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51 posts categorized "Poetry"

03 March 2017

Visual Verses: John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh, 1641.

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by Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

George Herbert’s Easter Wings (1633) is the most renowned example of an early modern English pattern poem; it appears in all the anthologies and has been widely discussed and analysed. So, it is a real treat to find an example of an early printed pattern poem that is seemingly little-known, especially when it comes from a surprisingly incongruous source having been composed by a militant Presbyterian iconoclast.

John Vicars (1580-1652) schoolmaster and poet, is remembered most for his Parliamentary chronicles printed during the 1640s, a series of newsbook-style pamphlets written in the sermon rhetoric of popular puritanism. In his sixties by the time of the Great Rebellion he wrote in favour of iconoclastic reform and in praise of Parliament’s efforts to bring it about. He specifically contributed to the literature of iconoclasm with The sinfulness and unlawfulness of making or having the picture of Christ’s humanity (1641) in which the poet William Prynne also contributed a verse against images. Vicars gleefully chronicled incidents of the removal of images, crucifixes, popish books and ‘Babylonish trinkets’, his reports manifest an un-hinged enthusiasm. Fiercely anti-Rome, he staged a dramatic scene to personally pull down a crucifix discretely located in Christ’s Hospital.

Following his sycophantic poem England’s Remembrancer, or, a thankfull acknowledgement of Parliamentary mercies to our English-nation (1641), the first of his Parliamentary chronicles proper, God in the Mount, (also known as Jehova-jireh) (1642), presents the reader with a prominent visualisation of his glorifications. The book’s first three preliminary pages hammer home its purpose as panegyric: the title page is printed in the form of a pyramid, a mount; then there is the virtual monument to the Trinity; but more playfully we see on the next page a dedicatory verse in patterned form, to the Houses of Parliament.

 

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John Vicars’s dedicatory shaped poem to the Houses of Parliament (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

To The Right Honourable, thrice Noble and illustrious Senatours of the House of Peers in Parliament.

To Our Trulie Honourable and most renowned Patriots; the House of Commons, in Parliament.

Right Noble Lords and England’s Commons rare,

(For whom the Lord hath joyn’d, disjoin who dare?)

The poem exalts the men of Parliament, offering prayer that their power is protected from “stormes and mischief” and wishes them courage, “to work a pure, A perfect Reformation”, to:

Go on though you great obstacles endure;

Sol shines most clear, though clouds It (oft) obscure;

Heav’n crown your Counsels (still) with good successe,

And you and yours for all your labours blesse,

How can the poem be evaluated? There are some rhymes constructed in there - at the line breaks (rare and dare; blast and cast; tears and re-chears, endure and obscure etc) and arranged inside the two columns (votarie and memorie; erected and protected; valiantly and malignity; Reformation and generation etc), but its literary worth as poetry is usually best declared upon by expert critics (it’s unlikely to score well!). Another way of measuring its impact though is from some estimation about whether the visual effect ‘works’? It is quite imposing and unambiguous, but also a little crude and unsophisticated. It is always worth considering these efforts as a feat of printing and typography. In fairness, this technopaegnion (the more precise term for this type of shaped poem) does look a little sloppy: we can picture the compositor sat frowning at how to set the type with the author peering over his shoulder. The compositor has had to incorporate different sized type and make much use of em-dashes and fleurs-de-lis to fill spaces to create the pattern.

Texts presented in patterns do not just frustrate the compositor; what happens in the reader’s head when attempting to read the poem? Our minds are accustomed to conventions in the structure of letters and words when reading a text. Shaped text is spatial rather than linear, so normal reading is altered and challenged. The line-by-line arrangement is subverted and the visual impact takes primacy and dominates. Whilst our brains look for conventional patterns they are also powerful problem solvers, so these patterns make us try different ways of reading: is there one way to read it, or several different possibilities? Does the subversion and domination of the pattern detract from textual and other values of poetry? Is it pleasing to look at, or just, well, a bit annoying? It can take some time and effort to read and transcribe.

