American Collections blog

19 posts categorized "Poetry"

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the American Studies team

Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

For the third year running the British Library has worked with the British Council for Fashion on a Research Collaboration Project and this year radical Glaswegian designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s Instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year. This was followed by a Masterclass in October organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition

Charles Jeffrey considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the British Library resources. A show and tell is an interactive part of the Masterclass which is run as part of the project. It gives curators the opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of particularly visually intriguing collection items. 

Model on catwalk showing example of collection created by Charles Jeffrey Loverboy
‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – the British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

 

In this blog post the Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. You can see the selections from the European team on their blog on the same topic. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’ as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief. 

 

Opening of Kenneth Patchen's Glory never guesses & other stories showing yellow and orange pages with text and zebra and butterfly in the background
Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses & other stories, [United States?], 1955 (RF.2017.b.42)

 

Glory never guesses & other pages by Kenneth Patchen

Published in the United States in the summer of 1955, although the exact location and publisher remains ambiguous, this vibrant collection of 18 poems from the original manuscript pages of American poet Kenneth Patchen features decorations and drawings reproduced through silk screening.

Various flora and fauna, including birds, turtles, butterflies and a zebra, and looping elaborate script, adorn the pages of delicate Japanese paper. Only 200 copies, all hand-run, were produced by Frank Bacher. Patchen became well-known in poetry circles for reading his work with jazz as an accompaniment, and you can almost hear the colourful play and rhythm of the words jump up from the page thanks to Bacher’s lively and rich reproduction.

We chose this item for the show and tell not just for its visual appeal, but also because we thought its use of materials, textures and techniques might spur some inspiration. For those interested in the materiality of books and the book form, there is a thematic vein of such amongst a number of artists’ books held at the Library including metal books (like HS.74/2323), wax books (such as RF.2018.a.56) and even coffee-stained books (see Cup.550.g.669).

Rachael – Curator, North American Published Collections

 

Five images showing colourful cover and inside pages of Cartonera books from Latin America
Cartonera books from Latin America

 

Cartonera books from Latin America

As history has often taught, there are always unexpected opportunities that arise from moments of crisis. The Cartonera phenomenon is a happy Fenix arising from the cardboards piles of the streets.

When Argentina, experienced the great economic depression of the years 1998-2002,  with the consequence of a huge job loss, and the obvious recession of the publishing and cultural sectors,  people started pouring out the streets not only for rioting but also to find an alternative way of life.

Cardboard pickers, cartoneros, started collecting paper and cardboard from the street finding the selling profitable. Eloísa Cartonera, became the first Cartonera publisher that, from 2001-2, started producing books “con cartón comprado a los cartoneros en la vía pública” (with cardboard bought from the cardboard pickers from the streets), although this is not a completely new phenomenon since it arguably takes its primordial roots from the 70’.

The aim of the Cartonera publishers was, since the beginning, to spread poetry and literature at a mass level in Latin America, and at a very low price.

Since then very well established writers, artists and poets, have donated or created for the cause, such as Washington Cucurto. A founder of Eloisa Cartonera and cult author whose realism compositions feature negritude, poverty and homosexuality in Latin America. 

I selected the hand-made Cartonera books for the show and tell for the visual aspect of their recycled appeal alongside their inspiring potential to open the scope for creativity.

Annalisa – Cataloguer, American Collections

 

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January when, during a reverse show and tell, students will reveal/show their work inspired by the British Library collections. 

For featured European collection items please see the parallel European studies blog.

 

Blog by Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

 

Suggested reading

Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses: & other pages. [United States?] : [publisher not identified], [1955] RF.2017.b.42

Ricardo Piglia, The pianist (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2011.a.2591

Carlos D'Angelis, No ve la mía (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2010.a.6178

Dulcinéia Catadora [ed.], Em mãos ([Brazil], [2013]) RF.2019.a.343

Yarezi Salazar, El secreto de mi tía abuela ([Monterrey, Mexico], [2010]) RF.2019.a.328 

Carlos Emílio Corrêa, A outra forma da ilha de goa (Lima [Paraguay], [2018]) RF.2019.a.330

03 October 2019

National Poetry Day

National Poetry Day is a UK-wide celebration of poetry held annually in October. The theme for 2019 is 'Truth' and this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the national event.  The British Library will be joining celebrations by hosting the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour in the evening of National Poetry Day with leading actors reading aloud the poetry of  Byron, Keats and Shelley. You can find out more information here.

