American Collections blog

71 posts categorized "Literature"

30 July 2020

Exploring Robert Lowell's English years in the Sound Archive

This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

Robert Lowell stands in front of a wall of books, wearing a light jacket, dark tie, striped shirt and glasses.
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, 1965, by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53).  The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982).  The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy.  The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death.  Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.

The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication.  It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises.  They can be accessed only by visiting the Library.  Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined.  Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey.  Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.

Cover of The Dophin including an illustration of a fish-like shape.
The Dolphin by Robert Lowell, 1973. British Library shelfmarks: General Reference Collection X.989/21486; Document Supply 73/5755; Document Supply 73/6262.

The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one.  It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England.  One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes.  One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.

Robert Lowell, wearing a dark jacket and tie, and Elizabeth Hardwick, wearing a dark summer dress or blouse, sit on wooden chairs in a sunny park.
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Photograph courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood.  Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases.  Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton.  One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973).  The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).  And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising.  She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.”  She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.”  She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints.  How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.

The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career.  They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle.  Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series.  In this interview she discusses her life and works.  Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.

Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.

28 July 2020

Colonial American Theatre

This post by Jeffery Kennedy is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

As friends and colleagues heard that I had received a Fulbright Scholar Award to the British Library, their first question was to ask what I would be researching.  When I told them a new text on American Theatre history, their puzzled look was typically followed by “At the British Library?”  The reality is that studying British theatre of the 17th and 18th centuries is precisely where one needs to begin as this is the origin from which almost all of Early American theatre springs.  My research goals while a guest of the Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies revolved around three main threads of study: 1) identifying the British ancestry of colonists recorded to have performed the first play in the American colonies; 2) the significant influence the Puritans had on theatre in both Britain and America; and 3) the Restoration plays that were the first to be performed professionally in the colonies.  I want to report here about the first item, which was the ancestral work the resources at the Library allowed me to complete.

A contemporary heritage plaque indicating where 'The Bear and the Cub' was performed.
The Bear and the Cub Marker: This sign is located on Highway 17 in Pungoteague, Virginia, telling of the town’s history of staging the first play in America. Image courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The first recorded play performed in the American colonies took place on 27 August 1665 in Pungoteague, Accomack County, Virginia.  The play was titled “Ye Beare and Ye Cubb,” and we know of the performance because of its entry in the legal record.  After being performed in Fowlkes Tavern, a citizen, Edward Martin, reported his moral objection to the local authorities, though what his protest was specifically is not known.  Likely it sprang as a remnant from the twenty-year ban on theatre in Britain that was a result of Puritan dominance after 1640.  The Puritans, who desired a stricter religious practice than the new Church of England required, believed that theatre was, at its core, evil.  Charles I was beheaded as head of the Church of England by the Puritan rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell and monarch rule was suspended.  Puritan influence led to similar kinds of judgements about theatre in America, particularly in the northeastern colonies of New England.  However, the “Restoration” occurred after Charles II was installed as king in 1660, returning Britain to being led by a monarch.  As a result, theatres reopened in London, most often performing frivolous comedies of manners that featured women on stage for the first time.

A sepia photograph of a tavern with 15 or so people standing in front.
An old photograph of Fowlkes Tavern, courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The local Accomack judges responded to Martin’s charge by bringing before them the play’s likely author, William Darby, and Cornelius Watkinson and Philip Howard, who performed it with him.  After they were “subjected to a rigid cross-examination,” the council ordered them to perform the play at their next session, costumes and all.After the performance, finding the play innocent in content as well as intent, the council released the three men from all charges and instead ordered their accuser, Martin, to pay the expenses incurred.  Sadly, there is no existing script of the play, nor are the plot or characters known.  Some scholars conjecture that the title implies a critique of mother England’s (the Bear) newly imposed restrictions on direct sales to other countries of goods created in the colonies (the Cub).  Also, little has been known about the lives of the three who performed the play, particularly Darby.  One of my goals was to conduct genealogical research to see if I could discover anything, including where in England he had emigrated from, something previously unknown.

I consulted many genealogical records within the Library, most of which were typically kept by the local parishes that recorded births, christenings, marriages, and burials.  One of the most helpful was from the Staffordshire Parish Registers Society, published in 1912.2  The evidence strongly suggests that William Darby was born in Tipton, Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of England.  His family moved to nearby Rowley when he was still a boy, and it is here that he married Elizabeth Heywood.  The last record of the family living in Rowley is the 1650 death of William’s middle daughter, Anne, at the age of nine; all references after this locate them in Virginia.  William had five children, and we gain the most information by tracing the life of his eldest son, Daniel. We know that by 1665, the year the play was performed, William was forty-eight-years-old and that this same year 25 year old Daniel married the 22 year old Dorothy Churchill in Accomack County, Virginia.  Dorothy had come to Accomack in 1664 as a “headright,” the name for those who self-indentured; such individuals were provided with passage via ship and basic necessities in exchange for a fixed period of unwaged labour in the new colony.  Whether the Darbys were freemen or became freedmen is so far not known.  Daniel eventually became a land-owner and served in local civic affairs.  How or why William was involved in presenting and perhaps even writing a play is so far unknown, but I intend to pursue this further.

My research through the Eccles Centre yielded this critical information, which is more than has been able to be confirmed to this degree by other scholars.  Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic required me to return to the U.S. after just a short time, not allowing me to finish more research.  However, I hope to return to the Library’s hallowed halls to pursue even more deeply those Brits involved in the vital launching of theatre in America.

Jeffery Kennedy, Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar 2019-20, is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University.

References

  1. This comes from J. C. Wise, Ye kingdome of Accawmacke, or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the seventeenth century. Richmond, Va: Bell Book and Stationery Co., 1911.  British Library shelfmark: 9602.s.2.
  2. Staffordshire Parish Registers Society. Privately printed for the Society, 1902- .  British Library shelfmarks: Ac.8131 & Document Supply 8426.420000.

28 April 2020

The Library Quest: Andrés Bello (1781-1865)

Image of the bust of Andrés Bello photographed at the window of a conference room in the British Library
Bust of Andrés Bello (BLWA 91) at the window of a conference room in the British Library

 

Do you know this man? – His name is Andrés Bello and he was one of the most influential thinkers and makers of post-independence South-American nation building. Bello was born in Caracas in 1781 into the Spanish empire and, in his twenties, enjoyed a short career in the colonial administration, before the struggle for independence across his continent made him a life-long exile. In 1810, Andrés Bello joined the diplomatic mission of the continent’s foremost military leader Simón Bolívar in an effort to trump up political and financial support from the British government. Little did he know that the events unfolding back home would leave him stranded in London for what turned out to be almost 20 formative years from his late twenties to his late forties.