Is this innovation just a bit eccentric? Here lies its curiosity – this English shaped poem is unusual and uncommon. A previous blog-post on ‘visual verses’ mentions that continental enthusiasm for shape poems in the early modern period was not matched in British Literature. Why is this? This poem by John Vicars, the iconoclast, may help explain. Fear and hatred of idolatry lay at the root of Puritan iconoclasm. Hostility towards false, idolatrous art risked deepening into an iconophobic hatred of all art-forms which appealed to the senses. A widespread antipathy towards visual art was a part of the cultural impact of the English revolution. Religious reformers withdrew from printed ballads, stage plays and pictorial art. So, it seems incongruous that Vicars, the iconoclast, here makes use of innovation and visual images to worship and proselytise the cause of Parliament, God, the Trinity and religious Reformation. Maybe, there is intentional irony and these pyramides and monuments are being offered as an alternative to the usual Popish icons. All the same, this work of Vicars does seem to sit somewhat outside the conventions of his very own prescribed culture.

 

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Title page of John Vicars’s God in the Mount, or Jehova-jireh (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

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The iconoclast’s monumental tribute to The Trinitie (British Library 4103.d.34)

 

Some further reading :

God in the mount. Or, Englands remembrancer. Being a panegyrick piramides, erected to the everlasting high honour of Englands God, in the most gratefull commemoration of al [sic] the miraculous Parliamentarie. .. by John Vicars  (British Library shelfmark 4103.d.34)

Visual Verses: Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582.

Puritan iconoclasm in the English civil war, Julie Spraggon (YC2003a22358)

The Princerton encycolpedia of poetry and poetics, edited by Roland Greene (Open Access  Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 808.103; General Reference Collection YC.2012.b.2422)

The Word Turned Image: Reading Pattern Poems, by Sabine Gross in Poetics Today Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1997) (P.901/1862)

 

 

17 February 2017

Ken Campbell: 4 poems

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Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. The texts of presentations from Cathy Courtney and Richard Price can be found on this blog. Reprinted here, with kind permission, are four poems by Ken Campbell.  

 

He is now so close Death

that is, to speak of him is crude,

as remarking on another in the room.

Blackness around the vision

marks the card; prelude

to black ink of songs flow

through windows and door fattening

cushions of dark fill the room

leaving only the space of the client.

 

Terror, Terror 1977

 

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A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Widow’s Song

Is that you; chance being,

a fine thing; is that you.

The stair creaks, money kept

under carpet, particular tread

now not long dead; is that you.

 

Hovers in the glass of door

your needle, my thread; dog stares,

our garden’s grown too big

with pints of sweetened tea gone cold;

time to leave: is that you.

 

A Knife Romance, 1988

 

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Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Father’s garden ran his ship:

no waves outraged his wailing walls:

no pitching keel beneath his feet

– nor claycrumb shift in his cold helm.

 

One vision, his, stood stack stock still:

his cargoes all the displaced knew,

& how they all could kill; thus twine

& baling; thus stolen, lying sleepers

 

stacked-in-law, & ordered buckets of fill

made fit. Garden ship shape never could

set sail: I so felt myself & missing went

overboard, awol. Breadcast. Fatherwater.

 

Round the chairdecks made windbreak

his hull horizon sat down stare for me:

a row of planted beanstakes breaking leaf

– our father’s juice flows everywhere.

 

Time water drowns all our fetch,

in reach of unsung dunes: - unless,

land-locked, life-tides work and move: so

ere it remembers you, remember home.

 

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Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Unlaced in springtime

stepping beneath a golden monastery

a buck in a bush

leapt to his morning furrow.

 

Such a day brought such a boy

from golden morning hoof

to the hammered dead of the afternoon:

history rang on the boiler of his engine.

 

Father’s Garden, 1989

13 January 2017

A New Acquisition: Celebrating 50 years of the Graphic Studio Dublin

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Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Published Collections writes:

In November 2016 I had the pleasure to attend “From Yeats to Heaney: Discovering 140 Years of Literature at the National Library of Ireland” hosted by Embassy of Ireland. After the introduction from the Cultural Attaché and opening remarks from Dr Sandra Collins, Director of the National Library of Ireland, the assembled guests were treated to insightful, often humorous talks on both William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney given by Katherine McSharry, NLI Head of Outreach and Professor Geraldine Higgins, NLI Heaney Exhibition Curator respectively. The lectures illustrated the measurable contribution to, and healthy involvement both men had with the National Library of Ireland.  It is worth noting that the archives of both Heaney and Yeats rest within its walls. 