On the theme of Truth, the Americas and Australasian team have put forward two of their favourite poems. The first marks truth in the sparseness of the text: a poem laid bare and stripped of punctuation and capitalisation.  The second offers truth in the language and the message: a bilingual poem for a bilingual country.

‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, found in Go Go by William Carlos Williams (New York: Monroe Wheeler, 1923), Cup.501.aa.35.

Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)

I love how Williams conveys such a vivid image with so few words in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, and the fact that whenever I think about the poem I’m able to picture not only the scene the words create, but the layout of the words themselves. To me, the poem is as striking to look at as its flow is to hear when you read it aloud. I can’t help but pause for breath whenever I finish it; it makes me think of how it’s possible to find beauty in even the simplest or most seemingly ‘every day’ of things. The poem first appeared in Spring and All in 1923, under the title ‘xxii’. In Go Go (pictured here) it has the title we are familiar with and is printed alongside Williams’s ‘The Hermaphroditic Telephones’, which was the first time this particular poem had ever been presented.

Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis (Wellington, New Zealand: Seraph Press, 2018) YD.2018.a.3672

Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Printed Collections Post 1850)


Cover image of book Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation   Text of the poem Rākau by Alice Te Punga Somerville

Tātai Whetū is a delicately handbound chapbook in the Seraph Press Translation Series celebrating Māori writing and te reo Māori (the Māori language). This bilingual collection of poems from seven women writers has text in both te reo Māori and English. The featured poets are Anahera Gildea, Michelle Ngamoki, Tru Paraha, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Maraea Rakuraku, Dayle Takitimu and Alice Te Punga Somerville. Their poems have been translated by Hēmi Kelly, Te Ataahia Hurihanganui, Herewini Easton, Jamie Cowell, Vaughan Rapatahana and Dayle Takitimu

From this beautful collection, I have chosen the poem pictured above. Rākau is by Alice Te Punga Somerville, an indigenous scholar whose poem was selected for the 2018 publication of Best New Zealand Poems journal. The poem has been translated from English into te reo Māori by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui and you can listen to Rākau in both languages here on the Best New Zealand Poems site.  'Rākau' refers to both wood and a tree in the Māori language and the poem explores the link between the careful carving of wood and the acquisition of a language which has long been hidden in the learner.

Below is the poem in English.

We know that carvers coax something or someone
Who’s already there in the wood.
They remove small pieces of timber, one by one,
until it’s ready.

         
We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue.

Please put down the adze, the skillsaw, the file:
Speak gently to me so I can recognise what’s there.

No, don’t chip away at pink flesh and taste buds:
Oozing and swollen, I will choke on my blood
before you’re done.

The wood you’re trying to carve is still a tree.

 

 

09 August 2019

Book Lovers Day

It turns out there really is a celebratory day for everything (yes, we’re still enjoying yesterday’s International Cat Day moment), and 9 August is no exception. Happy Book Lovers Day!

To pay homage, Team Americas, Australasia and Eccles has picked a few much-loved books to share. Some have played an admirable role in guiding us on the various paths that have led us to the mothership that is the British Library, while others have been part of the discoveries made journeying through, and adding to, the vast and varied collections held here. Of course some heads starting to smoke at the thought of picking just one favourite book each, so this is a carefully selected array of those we love from our individual, rather long (and always growing) lists.

We’re confident that there will be another book-related annual festivity just beckoning for a blog in the not-too-distant future – look out for it as we shoehorn in the ‘ones that got away’ from today’s offering.

Book: Populuxe by Thomas Hine

British Library holding: Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

‘I came across Populuxe as an MA student and found it completely alluring. It has a beautiful pink binding and silvery blue lettering. Not many of the academic books I was reading at the time had such welcoming covers! The book is an examination of American material culture in the 1950s and ‘60s. As someone long fascinated by popular culture, its analysis was a revelation to me and helped me understand how everyday objects could be imbued with meaning. I had a literature, rather than a design or art history background, and Hine’s book helped me develop my critical thinking about material culture and the built environment. But also, it is just so much fun to read and I love poring over the fabulous illustrations.’