The long fight for independence meant that diplomatic funds quickly ran dry and Bello had to find other ways to make ends meet as a private tutor and translator. Sometimes better-off intellectual friends lent him a helping hand: the Scottish philosopher James Mill, best known today as the father of his more famous son James Stuart Mill and as collaborating with the founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham, was able to pay Bello for his help in transcribing some of Bentham’s manuscripts (Weinberg 1993/2000: 3). In these times of economic hardship, the British Museum Library, predecessor of the British Library, became his refuge and undoubtedly also a meeting place with other like-minded intellectuals. This was not yet the grand round reading room the outline of which is still visible today in the circular structure in the atrium of the British Museum, but the older, more intimate reading rooms of the previous building at Montague Square.

And no matter how dire his life and the prospects of ever returning home, Bello found solace in his work at the British Museum Library, painstakingly transcribing the fruits of his labour into his London Note Books, which were published in a critical edition in 2017 fittingly bearing a contemporary picture of the reading room Bello would have visited on its front cover.

 

Image of the front cover of Cuadernos de Londres by Andrea Bello, the critical edition published in 2017, edited by Ivan Jasik and Tania Avilés. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841
Front cover of Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841. Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297.

 

When I started working as Curator for Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) at the British Library at the end of this January, colleagues offered to show me the way to the reading rooms. Although I had been an avid user of the library for years, I had yet to learn to navigate the secret passageways at the periphery – or backstage, as I call them – that surround the light-flooded public spaces and reading rooms. It allows us staff to help today’s users at the centre of the library efficiently and discreetly. So I tried our catalogue on Andrés Bello, whose work I know well, both from my student days at Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, and as a professor of Hispanic Linguistics teaching his writings on language and grammar. Yet, what I thought was a safe bet, the British Library catalogue turned into a surprise. I certainly didn’t expect to find a bust:

 

Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the record of the bust of Andres Bello: the research starts from Exploring Archive and Manuscripts catalogue of the British Library. The record shows title, author of the bust, collections areas, access conditions and other details.
Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the bust of Andres Bello

 

This catalogue entry would become my unofficial induction course to the collections, which I began to inhabit over the course of my search for the elusive bust. The next couple of weeks, I continued to search the catalogue and asked many members of staff along the way, until I found the bust at last in a small meeting room at the end of an open space office at the end of a long corridor – or so it felt to me as I was asking my way to the goal: the bust of Andrés Bello made by his Venezuelan compatriot Lorenzo González in 1938, or what is more likely, a bronze copy of the original bust.

In the temporary absence of libraries (see blog from 13 April 2020), I feel it is important to remember that libraries are also physical spaces that provide more than knowledge and enlightenment, although Andrés Bello would have been the first to hail them for these important services. Thinking of the physical space and its objects, the light-filled atrium and the piazza, where readers and staff mingle in the summer, reminds us of the individuality of different libraries with their specific collection histories; and of their many readers and visitors, most of them not as famous as Andrés Bello, but who, like him, find intellectual nourishment, solace and joy within their walls. We look forward to having them back!

[Blog post by Iris Bachmann, Curator, Latin American Published Collections (post 1850)]

 

Bibliography and suggested readings:

Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres / Andrés Bello ; prólogo, edición y notas de Iván Jaksić y Tania Avilés ; con la colaboración de Miguel Carmona Tabja, Claudio Gutiérrez Marfull y Matías Tapia Wende ; epílogo de Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. (Primera edición ed.). Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297. 

Bello, A., & Jaksic, Ivan. (1997). Selected writings of Andrés Bello / Andrés Bello ; translated from the Spanish by Frances M. López-Morillas ; edited, with an introduction and notes by Iván Jaksić. (Library of Latin America). New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caldera, R., & Street, John. (1977). Andrés Bello : Philosopher, poet, philologist, educator, legislator, statesman / by Rafael Caldera ; translated [from the Spanish] by John Street. London: Allen and Unwin. Shelfmark: YC.1998.a.612 

[A readable short introduction to the life and work of Andrés Bello written by a young Rafael Caldera, later to become two-time president of Venezuela.]

Jaksic, I. (2001). Andrés Bello : Scholarship and nation-building in nineteenth-century Latin America / Iván Jaksić. (Cambridge Latin American studies ; 87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Shelfmark: YC.2001.a.12217. [Definitive academic biography]

Weinberg, G. (1993/2000). ‘Andrés Bello (1781-1865)’. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 1/2, 1993, p. 71-83. Online version ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000 at: http://www.ibe.unesco.org/sites/default/files/belloe.pdf (accessed 15 April 2020)

 

24 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleaguesIn part 1 of this blog, we considered examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, and here in part 2 we look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican Creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!

Patwa/Jamaican Creole

Front cover of book Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris
Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bun an Cheese by Louise Bennett-Coverley

Dem Bwoy dah jeer Miss Matty,
An a mock her an tease,
Dem a kill demself wid laugh mah
An a call her Bun an Cheese
 
Dem sey from Good Friday mawnin
Her jawbone no get ease
Mawnin  noon an night bedtime
She was nyamin Bun and Cheese
 
Fe breakfuss lunch an dinna
She got so-so bun and cheese
She kea it go a church an
Movin pictures if you please
 
She no count saltfish an ackee
Cut her y’eye pon rice an peas
Hear her “me put pot pon fire
When me got me Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time gwine come an go weh
Days an moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live dem bwoy
Gwine call her Bun and Cheese!

 

English translation

Those boys jeer Miss Matty
And Mock and tease her
They are killing themselves with laugh
And call her Bun and Cheese
 
They say from Good Friday morning
Her jawbone got no ease
Morning noon and nighttime
She was eating Bun and Cheese
 
For Breakfast lunch and dinner
She got only bun and cheese
She took it to church and
Moving pictures if you please
 
She does not count saltfish and ackee
Cut her eye on rice and peas
Hear her “I put my pot on the fire
When I got my Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time come and go away
Days and moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live those boys
Going to call her Bun and Cheese!