The British Library has also been fishing in those culturally rich waters which are Dublin. Earlier this year the Library acquired a set of six Sponsors’ Portfolios from the Graphic Studio Dublin.

Between 1962-1979 Graphic Studio Dublin produced a collection of work entitled Sponsors' Portfolios, containing art and literature by writers and artists from Ireland and internationally. In conjunction with their 50th anniversary in 2010 the Graphics Studio re-launched the Sponsors’ Portfolios in 2010.

Each portfolio contains a work commissioned by an acclaimed contemporary Irish writer, and four visual artists. A list of contributors can be found on the  Graphic Studio Dublin's website.  These showcase the printmaker’s art and the skills which are employed in producing fine press items. Each year a limited edition of 75 imprints are produced.  The project will continue to produce folios until 2019 thereby capturing a snap shot of some of the finest work of contemporary Irish writers and artists over the decade. The formula of inviting artists and a writer to work together presents a fresh and vibrant perspective to the interception where visual arts and the written word meet.

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Seamus Heaney, 'The Owl'. Translated from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli. Letterpress. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

Poignantly Seamus Heaney contributed to the Sponsors’ Portfolio in 2013, in what turned out to be the year of his death. Entitled Translation, his subject was a translation from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli poem “The Owl” or “L’assiolo” in the original. The acquisition of this late and rare Heaney work to the British Library is an important addition to the rich collection of Heaney’s writing the Library’s has garnered over the last forty years.  My colleague, Dr Richard Price has highlighted some of these in a previous post.

“The Owl” is accompanied by four prints: Pamela Leonard’s “For Sheer Joy ... Took Flight”, Liam Ó Broin’s “Death of Orpheus”, with Jane O’Malley’s “Still Life” and finally Robert Russell’s “Lost in Translation”. These works are beautifully illustrative of how the printmaker’s art can transfer the depth of emotion conveyed in the written word to colour and form of the artist’s reimagining.

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Pamela Leonard, 'For sheer joy... took flight'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

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Liam Ó Broin, 'Death of Orpheus'. Lithograph. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

If there was any doubt about the truly individual nature these works, when measuring the individual portfolios for their protective phase boxing it was noted  that the was a slight  discrepancy  of millimetres between the size of each of the portfolios. A sure sign of a distinctive and hand crafted nature of these artist’s books.      

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Jane O'Malley, 'Still Life, La Geria'. Carborundum. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

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Robert Russell, 'Lost in Translation'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin.

To return to where I started, a thought-provoking question was raised at the “From Yeats to Heaney” event at the Embassy: who will inherit the mantle which seemed so mysteriously to pass from Yeats to Heaney in 1939, (the year of Yeats’s death and of Heaney’s birth)? Within the folios of the Sponsors’ Portfolio might be a good place to start looking for the answer to that question.  

In closing, I would urge readers to explore the rest of the series the British Library’s copies of the Sponsors’ Portfolio. 1/10-7/10 are orderable at pressmarks:

 

Ultramarine, Jean Bardon, Carmel Benson, Roddy Doyle, Kelvin Mann and Donald Teskey RHA., 2010, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2280;

Journey, Caroline Donohue, Theo Dorgan, Martin Gale, Stephen Lawlor and Louise Leonard, 2011, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2281;

Thoughts, Jennifer Lane, Seán McSweeney, Niall Naessens, Marta Wakula-Mac & Thomas Kinsella, 2012, British Library Shelfmark: HS.75/2282;

Translation, Pamela Leonard, Liam Ó Broin, Jane O'Malley, Robert Russell & Seamus Heaney, 2013, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2283;

Thief’s Journal, Yoko Akino, Diana Copperwhite, Ruth O'Donnell, Michael Timmins & John Banville, 2014, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2284;

Naming the stars, Colin Davidson, Niamh Flanagan, David Lunney, James McCreary and Jennifer Johnston, 2015, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2285;

Pax, Mary Lohan, Tom Phelan, Grainne Cuffe, Sharon Lee and Paula Meehan, 2016, British Library Shelfmark HS.74/2286.