Book lover: Cara, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Pink front cover of Populuxe with shiny turquoise lettering
Pretty in pink. Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193
   Colourful spread of cars with tailfins from Populuxe
King of the tailfin. A colourful spread from Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

Book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

British Library holding: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

‘There are few books which make me laugh out loud, fewer still that make me cry with laughter. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of these books. The main character, the irascible, gluttonous, and completely hilarious Ignatius J. Relly, is a wonderful creation, and following his picaresque search for truth, meaning, and the perfect hotdog is an unrivalled delight. There are all sorts of literary and philosophical allusions to unravel if you so wish, including references to the works of Boethius, Aquinas, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. If, however, you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride through the backstreets and dive bars of 1960s New Orleans, there is no better driver than Ignatius and his creator, John Kennedy Toole.’

Book lover: Philip, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Front cover of A Confederacy of Dunces including illustration of detective with sword in one hand and a hotdog in the other
Hotdog with a side of sword. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

Book: Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón

British Library holding: Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996. (YA.2000.a.31155)

‘I like to read poetry in the summer holidays, especially after lunch when time goes slower and you can put the book down after each poem and leave the words floating in the air. This year I have loved Nancy Morejón’s Elogio y Paisaje, a book containing two poetry collections, Elogio de la danza (Ode to Dance) and Paisaje célebre (Famous Landscape).  Morejón (Havana, 1944) is perhaps the most prominent voice of Cuban poetry today, as well as a translator and a scholar of the poetry of Nicolas Guillén. For English speakers, a bilingual edition of her poems, Looking Within: Selected Poems, 1954-2000 = Mirar adentro: poemas escogidos, 1954-2000 is available at YC.2003.a.20176.’

Book lover: Mercedes, American and Australasian Collections

Pink front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón with illustration of faces and trees
Words floating in the air... Front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón (Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996) YA.2000.a.31155

Book: Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse

British Library holding: London: SPBH Editions, 2018. (YC.2019.b.1013)

WARNING – Members of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in the text and depicted in the images of this publication have died.

‘This book has always stuck in my mind and is one that has since influenced my own practice as a curator. Over many trips to Warlpiri country in Central Australia, British artist, Patrick Waterhouse, photographed members of the Yeunduma and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, and then invited them to restrict and amend their own images using traditional dot painting. The project was an attempt to return the agency of their representation to the Warlpiri, whose images were used without consent and regard to their cultural beliefs in the 1899 book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia. The result is a compelling conversation about the power dynamics in photography, particularly in the colonial narratives which still dominate our library collections today.’

Book lover: Lucy, Australasian Published Collections

Front cover of Restricted Images by Patrick Waterhouse
Front cover of Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013
An example of a portrait from Restricted Images
A portrait from Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013

Book: New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn

British Library holding: London: For G. Widdowes, 1672. (435.a.5)

‘One of my favourite items is John Josselyn’s New England’s Rarities Discovered, which was published in London in 1672. Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and, armed with the 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, he spent a decade examining the “birds, beasts, fishes, serpents and plants of that country”. He was particularly interested in the plants used by the native population to “cure their distempers, wounds and sores”. Although its small size and rough and ready woodcuts give the impression of rather rustic work, Rarities was cited by Linneaus. Together with Josselyn’s second work, Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674), it remained the most complete summary of North American flora for more than a century.’

Book lover: Jean, Eccles Centre for American Studies

An illustration of flora from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn
Flora: an illustration from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn (London: For G. Widdowes, 1672) 435.a.5

Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

British Library holding: Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850. (12701.i.12)

‘I resisted the temptation of pointing to Edgar Allen Poe again and have chosen to shine a light on The Scarlet Letter. It was during my first semester as an undergraduate that I was introduced to this book. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of historical American fiction. Enraptured by the story of Hester, and how her experience grapples with the ‘romance’ the novel claims to be on its title page, my love of North American literature stems, in part, from this book. Some years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was struck by the similarities you can draw between the two – it’s probably no surprise that this is also a favourite on my bookshelf (but we can save that for another day). This second edition has the opening note from a previous owner: “You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.” And much pleased I was.’