 

Coming off the heels of Easter, this is one of my favourite Louise Bennett-Coverley poems. “Miss Lou” as she was affectionately called is one of the most loved and highly respected Jamaican poets.  She uses the themes of food culture and local traditions in this timeless work. These themes highlight the love affair the protagonist “Miss Matty” has with the popular Jamaican Easter treat “bun and cheese”, closely associated with the popular English “hot cross buns”.  The use of the Jamaican dialect, Patois (Patwa) by Miss Lou makes this poem even more expressive and exciting. Regardless of the time of day, place and alternative food options Miss Matty is only interested in her tasty treat. This poem encapsulates the happy atmosphere that surrounds one of Jamaica’s most delightful Easter traditions.

Chantelle Richardson (Chevening Fellow at the British Library and Special Collections Librarian at the National Library of Jamaica)

 

Yolngu Matha  (Australia)

*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that these pages may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.*

Illustration of four kangaroos grazing
British Library Image taken from page 360 of 'New Homes for the Old Country. A personal experience of the political and domestic life, the industries, and the natural history of Australia and New Zealand. ... With ... illustrations' (BL shelfmark HMNTS 10492.g.19.)

 When a list of 200 Aboriginal Australian words was recorded in the north of Australia during James Cook’s voyage in 1770, it was assumed that these words would be spoken by all the Indigenous people in the country. One of the words on this list was ‘kangaroo’ (kanguru or gangurru), which was provided by the Guugu Yimidhirr people in what is now known as Far North Queensland. Yet, when European settlers arrived in 1788, in what would become Sydney, and tried to make use of the list, the word 'kangaroo’ was met with confusion by the local Aboriginal people who believed this to be an English word. Only later did the Europeans realise that the First people of Australia spoke more than 250 different languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, at the time of European settlement. For a visual representation of this language distribution, see the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the First peoples of Australia. Of the 160 varieties still spoken, only 13 are spoken by children and 90% of Indigenous Australian languages are in danger of dying out.  

One of the 13 languages still spoken by children, and in somewhat less danger, is the language group known as Yolngu Matha (or Yolŋu Matha). Yolngu Matha, has around 2,000 speakers and is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. It is spoken by the Yolngu people in the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are a dozen dialects of Yolngu Matha, each with its own name and with significant variation between them, though there is some mutual understanding between the dialects. During the 1930s, missionaries developed various ways of writing Yolngu Matha, which are still used today, though there is no standard spelling system. This linguistic complexity of variant spellings, and clan and dialect distinctions in Yolngu Matha (as with all the Indigenous Australian languages), has now been mapped to a great extent in the AUSTLANG database. This landmark project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides the means for institutions to begin the process of attributing the correct language to bibliographic records, as is being done through crowd sourcing at the National Library of Australia.

Front cover of Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green
Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930

When we look at the British Library records for poetry by Indigenous Australians, although we can find recent examples written in English (see Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, or Lionel Fogarty), those written in Indigenous Australian languages are far scarcer (although a welcome example is Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk-Green which mixes Wajarri, Badimaya, and English - shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930). And while we can attribute this partly to historical collection practices which favoured non-Indigenous languages (and similar discrimination in the publishing industry), this is also due to the history in Indigenous cultures of spoken word over written language. 

Front cover of Song spirals
Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark)

A particularly rich poetic oral tradition in Indigenous Australian culture can be seen in songlines. Also known song spirals or song cycles, these living archives of cultural knowledge and wisdom are preserved and passed on through song. Using cues from the land, sky and sea to navigate through space and time, songlines are handed down through generations. A member of the community acts as the custodian of the songline and these are rarely shared with outsiders. For this blog, I have chosen to highlight a 2019 Yolngu Matha collection, Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines  by the Gay'wu Group of Women (Allen and Unwin 2019 - awaiting cataloguing at the British Library). Here women’s roles in songlines are explored and the authors share five song spirals in Gumatj, a dialect of Dhuwal (also Dual, Duala), one of the Yolngu Matha languages.  

Below is an excerpt from Wuymirri, the Whale 
 
Nguruku miyamanarawu Dhangaḻa aaaaaaaa... 
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ngunha marrtji Bangupanngu. 
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy. 
 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Dhuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Nguruku miyaman ngarra marrtji Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru. 
 
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water. 
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Bangupanngu. 
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea. 
Of the place between sunrise and sunset I sing, 
 
Where the whales swim with open mouths, scooping water,  
   filtering fish; 
A pod of whales, flipping and jumping, playing and roaming; 
A gathering of many people; 
For that I sing Rrawuḻuḻ, the place where the whales 
   are feeding.  
I sing for those people, the ones far away. 

 

In Indigenous Australian culture, languages with few or no speakers are described as ‘sleeping’, and there are some welcome initiatives to re-awaken these sleeping languages. These include the formation of the AIATSIS foundation to record languages and songlines and publish 15 dictionaries of languages a year over the next decade. An exciting effort to re-awaken language through poetry has been developed through the Poetry in First Languages project, devised by Gunai poet, Kirli Saunders. In this program, Indigenous poets, Elders and Language Custodians work directly with Indigenous students to write poetry in their cultural language. 


To hear Yolngu Matha in a musical context, take a listen to the award-winning Yolngu rapper Baker Boy who seamlessly mixes this language with English in his performances such as 'Marryuna' (Let's Dance) below.

 

 

Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project

Patwa/Jamaican creole

Morris, M. (2014). Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bennett, L., & Morris, M. (2003). Auntie Roachy seh. Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.1825

Bennett, L (1983) Selected Poems. Kingston, Jm. : Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark X.958/29332

Bennett, L (1949) Jamaican dialect poems. Kingston , Jm : printed by the Gleaner Co. BL shelfmark X.909/29896

Yolngu Matha  

Dyungayan, G., & Cooke, S. (2014). George Dyungayan's Bulu Line : A West Kimberley song cycle. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann. BL shelfmark YD.2017.a.916 


Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark) 


Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930 

 

23 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 1)

For this blog, and in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues, we have taken inspiration from last year’s timely anthology of poems, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, edited by poet and UK National Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe. Published in 2019 (also the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages), the book celebrates linguistic diversity through poetic expression, gathering 50 poems in languages identified as endangered and presenting them in both the original and in English translation. It’s got us thinking about poetry written in lesser-known languages in the Americas and Oceania collections. In part 1 of this blog, we consider examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, while part 2 (to follow) will look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!


