What’s in a Mistake?

One reviewer called this poem “deceptively simple, direct, moving, and thoroughly astounding, full of political, religious, and cultural truth.” Wowser. I’m sure I haven’t yet plumbed its depths, but I certainly love what it says about human error, and the work of correcting it. It reminds me of the art of making a Persian rug, though this is a rather different take on the subject.

The Printer’s Error

by Aaron Fogel

Fellow compositors
and pressworkers!

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 that 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
by preemptive commentary
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,
typographer
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
whatsoever
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.
 
 
From The Printer’s Error, 2001, Miami University Press, Oxford, Ohio. Copyright 2001 by Aaron Fogel.

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Categories: Poetry Sundays | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a Mistake?

  1. indigo bunting

    Great. I’m having enough trouble getting paid to do this as it is.

  2. Utterly, deeply wonderful. What happy chance for you to have come across this.

  3. Yes, a friend drew my attention to it just yesterday. He has great taste.

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