Book lover: Rachael, N American Published Collections

Title page of The Scarlet Letter, A Romance
'A Romance': title page from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850) 12701.i.12
A note from an owner of this edition – it reads ‘You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.’
'You will be much pleased with Hawthorne': a note from the previous owner

 

06 August 2019

A tribute to Toni Morrison

In the midst of the very sad news that author Toni Morrison passed away on 5 August 2019, aged 88 years old, we shine a light on one of Morrison’s many items held in the Library’s collection: the beautiful, ‘Five Poems’ – a fine press book with illustrations by Kara Walker.

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her portrayal of the black female experience through her writing has moved readers around the world for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and would become a Nobel Prize winner, and further bestselling novels would follow, namely Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). It was not long before Morrison and her work were established firmly as ‘part of the fabric of American life … woven into high school syllabuses up and down the country’ (Richard Lea, The Guardian). Alongside her Nobel Prize, Morrison would be honoured with the Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in celebration of her literary achievements during her lifetime.

Photograph of slipcase and cover of Toni Morrison 'Five Poems'
Slipcase and cover detail for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Upon joining the Americas Team just one month ago, one of the first treasures a colleague introduced me to was Five Poems (RF.2019.b.96) – a breath-taking fine press book compiled of Toni Morrison’s words and illustrations by Kara Walker. As I began to turn the pages, I was intrigued (and blown away) to say the least. ‘I never knew Toni Morrison wrote poetry’ I thought, careful not to share out loud for fear of making a fool of myself in front of my new team of experts. But upon closer investigation of the book, I realised there was perhaps a reason for this oversight of mine…

Photograph of title page of Five Poems
Title page for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Published in a limited run by Rainmaker Editions of Las Vegas, between the large books’ pages readers will be entranced by ‘Eve Remembering’, ‘The Perfect Ease of Grain’, ‘Someone Leans Near’, ‘It Comes Unadorned’ and ‘I Am Not Seaworthy’. Five short poems which compile Morrison’s only poetry book, alongside them are silhouette illustrations from the New York-based artist, Kara Walker.

Reading an article by Stephanie Li (‘Five Poems: The Gospel According to Toni Morrison’) in a bid to find out more, it transpires that, at the time of Li's research, ‘in the numerous interviews Morrison has given since the publication of Five Poems she [Morrison] has never mentioned the book or discussed her approach to writing poetry’ (p 899).

Photograph of Toni Morrison's 'Even Remembering' with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘Eve Remembering’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

The book is said to have come about thanks to Wole Soyinka (the playwright, poet and essayist) who invited ‘Morrison … on behalf of Rainmaker Editions to submit an original unpublished manuscript. Morrison sent five short poems, the full text of the collection’ (p 899). Upon receiving the manuscript, the book’s designer, Peter Rutledge Koch, suggested that illustrations be included as well. Si explains that Kara Walker, whose work explores themes of gender, race and ethnicity, has often praised Morrison and the influence the author had on Walker’s own creativity; Koch saw the potential for the two artists’ work to complement each other in this endeavour. Walker was contacted and the book was made with Morrison’s words and Walker’s five relief prints side by side.

This edition is one of the 425 issues printed and has been signed by the author, illustrator and binder. It really is a fusion of skill, care and total masterfulness from across the United States. Alongside the contributions from Morrison and Walker, Peter Koch Printers printed letterpress from digital imaging and photo-polymer plates in Berkley, California, while the binding and housing was done by Jace Graf at Cloverleaf Studio, Austen, Texas. It’s a work of art in every sense.

Photograph of Toni Morrison's ‘It Comes Unadorned’ with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘It Comes Unadorned’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

It is with great sadness that we have lost one of the world’s, not just America’s, most prolific writers. As chance would have it I’m currently reading Jazz and I’ll be sure to savour Morrison’s storytelling even more than normal during the commute home this evening, on a train journey that will be tinged with more than a little melancholy.  