Furthermore, The National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and Queens University Belfast have also acquired sets of the Sponsors’ Portfolio series.     

14 November 2016

Treasures of the British Library: Zephaniah meets Shelley

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By Alexander Lock, Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1851-1950

The British Library has recently teamed up with Nutshell TV and Sky Arts to produce an entertaining television series in which six famous faces (Lord Robert Winston, Julia Donaldson, Meera Syal, Jamie Cullum and Benjamin Zephaniah) take a personal tour of the British Library’s fascinating collections, identifying the treasures that most interest them and speak to their work. Each episode of Treasures of the British Library follows one celebrity and it was my pleasure to show the poet, author and musician Benjamin Zephaniah some of our collections that told a very personal story about his hero, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

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Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819, NPG 1234. © National Portrait Gallery, London

A gifted poet, political radical, outcast, and early advocate of vegetarianism, Percy Bysshe Shelley had long been admired by Zephaniah as a man with whom he shared certain affinities; in particular it was Shelley’s revolutionary attitudes and his passionate opposition to injustice that inspired Zephaniah and his approach to writing. For Zephaniah:

“Shelley’s my man. If he were alive now he wouldn’t be sitting in an ivory tower only leaving to attend the odd literature festival, he would be demonstrating against the exploitation of the third world and performing at the Glastonbury festival…I used to think of Shelley as just another one of those dead white poets who wrote difficult poetry for difficult people, but then I learnt how dedicated he was to justice and the liberation of the poor. He probably saw very few black people but he was passionately against the slave trade. It was this that turned me on to Shelley, his humanity, passion, and his rock and roll attitude. His ability to connect poetry to the concerns of everyday people was central to his poetic purpose, and those everyday people overstood that he did not simply do arts for art’s sake, this was arts that was uncompromisingly revolutionary, he wrote for the masses. No TV, no radio, no Internet, but his poetry was being quoted on the streets and chanted at demonstration, not only did Shelley know the power of poetry, more importantly he knew the power of the people.”

Given the range of unique and fascinating manuscript material The British Library holds relating to the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley it was difficult for us to decide what would be best to show Benjamin. For instance, we could have shown him the original autograph draft of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, a radical political poem Shelley wrote in response to the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, or his notebook containing his famous poems ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Mont Blanc’. Though these would have been fascinating items to show Zephaniah, particularly given their literary and political content, in the end it was decided to show Benjamin something much more provocative.

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 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, autograph draft, 1819, The British Library, Ashley MS 4086.

Instead, Benjamin Zephaniah was shown a letter Shelley had written 6 days after his first wife, Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816), was ‘found drowned’ after committing suicide in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The letter was addressed to his mistress Mary Godwin (1797-1851), whom he would marry just 3 weeks later. The letter shows a very different Shelley from the Romantic rebel he is usually represented as. Shelley had left a heartbroken Harriet (who was pregnant with their second child) for Mary Godwin two years earlier in July 1814. Mary was the gifted daughter of the radical political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) and early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). In the intervening years, Shelley’s relationship with Harriet soured and he became increasingly cruel towards her.

Shelley to Mary Godwin
Percy Bysshe Shelley to Mary Godwin, 15 December 1816, The British Library, Ashley MS 5021. © Estate of Percy Bysshe Shelley & Harriet Shelley.

On 9 November 1816 Harriet departed her lodgings, leaving behind her a farewell letter for Shelley. She was not seen again until her body was pulled from the Serpentine on 10 December. As the letter shows, Shelley’s initial reaction to Harriet’s suicide was to deny any blame. He wrote to Mary:

Everything tends to prove, however, that beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret. Hookham, Longdill ― everyone does me full justice; ― bears testimony to the uprightness & liberality of my conduct to her...

Shelley’s letter also revealed that he believed Harriet had ‘descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith’ who deserted her, although there was no evidence which corroborated this assertion.