Tongan (Polynesia)

Tongan (Lea Faka-Tonga) is the national language of the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian nation of 169 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, and the only monarchy in the Pacific. Tongan is a Polynesian language of the Austronesian family and is most closely related to the Samoan language of the same family. There are around 190,000 Tongan speakers with nearly half of these living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia or the United States. Though not on the endangered language list, Tongan, like many Pacific languages, is in danger of an eventual language shift to English. As outlined above, the migration of many native Tongan speakers is a predictor for this, as well as the predominance of English in online environments, and with English being increasingly associated with greater educational and employment opportunities.  In an effort to counter this and preserve Tongan as the native language among young people in the country, the Minister of Education introduced a new language policy in 2012. Children are now taught solely in Tongan upon starting school, with English only gradually introduced at later stages. The policy aims for students to be fluent in both languages by completion of their education. Other efforts to preserve the language and culture among Tongans, includes the annual Tongan Language Week for Tongans living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Traditionally a spoken language, the first written examples of Tongan were made by missionaries using the Latin script in the 19th century, with the current spellings decided by the Privy Council of Tonga in 1943. The Tongan script uses three different diacritic marks to guide pronunciation and meaning: the glottal stop, the macron, and the stress mark, which often requires careful proofreading in text. The language is notable for having multiple speech registers based on status and formality, including one specifically for use when speaking to or about the reigning monarch or deities. With its strong oral over written tradition, Tongan language poetry is not abundant in our print collections. However, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a translated collection of the poetry of Tonga’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Sālote Tupou III, Tonga's poet on the throne from 1918 to her death in 1965. Songs & poems of Queen Sālote (2004) features 114 works by the monarch in Tongan with translations into English by the Pacific languages academic, Dr. Melenaite Taumoefolau.

Front cover of Songs & poems of Queen Sālote
Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Nukuʻalofa : Vavaʻu Press, 2004. YD.2009.b.1963.

Some of you may already be familiar with Queen Sālote as the head of state who received uproarious applause on Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Day in 1953, when she refused to lower the hood of her carriage in the driving rain, and instead laughed and waved joyfully at the crowds lining the procession route. Her spirit and warmth on the day prompted newspaper editor, Jack Fishman, to write a song aptly titled The Queen of Tonga (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN) which was then made popular by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra (Sound Collections 1CD0189529). 

Cover of the music score The Queen Of Tonga by Jack Fishman
The Queen of Tonga’ by Jack Fishman 1953 (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN)

However, you may not know that she is also celebrated as poet and song writer whose work, comprising of over 100 compositions, has played a major role in the preservation of the Tongan language and Tonga’s rich cultural heritage. Historian and biographer of Queen Sālote, Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, wrote in Songs & poems of Queen Sālote that: 

The Queen was… acclaimed as an extremely gifted poet. Queen Sālote spent many hours perfecting the words of her poems, and she invited groups of musicians to come to the Palace in the evenings to work with her. They often stayed until the early hours of the morning. Poetry that was set to music consisted of love songs (both happy and sad), laments for deaths of chiefs and those close to her, lullabies for her grandchildren, and songs written especially for the accompaniment of dance, such as lakalaka and mā‘ulu‘ulu. Love songs (hiva kakala) were often used as accompaniment to the solo dance for a woman, the tau‘olunga. (pp.279-281) 

Tongan language poetry makes great use of heliaki (metaphoric language) to make culture specific references to the knowledge shared by Tongan speakers. This can make literal translations difficult without using annotations, as the meanings and connotations of kinship connections in the heliaki often require explanation to non-Tongan speakers. We can see an example of this in Queen Sālote’s poem, The Queen’s Tears at the Passing of Tangata o’ Ha’amea, which employs the technique to bemoan that Ha’amea (a prominent Tongan chief) left no heir: 


Dear home of Niukasa 
Standing at the base of Sia 
With the stream called Fotu ‘afinema 
Once trickling but now empty 
Not a drop is left 

Diplomatic use of heliaki can be seen in her poem, ‘Uno 'o Sangone. Composed during World War 2, the poem is ostensibly about the Polynesian myth of the turtle Sangone, but draws heavily on the shared knowledge of the long history and connections between Tonga and its neighbour, Samoa. Through this use of heliaki, the Queen aimed to reassure Tongans and remind them of the importance of allies and unity during wartime:  

Ne‘ine‘i hako mei he tonga 
Tapa ē‘uhila mei lulunga 
He na‘e mana ē Feingakotone 
Fakahake ē‘uno ‘o Sangone. 
 
No wonder the gales blew from the south 
Lightening flashed from the west. 
The Feingakotone* thundered 
For Sangone’s shell was brought forth. 

Black and white photo of Queen Sālote with her husband Viliami Tungī Mailefihi
Salote Tupou III, Queen of Tonga and her consort Prince Uiliami Tungi. Ref: 1/2-005251-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22839741

However, to really appreciate the Tongan language and Queen Sālote’s work, you should enjoy it in the manner through which it was intended, such as this contemporary performance of Loka Siliva (Silver Lock or Locket), a love song (hiva kakala) she wrote for her husband, sung by the Tonga Creative Collective, and with translations from Tongan to English. 

For examples of more recent poetry from the Kingdom of Tonga in the British Library collections, see also Hingano : selected poems, 1966-1986 / by Konai Helu Thaman (BL shelfmark YA.1996.a.3558), and Mauri ola : contemporary Polynesian poems in English / edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri & Robert Sullivan (BL shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.322430).

*Feingakotone is a place in the Kingdom of Tonga 

Lucy Rowland (Curator, Oceania Published Collections post-1850)

 

Yucatec Maya (Mexico) 

 

Image of the poet Briceida Cuevas Cob speaking at a book event in 2018
Mexican poet, Briceida Cuevas Cob. Photograph by Benjamín Anaya / Secretaría de Cultura CDMX. 2018. Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Briceida Cuevas Cob is a well-published poet and cultural promoter in her native Yucatan, South-Mexico. The poem below is from the verse collection U yok’ol auat pek’ ti kuxtal pek’ / El quejido del perro en su existencia [The growl of the dog in its existence]. In her collection, she captures the violence and harshness of Mayan existence through the violence suffered by these abandoned stray dogs.  
 
Four poems from this collection were published in Latin American Literature Today, May 2018: Translated by Arthur Dixon. Here is one of them: 
 

VI 

¿Máax ku tich’ik chuchul uaj yétel u xdzik k’ab, 
u dzókole, 
ku jósik u xnoj k’ab u tial u jadz? 