[RSW]

03 April 2019

América Latina: Artists’ Books at the British Library

In early February the British Library held its third hugely successful Artists’ Books Now event: América Latina. The evening brought together artists, collectors, academics and curators to consider the multiple dynamics at work in the creation of Latin American artists’ books. It also enabled the audience to handle and explore the works on display and to discuss them with the contributors and each other.

Jerry - group shot

Artists, curators and members of the audience engaging with the artists' books. Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Amongst the items considered were cordel literature and cartonera, both of which are richly represented in the Library’s collections. Cordel literature are popular and inexpensively printed booklets or pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs which often have decorative covers printed from woodcuts.

Jerry book

Brazilian woodcut prints illustrating cordel publications from Connie Bloomfield’s collection.  Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Cartonera is a publishing movement which originated in Latin America in the early 2000s and which employs recycled material to make literary works. Historically these works have social, political and artistic significance. The British Library holds cartonera from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico. Beth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and Caribbean collections, has been working with Lucy Bell and Alex Flynn on an AHRC funded cartonera research project ‘Precarious Publishing in Latin America: relations, meanings and community in movement'.

The Library also holds works from Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house located in Matanzas, Cuba. Vigía originally opened as a space for writers and artists to gather and discuss their work. Participants began creating single-sheet flyers that advertised meeting times for interested artists, and eventually they evolved into a book publishing house. Many of their works are produced in coarse paper from substances including sugar cane, offcuts of cardboard and other leftovers. They are decorated with drawings, cut by hand and enhanced with material objects: scraps of tissue paper, cloth, cord, as well as less likely ornaments including sand, twigs, leaves and nails. The maximum number of any work produced by the house is two hundred. Clearly there is an intersection with the cartonera, although the roots of each movement are differentiated by time, with Vigías being a backlash to the uniformity of Cuban printing and publishing of the 1980s.  

Jerry woman speaker

Artist Francisca Prieto discussing her work The Antibook [British Library shelfmark: RF.2003.a.233]

América Latina offered a wonderful opportunity to explore and unpick the ways in which  artists’ books can be seen as a transnational and international medium which does not respect boundaries or borders.

Huge thanks are due to all of the contributors: Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; researchers and collectors Lucy Bell and Connie Bloomfield; artist book and zine maker Rafael Morales Cendejas; visual artist Francisca Prieto; and Beth Cooper, Curator, Latin America and the Caribbean, The British Library.

Jerry Jenkins, Curator Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media

 

15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

Volume 2 cover
Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)

 

The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.

 

Sylvia_Plath
Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

 

17 July 2018

Seeing Blindness: The Danish West Indies

When you enter the British Library exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’, you are met by a fragment of Derek Walcott’s Nobel lecture. This fragment is about fragments: ‘Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.’  Walcott evoked these postcolonial ‘African and Asiatic fragments’ in Stockholm, delivering a riven Caribbean memory that may at first glance be thought unthreatening, perhaps exotic, to a modern literary society devoted to rewarding work of ‘greatest benefit to mankind’, and to a region that has ‘successfully maintained positions as champions of minority rights and mediators in global politics’ (Fur, 18). Look a little closer and you’ll find a long and complicated history of Scandinavian-Caribbean relations. We might stay with Walcott for another moment and his epic poetic biography of Camille Pissarro, Tiepolo’s Hound (YC.2001.a.13434), which begins:

They stroll on Sundays down Dronningens Street,

Passing the bank and the small island shops

quiet as drawings, keeping from the heat

through Danish arches until the street stops

at the blue, gusting harbour, where like commas

in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.

Sea-light on the cod barrels writes: St. Thomas,

the salt breeze brings the sound of Mission slaves

chanting deliverance from all their sins

in tidal couplets of lament and answer,

the horizon underlines their origins—

Pissarros from the ghetto Braganza

who fled the white hoods of the Inquisition

for the bay’s whitecaps, for the folding cross

of a white herring gull over the Mission

droning its passages from Exodus.