Benjamin Zephaniah was initially shocked by this letter and the apparent disregard Shelley showed towards his first wife. It raised questions about the relationship between the artist and their art and whether audiences should judge a work on its own merits or in relation to the lived experiences of its creator. Though Zephaniah was unsettled by the revelations in the letter he still considered Shelley to be a literary hero for the works he produced and causes he supported. The letter is a difficult read but helped demonstrate that no one is perfect in their private lives (even great writers) and gave Benjamin Zephaniah a more rounded understanding of Shelley’s complex character.    

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Benjamin Zephaniah with Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, during filming at The British Library

Treasures of the British Library will be broadcast on Sky Arts at 21.00 on Tuesdays until 22 November 2016.

06 October 2016

Capturing poetry across formats: from print to digital to electronic literature.

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NPD-logo-Black-landscape

National Poetry Day comes during the judging phase of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, an award administered by the British Library and the Wordsworth Trust in association with the TLS and Harvard University’s Centre for Hellenic Studies.  The Awards aim to raise the profile of poetry pamphlets and to recognise the contribution they make to the world of poetry.  For the Library, running the Awards helps to ensure that a substantial number of poetry pamphlets published each year in the UK find their way into the Library’s collections so that they can be kept for readers and researchers now and in the future.  In this sense the Awards are evidence of the Library’s continuing commitment to collect print culture, not just from mainstream publishers, but also from small and independent presses all the way through to self-published pamphlets.  The pamphlets themselves show the enduring appeal of print as a medium for bringing poetry to a wider readership.

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A selection of the pamphlets entered for this year’s Michael Marks Awards. 

It is also interesting to note the variety of sizes and shapes amongst the entries submitted, and whilst the pamphlets encompass a range of poetic forms, there is also diversity in terms of the layout of text on the printed page.

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From prose poems to spreadsheet poetry: a selection of less traditional text layouts in the pamphlets.

Many of these pamphlets are published by small presses dedicated to poetry, but some are self-published or come into being through arts projects undertaken by cultural institutions, councils or community groups.  The Library aims to capture this creative diversity; we encourage anyone publishing a pamphlet to deposit a copy in the Library for the collections, irrespective of whether it has an ISBN or is distributed formally through booksellers.   We have recently been delighted to acquire for our collections all issues to date of ‘Rising’, the niche ('nish') poetry zine produced and distributed by Tim Wells since 1993. 

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Rising poetry zine, edited by Tim Wells.

The Library’s interest in poetry does not begin or end with print.  In Contemporary British Collections we are working to collect poetry in a range of other formats, and we are also investigating the way that poetry publishing, and literature more widely, is changing in the context of digital developments. The most obvious manifestation of the move towards digital publishing is in our collection of mainstream and academic publishing where a substantial number of publishers have now switched from depositing a printed copy of each work they publish to depositing their works in electronic format instead.  This reflects the 2013 change in the law allowing the British Library, and the other five legal deposit libraries, to receive content in electronic format. Where publishers have moved over to depositing works in electronic format, readers coming to the Library’s reading rooms can click straight through from the catalogue to read these works immediately, on screen.  The screenshot below from our catalogue gives an idea of some of  the poetry collections, from Catullus and Yeats to Vikram Seth and Clive James, now being received as e-books rather than as print copies. 

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A screenshot from 'Explore the British Library' showing a sample of poetry collections received as e-books.

The e-books appearing in the catalogue reflect traditional print culture in its digital manifestation, in that these works are digital copies of works conceived of as books and replicating their form.  Digital publishing is not limited to the format of the book, nor limited to presenting only fixed text and images.  The Library has recently hosted a PhD placement student, Joe McCarney, to undertake a study of online-only poetry publishing, from online zines and journals through to e-poetry that exploits the wider potential of digital media in terms of sound, images and visualisation, animations or interactive content.  As part of his project, Joe identified online-only poetry sites to be added to the UK web archive; he described this work in this fascinating post.  Joe also produced a report on the range of formats and forms used by practitioners of e-literature and on existing efforts to archive this type of creative publishing, and his report will help the Library as develops ways to capture and  preserve emerging media formats, so that they will be available for study in future.  Whilst the rapid pace of change of new media presents challenges for the Library, our poetry collections in particular are given a further  dimension through the wide range of poetry recordings included amongst the Arts, Literature and Performance collections of recorded sound, many of which are available to listen to outside the Library.  Recent recordings include short readings by the poets shortlisted for last year's Michael Marks Awards. This year's shortlist will be announced on 19th October, with the final awards evening taking place on  13th December.