Pek ta p’atik a yúmil, 
Pek ta chíik a yúmil, 
Pek’ a yama a yúmil: 
majant a uak’ti uínik, 
tiólal u choj xan u k’a u chí, 
ka u ch’ul luum, 
ka u pak’, je bix teché, u náatil kuxtal. 
Majant a uich ti uínik, 

tiólal u pákat yétel a k’om ólal. 
Majant a nej ti uínik 
tiólal u bik’ibik’tik, yétel a kímak ólal. 
kun alak ti: KS, KS, KS; 
tiólal u tákik ichil u yok yétel a sútal, 
kun alak ti: B’J, B’J, B’J. 
Majant a ti uínik, 
tiólal u yusnítik utz yan chen tu k’ab chichán pal. 
Jálibe, 
majant a dzaay uínik, 
tiólal u chíik u túkul. 

 

VI 

Who is he who holds out the stale tortilla with his left hand 
and then 
raises his right hand to strike? 

Dog, don’t you abandon your owner, 
dog, don’t you bite your lord, 
dog, you love your master: 
lend your tongue to the man, 
so the drool drips down him too, 
so it wets the earth, 
and sows, like you, the understanding of existence. 
Lend your eyes to the man, 
so he sees with your sadness. 
Lend your tail to the man, 
so he wags it with joy 
when they call him: KS, KS, KS; 
so he tucks it between his legs with your shame 
when they tell him: B’J, B’J, B’J; 
lend him your nose 
so he sniffs the goodness that only exists in the hands of a child. 
Lastly, 
lend him your teeth 
so he bites his own conscience. 

I have chosen this poem, because I remember stray dogs as a striking feature during my first visit to Mexico as an intern at UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) after finishing my MA. An older Austrian colleague with a proper job adopted a stray dog, when a group of us came home from a weekend trip. Looking back, this must have seemed a foolish act to many local people. Yet, we were a group of young and idealistic Mexicans and foreigners and this act of kindness towards the stray dog is stuck in my mind. 

When I read Briceida Cuevas Cob’s dog poems, I think back to the many mangy dogs on dusty roads I saw in Mexico and our friend’s little act of defiance in taking one of them in. I like how Cueva Cob in her poem binds together mundane experiences of ubiquitous violence with deep philosophical questions about life. And I like the rhythm of the poem in the English translation by Arthur Dixon. In the Maya original, which I cannot read, I enjoy looking at the distribution of letters on the page, strange and beautiful to me, unlike the spelling of any other language I can read. There are so many ‘k’ and ‘u’. It looks mysterious to me and makes me want to hear the poem recited in Yucatec Maya. 

If you feel the same, you can hear another poem by Cuevas Cob set to music by contemporary Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, who lives in London. Our library has the music score of two pieces composed to Cuevas Cob’s work.  One is called Codex of Enigmas/ Códice de Adivinancas [Scores at BL Music Collections g.1465.v.(2.)] and is a piece for solo viola and a speaker reciting the poem written in Maya language . You can find a video of a performance in France on the composer’s webpage.

Or if you prefer a different tune, check out the video from Tihorappers Crew, from Tihosuco, Quintana Roo (also in the Yucatec peninsula). It starts in Maya language and then switches between Spanish and Maya. Even if you don’t know Spanish or Maya, I think you’ll be able to hear the difference between the two languages and can enjoy the beat.  

Iris Bachmann, Curator of Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) 

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project here

Tongan

Helu, 'I. F. (2006). Ko e heilala tangitangi ʿo Sālote Pilolevu : Ko e tohi vete ʿo e fatu ʿa e kau Punake Tonga ʿo tuku he tumuʿakiʹ ʿe he ngaahi maaʿimoa ʿa e Taʿahine Kuini Sālote Tupou III : ʿoku fokotuʿu mo fakatoputapuʿi atu ʿa e kiʿi tohi ni (dedicate) kia Pilinisesi Sālote. Nukualofa, Tonga: ʿAtenisi Press. Shelfmark YF.2010.a.28034 


Helu, 'I. F., P., & Janman, P. (2012). On Tongan poetry. Warkworth, Auckland, N.Z.: Atuanui Press. Shelfmark YD.2019.a.4936 


Otsuka, Y. (2007). Making a Case for Tongan as an Endangered Language. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, pp. 446–473. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23724904.  


Smith, K. and 'Otunuku, M. (2015). Heliaki: transforming literacy in Tonga through metaphor. The SoJo Journal: Educational Foundations and Social Justice Education 1 (1), pp. 99-112.Cardiff University, http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/86002  


Wood-Ellem, E. (2004). Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem ; with essays by HRH Princess Nanasipauʻu Tukuʻaho ... [et al.]. Nukuʻalofa: Vavaʻu Press. Shelfmark YD.2009.b.1963 

 

Yucatec Maya

Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry by Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry without Borders, 2005, Nov issue, Accessed 22 April 2020:


Briceida Cuevas Cob, ‘Two poems by Briceida Cuevas Cob’, World Literature Today., 2010, 84(1), 16-17. [BL shelfmark: 9356.558600]  


Paul Worley, ‘On translating indigenous languages’, Asymptote, June 7, 2018. Accessed on 22 April 2020:
 

21 April 2020

Bernard and Mary Berenson at Villa I Tatti

On the first days of the lockdown, while making peace with the idea of being forced home by an enemy I couldn’t even see, confined in my cosy flat, and comforted by the pleasure of reading, I started leafing through my art books. I recalled those days, whose exquisiteness I was never enough aware at the time, when I had to lock myself in my room to prepare for my art history exams, back in the good old days of literary leisure as a university student.

 

Image of the painting The Compleat Angler by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915). The painting depicts a young woman lying on a meadow on the shore of a river, and dedicated to her readings
How I reimagine myself back in the good old days of literary leisure as university student. The Compleat Angler, Arthur Hugughes (1832-1915) Photo sourced by flickr uploaded by Amber Tree ©All rights reserved.

 

Among the very strict iconographic parameters, and names, and dates, and gallery details to be remembered by heart, there were those curious anecdotes that pleasantly livened up the monotony of the study routine. Today, I have certainly lost the pedantry of remembering the details but the anecdotes, I surely remember those, and so I recalled the story of Bernard and Mary Berenson.

I remember the story of how Bernard had been inspired to read more extensively the books of his library due to the confinement of a long period of isolation in his house, Villa I Tatti in Florence, and the story of his wife Mary. Ghost writer, art historian, suffragette, feminist and poet, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, together with her daughter Karin Stephen who had married Virginia Woolf’s brother, the story of Mary Berenson, has always fascinated me.

 

Black and white photographic portrait of Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Around 1901. The photo shows the couple leaning on a low wall while looking at each other in a contemplative attitude
Bernard and Mary Berenson at Friday’s Hill, Fernhurst, England. Unknown photographer, 1901. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork178672.