Pissarro - St Thomas
Camille Pissarro, Deux femmes causant au bord de la mer, Saint Thomas, 1856. Wikimedia Commons

We are on St Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea, but at the same time we are not. Compressed into this dense image of island life are centuries of history and people—Danish, African, Creole, Sephardic Jew—so drenched in a rare sea-light that with each fresh and present vision history appears anew.  Indeed, Beatriz Llenín-Figueroa calls the poem a ‘sustained study of Caribbean light against History’ (p. 181), where History is a fixed discourse of the West wrought with uneven power dynamics. In contrast, Walcott’s focus on vision and a ‘blinding’ Caribbean light—hence the focus on painting—shows the ‘possibility for experiencing the Caribbean as if for the first time […] able to see otherwise, to find utter beauty, always in the present, in environments ravaged by “History”’ (p. 182).

Oldendorp view
A view on the Island of St. Thomas from the East, in C. G. A. Oldendorp’s Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (1777, BL 4745.c.10.)

It is perhaps no coincidence then that the Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen also chose to frame their 2017 exhibition on the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies to the U.S. in the language of light and vision. Blinde vinkler. Billeder af kolonien Dansk Vestindien (Blind Spots: Images of the Danish West Indies Colony) questions the neutrality of any Danish exhibition on its colonial past as the images produced and preserved in their collections ‘were [generally speaking] created by and for those in power’. A timely attempt to stage the partiality of colonial history, Blind Spots was accompanied by an online exhibition and a host of new digitized maps , images and newspapers.

Andersen sketch St Thomas
A 20th century view of colonial architecture on the island of St. Thomas, in Ib Andersen, Tegninger fra St. Thomas, St. Croix og St. Jan, LR.430.a.16

Denmark had a sustained presence in the Caribbean from the early 17th century and eventually the islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix were colonised, the last island becoming part of the Danish realm in 1733.  A familiar story across the Caribbean, Danish profit was ‘extracted from fertile West Indian plantations of cotton and cane by the sweat of the negro’s brow’, in the words of an early 20th century historian (Westergaard, p.156). Hans West’s 1793 survey of the islands, Bidrag til beskrivelse over Ste. Croix, med en kort udsigt over St. Thomas, St. Jean, Tortola, Spanishtown og Crabeneiland (BL 979.g.28.), can be viewed online but perhaps of more interest is the report by Moravian missionary Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp originally published in 1770, Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (1777). The Moravians —otherwise known as the Evangelical Brethren amongst other names—did not view their task in the West Indies as one of enlightenment, the Black population being too “primitive” for understanding Christianity, and rather simply tried to get the Danish subjects to accept the grace of God. In this they were successful. In spite of such condescension, Oldendorp’s account contains significant “field work” including discussions with African-born slaves in order to understand the customs and traditions of the potentially convertible population.  [See A Map of the Danish Island St. Croix in the West Indies, Maps K.Top.123.74]

While Denmark passed a law to end the slave trade in 1792, it did not come into effect until 1803, and even then the end of the trade did not stop slavery itself, which continued on the islands until all unfree were emancipated in 1848. So in 1833, we still find in the Dansk vestindisk regierings avis newspaper [BL MFM.MMISC419] advertisements for the sale of slaves. A curious publication that summarised European news in English and Danish while printing the everyday activities of the island administration, the Dansk vestindisk regierings avis could for example juxtapose, as we see in our 1833 issue, the sale of ‘Mulatto Man Johannes, a good House Servant and Coachman’ and the story of a Parisian man found dead in the Canal St Martin after having been outwitted by a cat he had indeed to drown in the same canal. The full issue can be read online courtesy of the above-mentioned digitisations.

 

Dansk Vestindisk Regerings Avis 1833 selections page 4
Selections from Dansk vestindisk regierings avis, 4 November 1833, downloaded from the Royal Danish Library Mediestream service

 Peter von Scholten, Governor General of the Danish West Indies from 1827, was sympathetic to the cause of the Black population and strove for emancipation in his years in charge, although his actions were somewhat motivated by keeping the peace, caught between a ferment of slave unrest and, equally, an agitated planter class concerned for future profits in a slave-free society. The Library has an English copy of von Scholten’s ‘Orders for the regulation of labour conditions’ from 7 May 1838 [1850.d.26.(58.)], which exemplifies this balancing act on the path towards universal freedom. It contains an order to regulate the length of the working day and a reduction of discretionary punishment, although its severity hardly amounts to a reduction at all.