by Debbie Cox, Lead Curator, Contemporary British Publishing

 

See also: Poetry Goes Online: Preserving poetry journals and zines for the Web archive

19 September 2016

Swimmers: pamphlets and events

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The Library has recently received the first 3 issues of Swimmers bimonthly pamphlet series. These will be available in our Reading Rooms later this year. In this guest post, the editorial team at Swimmers, explain more about the group and the series, and how to find out about future events and publications.

Swimmers publishes a limited-run bimonthly pamphlet series. The pamphlets combine creative and non-fiction written work, alongside artwork in various forms, created by established, emergent, and new writers and artists. To mark the publication of each pamphlet, Swimmers runs an events series—frequently hosted at The Function Room in Somers Town—where artwork exhibits provide a backdrop for poetry, fiction, and script readings and performances.

Swimmers was founded in 2013 in collaboration with arts association STORE. STORE is composed of an educational programme of arts and architecture courses, wide-ranging public exhibitions, and a socially engaged design practice: through this nexus, STORE has created projects and events beneficial to local communities, such as the Summer School in Gillett Square. STORE and Swimmers’ shared ethos and interest in the city space made for an ideal collaborative partnership, through which an initial series of readings, screenings, and performances were hosted in a derelict space in Bloomsbury, where STORE/Swimmers built a library and cinema. Contributors to Swimmers events, and to an anthology-style publication produced in response to the series, included (among many others): Sarah Howe, Maureen McLane, Amy Blakemore, Will Self, Richard Wentworth and Christopher Reid.

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In 2014, the Bloomsbury space was regrettably claimed by property developers. Shortly afterwards, Swimmers dived underground, occasionally resurfacing to host one-off events in collaboration with STORE at a variety of venues across London—such as Taste and Poetry and Architecture.

In March 2016, Swimmers received ACE funding to help launch the pamphlet series. Issue One featured an essay on race and poetry in the UK by Kayo Chingonyi, alongside new poems by André Naffis-Sahely and photo-printed artwork by Ned Scott. Issue Two featured a fragmentary essay on translation and fan-fiction by Sophie Collins, new poems by Caitlin Newby—ancient hymns to the Mayan goddess Inanna, taken from the cuneiform and put through translation software—and A3 prints by Luke Burton. In the current issue, Matthew Gregory explores the phenomenology of the piazza, Richard Scott takes inspiration from Bellini, and Tamsin Snow renders an autopsy table. Issue 4, released later this month, will feature new written work from Daisy LaFarge and Anne Boyer.

Swimmers wants to celebrate the physical, tactile object, to inspire communication between readers, and to allow the written word to enjoy the single-event status often reserved for visual artwork. Swimmers also distributes the pamphlets for free, so that the pamphlets are not restricted to an economically-privileged readership. To achieve all this, Swimmers utilises an experimental distribution model; on subscribing to the mailing list at swimmers.london (or emailing direct at mailinglist@swimmers.london), you will be notified as to when an online sign-up sheet will go live. The first 30 people to sign-up receive a copy—through the post or hand-delivered—for free. In order to widen this readership, a copy of each issue will be accessible to the public at the British Library Reading Rooms. Select content from each issue will also be downloadable as a PDF from swimmers.london, one month after that issue is distributed.

While The Function Room undergoes refurbishment, the next Swimmers event will be held at 7.00pm on Thursday 29th September, The New Evaristo Club, 57 Greek Street, London W1D 3DX. Readings from Emily Berry, Daisy LaFarge, and special guests. Entry is free.

31 August 2016

Visual Verses: Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582.

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by Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Poetry which attains popularity or critical acclaim often does so because it is perceived as beautiful or as something that makes some kind of meaningful impact on the senses, whether it be read privately or aloud. But what about poetry that actually looks beautiful or striking?