 

Born Mary Withall Smith, from a couple of Quaker preachers from Pennsylvania, she was an art historian, and has been reassessed as an important author in her own right rather simply a ghost writer.

In 1885, after marrying the Scots-Irish barrister and political reformer, Frank Costelloe, Mary moved to England. Together with her parents, who had moved with her, she became very much involved in the social and intellectual life of the country, often hosting poets and philosophers such as Walt Whitman, with whom Mary was connected through mutual feelings of friendship and esteem for life1.

 

Black and white portrait of Maria wearing an elegant dress with fur trims, sitting on a chair, facing forward and holding her papers
Mary Berenson (née Smith) by unknown photographer. Albumen print on card, 1885. NPG Ax 160646. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Mary had studied at the Harvard Annex, later Radcliffe College, a women’s liberal arts college and female counterpart to Harvard College, very well known for being the host of the late 19th century intellectual, art-inspired, and independent-minded female students2. Her personal inclination towards the arts, politics and culture were clearly stimulated in the Harvard intellectual environment. Supported by her feminist mother, Mary became involved in the women's movements in the United States and later in England, publishing articles and making speeches on feminism, suffrage and women in politics.

 

Black and white portrait of Mary on her horse Anticellere at Smith College in 1883
Mary Berenson (née Smith) on her horse Anticellere at Smith College by unknown photographer. Bromide copy print, 1883.NPG Ax160580. Sourced via ©National Portrait Gallery.

 

Not long after the marriage, probably displeased with it, and feeling constrained by the weight of the social convention, she abandoned the life of a devoted spouse and loving mother to return to her latent interests in art and design, and pursue a career in the arts. Focusing on art research, Mary rapidly became an art authority with a prolific output of journal articles, and particularly after the publication of a pamphlet, in 1894, on the history of the Italian paintings at Hampton Court, a work strongly influenced by the presence in her life of her mentor Bernard Berenson, whom she met in 18903.

The common passion for the Italian Renaissance art, and the several journeys to the continent and in particular to Italy, where Mary studied art under Bernard’s tutorage, made the couple fall in love with each other. By that time, Mary was energetically committed to work on Bernard’s projects and his public image, contributing to his essays, and writing reviews promoting his publications, and eventually moving to Florence to Bernard’s estate Villa I Tatti.

“… she played a major role in the writing of the Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, which listed Bernard as the sole author due to the social delicacy of their association … she published less as she devoted more of her energy to supporting Bernard's work (Mary Berenson)”4.

With such an established and undisputed calibre of art scholarship, it will not be difficult to imagine how the role of Mary in Bernard's works has been widely re-evaluated in the latest years. It appears now, that her hand in Bernard’s writing production and fame, is unquestionable.

***

Colour photograph of the terrace garden at Villa I Tatti, Florence, taken in 1925 by Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952)
Villa I Tatti, Ponte a Mensola, Settignano, Florence. Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952) photographer. Photo taken sometimes in 1925, from the album “Gardening in colour”, The Library of Congress, prints & Photographs Division. Sourced via flickr.

 

During WWII, Bernard Berenson, a Jewish American, and one of the most influential art critics of his time, was forced to live as refugee in his own house, Villa I Tatti, a beautiful countryside estate in Settignano, Florence, for around one year.

“With the war upon him, B. B. faced a terrifying future. In time of crisis some people go to church, some take to drink, others simply run away. B. B. turned to his library … His library is his fortress and is filled with the smoke of the battle raging outside"*.

In 1942, confined to an indefinite period of isolation when it was not safe to be a Jewish-American living in the Italian peninsula, protected by the American ambassador in Italy and by the people of the town, he challenged himself to a more extensive reading of his library, believing this would help him to stop from thinking too much about the war and all its consequences.

 

Screenshot image of the title page of Bernard Berenson’s book One year’s reading for fun (1942), published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in 1960
*From the introduction to One year’s reading for fun (1942) by John Walker. (New York, Knopf, 1960), pages ix and xi. Screen shot image of title page.

 

In 1959, when the University of Harvard inherited the Berensons’ library, the whole nucleus consisted of more than 50,000 volumes, a collection of works mainly about Mediterranean art and culture, but including also a rich collection of works on Oriental art and archaeology, and of around 170,000 photographs. Mary and Bernard had put together this treasure in Villa I Tatti from 1907 onwards, when the estate was purchased, probably starting from combining their own private collections. In addition to a room which served as a proper library space, the collections had grown rapidly and consistently so that other eleven rooms were added to the main space in the following years.

 

Black and white portrait of Bernard Berenson in his study at Villa I Tatti surrounded by a few his books
Bernard Berenson in his study at I Tatti. Unknown photographer, winter 1948-1949. Courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti -The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Bernard and Mary Berenson papers, Photographs. Hollis No. olvwork631213

 

Berenson collated the notes from his reading of his library in a work that was posthumously published in New York in 1960 by Arnold A. Kpnof, and edited by John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art and Berenson’s pupil.

And you? What about your quarantine reading? What lively quotations have you come across?

 

Bibliography and suggested reading:

Oakley, Maroussia, The book and periodical illustrations of Arthur Hughes: 'a spark of genius' 1832-1915, Pinner, Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, [2016] (shelfmark: YC.2018.b.2604).

1 Of Walt Whitman Mary said: “You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass ... He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date,' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him”, see Reynolds, David. S., Walt Whitman: a cultural biography, New York: Knopf, 1995, page 4 (shelfmark 95/35007). Check the British Library digitised Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1867), and see also the eBLJ article on Walt Whitman by Dorian Hayes who discusses the poet’s virtues and the iconic first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass held at the British Library (shelfmark: C.58.g.4.).

2 About Radcliffe College and its role as female college see: Kendall, Elaine, Peculiar institutions: an informal history of the Seven Sister colleges, New York: Putnam, 1976 (shelfmark: X:809/28730, or 76/23169).

3 Logan, Mary, Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court: with Short Studies of the Artists (The Kyrle Pamphlets; no. 2), London, 1894 (shelfmark: 07813.aa.7.). Mary Berenson wrote the pamphlet under the pseudonym of Mary Logan.

4 In 1984, the publication of Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, established Bernard Berenson’s reputation as an art historian of undisputed international fame, a book largely written by Mary. Check the British Library copy The Venetian painters of the Renaissance, with an index to their works, New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons [third edition], (shelfmark: 7858.r.37.). On the case of Mary’s role in Bernard’s publications see: Barbara Strachey and Samuels Jayne, Mary Berenson: a self-portrait from her letters & diaries, London: Hamilton, 1985 (shelfmark: X.958/31629).

