 1942-1975; selected by Bob Cobbing & Sean O'Huigin; Coach House Press, Toronto, 1976. Also note Bob Jubile: selected texts of Bob Cobbing 1944-1990; selected by Bob Cobbing and Jennifer Pike; New River Project 1990

[4] Writers Forum—Life by 1000 Books by Lawrence Upton; in A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing; edited by Jerome Rothenberg & Steven Clay; ISBN: 1-887123-28-8; Granary Books, New York, 2001

[5] Klinker was and is a venue for music and poetry local to Cobbing - and actively in sympathy with his poetry - at which he often performed, solo and with others

[6] The work of the CACHE project is informative in this context; and the fate of, for example, Edward Ihnatowicz's Senster computer-controlled sculpture (now, as Paul Brown has written, rusting quietly in a Dutch field) a warning or perhaps a statement of inevitability to any drawing of conclusions for praxis from the materiality of the written.

[7] Bending the Bow; Robert Duncan; New Directions Publishing, 1968; 137 pp

[8] I have not retained the phrase's author's name in my notes and a websearch in 2005 only served to tell me that I was not authorised to receive that information - so much for the fellowship of research. In 2009, I have academic affiliation, which should authorise me but the reference has gone. I found the phrase on a rare book dealer’s web-site, unattributed.

[9] I said a little more on the gestural aspect of writing with machines at e-poetry 2003, University of West Virginia, Morgantown, West Virginia, a talk not yet published.

[10] GLOUP & WOUP, concrete poetry edited by Bob Cobbing; folder: Cobbing, Furnival, Edmunds, Houédard, Cox; introductory article by Cobbing; Arc Publications, 1974

[11] A Defence of Poetry; P B Shelley, 1819

[12] Vispo for Eric; Bob Cobbing; Writers Forum, 1997 – written and partly first performed 1995

[13] Are your children safe in the sea; Bob Cobbing; Writers Forum, 1966

[14] Allen Fisher's Fool's house of 1982 retrieves such accidents on similar papers and puts them to work as background to and interference with other texts printed on top

[15] “We are responding not just to what’s on the page; we are responding to each other as well; also we are responding to the room and the environment, and that includes the audience, or may, and whatever. It’s a very complex business.” Bob Cobbing in Domestic Ambient Buoys in discussion with Alaric Sumner August 1999, London published by the USA web magazine Riding the Meridian (edited by Jennifer Ley) in 1999.

[16] Though some are unbelievable, they may well be true! Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said of a painting of Cobbing's that it looked like a painting of sperm. This has now gained considerable currency, often minus the small point that it was said long before she was famous, sometimes among those who have nothing to say of Cobbing beyond his remarkability; or, having nothing to say, even of that, resort to the Elvis Lives! school of writing.
Enlargements of snippets of disagreements with duplicator and copier engineers, bemused by what he was doing with the machines they serviced, are now rehashed as examples of major aesthetic declarations.

[17] I am grateful to Derek Beaulieu for his admiring commentary-in-conversation on this publication, a commentary which I have taken over and rewritten in my own words.

[18] DAN & DAM! Domestic Ambient Noise: A User’s Guide; RWC, 1995.

[19] That element, the library, was implemented at Klinker in 2000 and the public responded by stealing some of the issues.

[20] Cobbing often broke into unannounced renditions of Jabberwocky and You are old Father William. It may sound barking, because it is perhaps unusual; but it was also exuberant; and I wish more people did such things more often. He enjoyed doing it and it may sometimes have had a social function, like the account of George Melly getting rid of unwanted attention in a street by performing Schwitters' Ur-sonate there and then without warning or explanation, but with a wider and less clear purpose. As well as the Alice medley, he also favoured Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads, especially Boots and Danny Dever, and Vachel Lindsay's The Congo

[21] Tuesday, 07 June 2005; but removed to by 16 February 2009

[22] Domestic Ambient Buoys in discussion with Alaric Sumner August 1999, London op. cit. The interview was republished by Writers Forum as a pamphlet in March 2005; ISBN 1 84254 585 X; 36 pp A4 trimmed.

[23] In Second Aeon. edited by Peter Finch.

[24] Vispo for Eric; Cobbing, Bob; Writers Forum, 1997.

[25] Cobbing kept envelopes of materials of many of his publications. I think the intention was to hold an envelope for every Writers Forum publication and every piece of his own work, but much seems to have disappeared. After A Winter Poem had been republished, his envelope for it was identified. It contained about half a dozen prints, all of them very good prints, each slightly different, not just in the registration of the two machine passes but in slight differences of detail.

[26] Open Folios: Re-Working of Old Texts and Some New; by Bob Cobbing. 20 A4 sheets in file; Writers Forum, 1993

[27] Ballet Of The Speech Organs; Steven Ross Smith; Underwhich, Toronto 1998, p 28).

[28] And it resulted in, to my judgment, one of his finest ever live performances, with Toop and Burwell; and I am sad to say that it seems the recording of that may be lost, though elements of it may survive in a later text-composition made in Sweden.

[29] As part of my introduction to Cobbing at his 80th birthday reading at Sub Voicive Poetry in July 2000.


Lawrence Upton




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