Historically, pattern poems or shape poems have generally struggled to be taken seriously as a literary form. To modern minds and senses this can perhaps be hard to understand – concrete poetry in art books for the coffee table, for example, are very collectible. There is also often an additional reverence for texts and illustrations contained in antiquarian works, especially when looking at Renaissance or early modern efforts in books from the hand-pressed print period.

The English poet, Thomas Watson (1555/6-1592), is the pioneer of English play with pattern poems. His Sonnet LXXXI, ‘A Pasquine Piller erected in the despite of Love’, published in Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582, is probably the earliest printed pattern poem in English:

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 Thomas Watson’s ‘A Pasquine Piller erected in the despite of Love’, 1582, British Library C.14.a.1

 We can wonder at the faces pulled by readers paging through a copy of Watson’s work upon seeing this.

The form of the pattern is that of a lozenge on a stem, it is a shape well founded in the pattern poems from the classical traditions of Greek and Latin literature. Typical Hellenic patterns which filtered down into English representations are axes, altars, eggs, wings syrinxes and these lozenges; all of which are now thought of as being quite ‘conservative’ or unadventurous. Whilst these and more extravagant shaped pattern poems were keenly revived on the continent, the enthusiasm was not matched in British literature. But Watson was well placed to exercise the continental fashion for pattern poems, he had spent time travelling in France and Italy, composing all his work in Latin; this collection of one hundred (“a century” of) songs was his first work in English. Watson was anxious about offering verse in English and his opening piece in Hekatompathia, “to the Friendly Reader” asks them to go easy on his poems. If Watson was worried about his use of the English idiom, he didn’t seem so concerned about using the form of pattern poetry which he had been exposed to as a vogue from his time on the continent.

Whilst A pasquine piller …, is without doubt beautiful and striking to look at in the first instance, it is also something much more than a pretty looking poem. It is also a puzzle, a ‘trick’ that draws on playful arithmetic. It cleverly produces an acrostic motto or ‘posy’, “amare est insanire”. Watson must have been mindful about the possible reception of the foreign and cosmopolitan influences of the verse in Hekatompathia, each poem is annotated with a short introduction. Written in the third person they introduce named poets, themes or styles to the English audience. They can be seen as attempts to popularise his erudite and novel material. The introduction to Sonnet LXXXI, says, “all such as are of indifferent capacitie, and have some skille in Arithmetike, by viewing this Sonnet following compiled by rule and number into the forme of a piller, may soon judge how much art and study the Author has bestowed in the same.” It explains the “antitheticall or Antisillabicall” structure and explains that the pillar is “Orchematicall”, meaning that it is founded by the skipping of number by rule and order.

If this sounds complicated, Watson was kind enough to provide an acrostic for the next Sonnet which goes some way to further illustrating his art and study:

PatternPoem4

 Watson’s acrostic Sonnet LXXXII, 1582, British Library C.14.a.1

If this still looks complicated, you can follow the guide to make sense of the trick using a later printed facsimile on pp 116-118 of Poems. Viz.:-The Ἐκατομπαθια or Passionate Centurie of Love. 1582, edited by Edward Arber (1870), which is freely available online in digital facsimile, courtesy of the partnership between the British Library and Google Books https://goo.gl/rmj6xF

So what of its success? Astonishingly, Hekatompathia appeared in one edition only prior to Arber’s series of English Reprints in mid Victorian times. It may require some understanding why critical opinion, the Popes, the Addisons and the Butlers denigrated pattern poems as idle fancies. But, this opinion amongst British Literature seems to have persisted as the critic and poet Francis Turner Palgrave, writing about Watson and his Pasquine Pillar in 1872, says that the ingenuities, the tricks and conceits (in the literary sense), “happily, recur nowhere else in the Hecatompathia.”.

Still, killjoys aside, some contemporaries were evidently impressed, just several decades following Watson’s sole edition containing this wonderful visual text, someone cared to transcribe some of his work by hand:

  PatternPoem3

‘Thomas Watson. Looking Glasse for lovers’. British Library, Harley MS 3277, f.37

It is rewarding for us to compare the print and the script – one a typographical feat, the other no less impressively executed by hand. Visual texts have an immense aesthetic, but there is often more art and work going on than simply imposing a model on some verse. The poet is still capable of reflecting and conveying ‘profound’ or meaningful thoughts. Though so often dismissed, it should be worth looking at more representations of visual verse or texts in early printed works …

 

Some further reading:

Thomas Watson, Hekatompathia, or Passionate Century of Love, 1582C.14.a.1

[Unknown hand] ‘Thomas Watson. Looking Glasse for lovers. Transcribed 1633’. Harley MS 3277.