Berenson, Bernard, One year’s reading for fun (1942), London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960 (shelfmark: 11878.gg.36).

Rocke, Michael, The Biblioteca Berenson at Villa I Tatti, in Art Libraries Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, 5-9 (shelfmark: 1733.461500)

Weaver, William, A legacy of excellence: the story of Villa I Tatti, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997 (shelfmark: YC.2001.b.988)

 

[Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, American Collection. American and Australasian Studies]

24 March 2020

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

American poet, painter, activist, pioneering figure in the Beat movement, and co-founder of City Lights Bookseller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 101 on March 24 2020

The Library’s collections are rich in Beats and Ferlinghetti material (take a look at our Beats bibliography if you’re interested to see a comprehensive overview of holdings). But with so many pages of ground-breaking content to leaf through, what would be appropriate to feature to mark the artist’s 101st birthday?

Black and white photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading
Photograph of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Image taken by Christopher Michel on 2 July 2012, sourced via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Pictures of the Gone World seemed like a good option (fifth printing edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.). This was Ferlinghetti's first book, published in 1955 by his own City Lights Books, in a 500-copy letterpress edition (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). Two years earlier, he had co-founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco together with college professor and editor of City Lights magazine, Peter D. Martin. The store was the first all-paperback bookshop in the United States (The Guardian online, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights) and would become ‘the launching pad for the San Francisco Writers Renaissance’ (Douglas Street in the Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 [Spring 1981], p. 228. Access via JSTOR, available in British Library Reading Rooms). For more than 60 years, City Lights “has served as a ‘literary meeting place’ for writers, readers, artists, and intellectuals to explore books and ideas.” (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website).

Front cover of Pictures of the gone world
Front cover of Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Pictures of the Gone World was Number One in the Pocket Poets Series launched by the City Lights Books. One of the series focuses was to provide paperback, and thus more affordable, content to readers, and the book’s publication helped to extend Ferlinghetti’s ‘concept of a cultural meeting place to a larger arena.’ (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). With mentions of London, Paris and the harbour of San Francisco in the poems’ titles, the collection not only documented Ferlinghetti’s artistic development but also acted as a kind of ‘travel journal of the place in which he had lived’ and visited (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82), taking readers around the world as they dipped in and out of his work, while the small design allowed for them to carry Ferlinghetti around with them on their own travels.

The Pocket Poets series went on to include several Beat classics including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other poems (1959 edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/4) – Number Four in the series – which was published in October 1956 and met with immediate, if controversial, success. The landmark poem’s concept, together with Ginsberg’s powerful delivery at group readings, made it ‘a crucible of cultural change. Except for the response to Dylan Thomas’ readings in America, never before had a modern audience reacted so passionately, or identified so completely with a poet’s message.’ (Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell, page 104). You can read more about the reaction to, and impact of, Howl in our blog from 2013. Other early items in the Pocket Poets series included William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations, Marie Ponsot’s True Minds and Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen.

Pictures of the gone world back cover showing the price of 75 cents
Back cover of Pictures of the Gone World showing other titles in the Pocket Poets series

The little paperback held by the British Library features the unassuming, yet at the same time, striking black and yellow cover – the style of which would be replicated through the Pocket Poets series and at just 75 cents a pop, whose simplicity made it something that could be available to many. As the series’ name implies, the collection ‘can be carried in a pocket, and read in less than an hour.’ (Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett, page 17)

Between the pages readers are greeted with some of Ferlinghetti’s most memorable works including ‘The world is a beautiful place’ – a melancholy and ironic ode to one’s bittersweet existence on earth. In Ferlinghetti’s style, readers are ping-ponged across the page, yo-yoing between scenes of beauty and happiness, ‘smelling flowers’ and ‘swimming in rivers’, then thrown into despair: ‘if you don’t mind a touch of hell’ and ‘some people dying all the time’. Swayed back and forth, the reader is constantly reminded of being destabilised each time something comforting is mentioned: ‘The design… reflect[ing] Ferlinghetti’s continuing concern with the way the poem looked on the page… [he] was satisfied that the arrangement of the words enhanced the meaning of the poem.’ (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82)

Many of the poems in this collection are said to ‘reveal…the quiet struggle of ordinary people. The unusual distribution of lines on the page, and the inventiveness with word play and rhyme, show Ferlinghetti’s sense of freedom, itself a key notion in his work.’ (Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor, page 106)

‘The world is a beautiful place’ can certainly be seen to exemplify such a statement.

The world is a beautiful place first page
The world is a beautiful place…to be born into… if you don’t mind happiness…not always being…so very much fun (BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.)

Despite being written in the mid-20th-century, this timeless poem doesn’t feel out of place when read in 2020. It’s a testament to Ferlinghetti’s skill and intuition; to be able to tap into subject matter and raise questions that feel as relevant today as when he first wrote them some 65 years ago.

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The British Library holds a number of items from City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series and publications from Ferlinghetti, including first editions, some inscribed by the poet himself. Below is a selection of suggested reading. Follow the link to our Beats Bibliography for a more complete overview of Library printed holdings on the subject.

[Blog by RSC]

Bibliography and suggested reading

A Coney Island of the Mind: poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; portraiture by R.B. Kitaj (San Francisco: Arion Press, 2005) shelfmark RF.2007.b.21. Note: A fine press special edition of Ferlinghetti’s famous work from Arion Press.

Beat Culture: Icons, Lifestyles, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor (Santa Barbara, California; Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2005) shelfmark YC.2007.b.56

Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett (St. Andrews, Scotland?: A Beatdom Books Publication, 2012) shelfmark YK.2014.a.4349

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website (accessed 11 March 2020) 

Ferlinghetti's Greatest Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; edited by Nancy Peters (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2017) shelfmark YD.2018.a.4686

Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979) shelfmark X.950/10246

Open eye, open heart by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1973) shelfmark RF.2002.a.49. Note: Inscribed by Ferlinghetti with cover photograph of Ferlinghetti by Ilka Hartmann.

Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell (New York; London: McGraw-Hill, c1976) shelfmark YA.2000.a.11944

The Guardian, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights (accessed 16 March 2020)

The Guardian, San Francisco's City Lights: the bookshop that brought us the Beats (accessed 16 March 2020)

Review of Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 (SPRING 1981), pp. 228-230, by Douglas Street. Accessed via JSTOR, available from Britsh Library Reading Rooms (accessed 12 March 2020)

Who are we now? by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1976) shelfmark YA.2002.a.19832. Note: Signed and inscribed by Ferlinghetti.

25 February 2020

From the collections: A Streetcar Named Desire

Thomas Lanier Williams III, perhaps better known by his pen name Tennessee Williams, passed away on 25 February 1983. I’ve turned to the Library’s collections to take a look at our holdings around one of Williams’s most popular and timeless works, A Streetcar Named Desire.

As some of our Readers may be well aware, due to conservation and preservation over the years, not all of the books held at the British Library still have their original dust jackets, covers or bindings. So it’s always a joy to call up an item from the basements which still retains its original frontage in full, glorious technicolour.

Front cover design of A Streetcar Named Desire by Lustig. Pink cover with black and white figures.
New Directions front cover for A Streetcar Named Desire, designed by Alvin Lustig (YA.1996.b.5800)

I discovered that we’re fortunate enough to hold a first edition of A Streetcar Named Desire (YA.1996.b.5800) published by New Directions in 1947, complete with the lavender pink cover design by Alvin Lustig. Showing three figures entwined, almost dancing, on the front, the image is a striking one among, what can be, shelves of dark spines. An imposing male stands in the centre, in a puppeteer-like poise, commanding two females either side of him: seemingly a picture of the tempestuous and forceful Stanley Kowalski, with his wife, the meek Stella, on one side, and his struggling sister-in-law, Blanche, on the other.

New Directions Books were published by American poet, James Laughlin, who started the publishing house after seeking career advice from none other than Ezra Pound. “He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do ‘something’ useful.” Laughlin recalls. Bestsellers from New Directions, an imprint largely devoted to Modernist writers, include works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, EMC.2011.a.174), William Carlos Williams (Selected Poems, 75/17337) and Ezra Pound himself (The Cantos, W55/3062). Of Tennessee Williams, the New Directions website states:

‘As well as being astonishingly talented and prolific, Tennessee Williams was a man of considerable personal courage, willing to be open about being a gay man at a time when few were. Tennessee Williams is a cornerstone of New Directions, as we publish everything he wrote in his storied career. He is also our single bestselling author.’

Many of the early New Directions covers feature artwork by Denver-born designer, Alvin Lustig (1915 – 1955). A rigorous graphic designer who forayed into architecture, interior and industrial design, ‘Lustig’s opportunity to use the book cover as a vehicle of bold graphic experimentation and innovation was provided by James Laughlin…a collaboration that flourished throughout the 1940s until Lustig’s early death in 1955… [they] prodded, cajoled, and quibbled their way through a virtually unprecedented partnership…’. (page 7, Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, YC.2017.a.13503) In each other they recognised ‘a sense of uncompromising principles and a tenacious drive to make a mark on contemporary society’ (page 13, ibid).

Black and white portrait photograph of Alvin Lustig
Black and white photographic portrait of Alvin Lustig, with one of his ‘eye’ designs used on New Directions covers (image from YC.2017.a.13503)

Laughlin’s publication choices together with Lustig’s eye for colour, graphic systems and bold juxtapositions, resulted in sure-fire ways to stop readers in their tracks in the mid-20th century, beckoning them, as the names implies, to traverse New Directions. And it worked; ‘Lustig’s jackets had a quantifiable impact on the book-buying public; they enormously increased the sales…’ (page 49, Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Laughlin confirmed that Lustig’s artwork and ‘beautiful designs…help[ed] to make a mass audience aware of high quality reading’ (James Laughlin, “The Book Jackets of Alvin Lustig”, Print, Oct/Nov 1956, as quoted on page 50 in Born Modern by Heller and Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Though one should never judge a book by its cover, it’s easy to see the appeal of these designs in a shopfront even today. This is something Laughlin acknowledged also: ‘People should buy books for their literary merit. But since I have never published a book which I didn’t consider a serious literary work – and never intend to – I have had no bad conscience about using Lustig to increase sales.’ (ibid)

Examples of Lustig’s work for New Directions images from LC.31.b.7733
Examples of Lustig’s work for New Directions (images from LC.31.b.7733)

Beholding a green Library stamp, signifying a donation, my interest was also piqued at seeing two handwritten inscriptions signed ‘Sidney Lanfield’ on the inside cover of this edition. Lanfield was an American director (1898 – 1972) whose work included the 1941 film You'll Never Get Rich starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. As beautiful as this book is, the director’s signature serves as a reminder that A Streetcar Named Desire is in its most perfect form when performed on stage, as was its intention.

Signatures of Sidney Lanfield
Two for the price of one: Sidney Lanfield’s name on the inside cover (YA.1996.b.5800)

And what better illustration is there of this than the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where Streetcar was first performed? This programme (RB.23.b.7714) for the original Broadway production of the play is from 9 February 1948; the play premiered at the theatre just two months earlier on 3 December 1947. The Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, directed by Elia Kazan, still featured the original stars including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Jessica Tandy. The New Directions edition of the book also lists the star-studded cast that were part of the premier run of the production. As well as giving early portfolios for the cast in lead roles, the playbill is dispersed with advertisements, including plenty for cigarettes (Camel) and alcohol (Carstairs whiskey), and is a great primary resource for researchers. Others may also interested in reading The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs’s slightly scathing, and controversial, review of an early performance of this production from 6 December 1947: an article that closes with ‘I’m sorry to say there isn’t much room left for the compliments’.

Cast list and playbill for early performances of A Streetcar Named Desire
Cast list for the premier Broadway performance of Streetcar (YA.1996.b.5800) and the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre performance of Streetcar (RB.23.b.7714)

73 years on from the New Directions publication of the play, and its premiere performance, and 37 years since Williams’s passing, it’s incredible to see A Streetcar Named Desire in its initial guises. A reminder that the British Library has endless avenues to pursue when it comes to fresh research around even the most seemingly well-established of subject matter.

[Blog by RSC]

Suggested reading

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Mount Vernon, New York: New Directions, 1947) YA.1996.b.5800

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949)

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flash by John Lahr (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) ELD.DS.73184

Memoirs by Tennessee Williams; introduction by John Waters (New York: New Directions, 2006)

A Streetcar Named Desire: The Playbill, (New York: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1948)

The New Yorker, articles available at www.newyorker.com and BL holding Mic.B.64/1-45., P.903/858., 6089.821000

Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen (San Francisco: Chronicle, c2010) LC.31.b.7733

Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger (Rochester, N.Y.: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, c2010) YC.2017.a.13503

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