Dick Higgins. Pattern Poetry: Guide to an unknown literature. State University of New York Press, New York, 1987.

Margaret Church, The Pattern Poem. PhD Dissertation. Harvard, Cambridge, MA, 1944.

Francis T. Palgrave, Review of Poems. Viz.:-The Ἐκατομπαθια or Passionate Centurie of Love. 1582. The North American Review, Vol. 114, No. 234 (Jan., 1872).

Edward Arber, English Reprints. (No. 21) Thomas Watson. Poems … London, 1870.

16 August 2016

Celebrating poetry pamphlets: new readings online

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by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Published Collections

The call for entries to the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2016 is now live. Each year, the awards celebrate publishers, illustrators and authors of new poetry pamphlets. For the 2015 awards, we invited our shortlisted poets to record readings from their pamphlets at the British Library. These recordings are now available on Soundcloud. Here are more details on the poets and readings:

Gill McEvoy, our award winner for 2015, reads from her pamphlet ‘The First Telling’, published by HappenStance press. The poems relate an experience of rape, the ‘tellings’ being sessions with a counsellor. In this recording, Gill McEvoy reads, ‘The First Telling’, ‘There’s a grey parrot’, ‘I touch the cigarette’, ‘Magpie’, and ‘In the bathroom, scrub skin’. The judges for the 2015 award commented, ‘we admired the way this pamphlet deals not just with trauma and its aftermath, but with the difficulty of articulating what has happened, the challenge of finding the right words. Form and content mesh together perfectly in poems that use the power of silence as well as the power of language’.

Anja Konig, was shortlisted for her first poetry pamphlet collection, ‘Advice for an Only Child’, published by Flipped Eye press. Anja reads ‘Not the Last Chapter’, ‘Triple Negative’, ‘She’s Good with her Hands’, and ’We are the Bees of the Invisible’. In shortlisting this pamphlet, the judges commented, ‘Anja Konig’s debut pamphlet is witty and inventive. There’s a surprise on every page – her short poems look slantwise at relationships, the female body and what it means to write. We found these poems unsparing, yet lifted by a light touch’.

Peter Riley’s ‘The Ascent of Kinder Scout’ is a pamphlet-length poem that refers to the Kinder Trespass of 1932; a protest against the permanent enclosure of land for the purposes of grouse shooting. Published by Longbarrow Press, this is the eleventh section of a work provisionally entitled North. Describing this work, the 2015 judges said: ‘Evoking the Dark Peak in Derbyshire with startling clarity, we felt this pamphlet brilliantly captured what it’s like to look to landscapes for resolution, only to be humbled by the scale of them. Expansive but exact, it takes in the history of a trespass, the ghost of a lost friend and the future of a broken nation’.

Alan Jenkins reads two poems from ‘Clutag Five Poems Series No 2’, published by Clutag. The poems in this pamphlet are all linked by the Thames and places close to it in South West London, and the memories and personal associations that these places hold. In this recording, Jenkins reads ‘Beckett’s Wharf’, and ‘Upper Mall’. Our 2015 judges wrote, ‘Set against the backdrop of the Thames, these are haunting, understated elegies that often find the narrator challenging his own grief, trying to explain the source of it, trace it beyond the immediacy of loss. Assured and elegant, these poems moved us deeply’. In addition to these poets, the judges also shortlisted David Tait’s ‘Three Dragon Day’ for the 2015 award. David, who works as a teacher in China, was unable to attend the 2015 awards. The title of his collection refers to a Chinese phrase for describing heavy fog. The awards, supported by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, celebrate the vitality, diversity and sheer talent of poets and poetry publishers in the UK. The shortlisted poets for 2015 demonstrated the range and power of contemporary poetry. As the entries start to come in for 2016, we are looking forward to an equally rich, exciting and moving collection of pamphlets.