Scholten Order
Orders for the regulation of labour conditions, 1838

The 19th century saw the sugar trade diversify while the yield from the Caribbean suffered at various points due to adverse conditions. The benefits of the colonies were gradually outweighed and Denmark sought to sell them on, which it eventually—after many decades of trying—did in 1917 to the U.S.A for 25 million dollars. In 1917 Waldemar Westergaard also published The Danish West Indies under Company Rule [9773.ee.1.], a historical survey of the colonies before they were absorbed by the Danish state in 1755. In it he describes the slave trade as ‘loathsome to the modern mind’ (p. 137) and African slaves as ‘the chief agency that furnished the wealth, for the control of which European nations were willing to throw down the gage of conflict and usher in titanic wars’ (p. 156).

Album_worker's home
A worker’s home on St. Croix around 1900. Photo from an album digitized by the Kongelige Bibliotek [http://www.kb.dk/images/billed/2010/okt/billeder/object300088/da/], CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0

With that description in mind, we find a notable absence of such requisite condemnation in the introduction to The Danish West Indies in Old Pictures / Dansk Vestindien I gamle billeder [W55/9366], published 50 years later for the anniversary of the sale. The curator of the exhibition of the same name, which took place on the U.S. Virgin Islands in Spring 1967, writes instead:

‘It is a fact that most Danes still have a very soft spot in their hearts for the West Indies. Perhaps it is the dream, of heat and sunshine, palm trees and exotic flowers, white coral beaches, wealthy planters and a picturesque black population which appeals to our imagination. But for the most of us it will remain a dream. Very few have the chance of making their wishes come true and visiting the paradise on earth, as it seems to use dwellers in the frozen north.’

Slaves, later in the introduction, become simply part of the mechanics of island society without much lip service being paid to the idea of exploitation. Fifty years later, with last year’s Blind Spots exhibition at the KB, it might still be the same idealized vision on show but its inherent blindness and problematic perspectival gaps are simultaneously on the pedestal, to be interrogated, complicated and decimated by alternative visions in flux.

But, let’s finish where Walcott does, returning home from literal and figurative European and painterly explorations,

‘I shall finish in a place whose only power

is the exploding spray along its coast,

its rotting asphalt and cantankerous poor

numb beyond resignation and its cost,

[…]’

And,

‘Let this last page catch the last light of Becune Point,

lengthen the arched shadows of Charlotte Amalie,

[…]’

  • - Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading

Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Brüder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (Barby: 1777)

Id., A Caribbean Mission (ed. Johann Jakob Bossard) (Ann Arbor: 1987) – translation of above.

Hans West, Bidrag til beskrivelse over Ste. Croix, med en kort udsigt over St. Thomas, St. Jean, Tortola, Spanishtown og Crabeneiland (Copenhagen: 1793)

Dansk Vestindisk Regerings Avis (Christiansted: 1833), BL MFM.MMISC419

[Peter v. Scholten], [Orders for the regulation of labour conditions] (St. Croix: 1838)

Waldemar Westergaard, The Danish West Indies under Company Rule (New York: 1917)

The Danish West Indies in Old Pictures / Dansk Vestindien I gamle billeder (U. S. Virgin Islands: 1967)

Isaac Dookhan, A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States (St. Thomas: 1974), BL X.800/25025

Ib Andersen, Tegninger fra St. Thomas, St. Croix og St. Jan (Copenhagen: 1976)

Neville A. T. Hall, Slave Society in the Danish West Indies (Mona; Cave Hill; St. Augustine: 1992/1994), 96/16886

Derek Walcott, Tiepolo’s Hound (London: 2000)

Beatriz Llenín-Figueroa, ‘“The Island Blazed”: A Blinding Light and Tiepolo's Hound’, Journal of Latin American cultural studies, vol. 23:2, pp. 173-191, 2014

24 November 2017

Martha Gellhorn: The Reporter as a Young Poet

What makes juvenilia so fascinating? When reading the works written by an author in their youth one often looks for glimpses of the ideas and obsessions they would later develop in their works. But it sometimes also feels like a small betrayal, to read these raw texts written before authors have developed their voice, or met the red pen of an editor. There is something about teenage poetry that makes it particularly excruciating – perhaps because it awakens a dormant fear that one day someone may find our own ring-bound poetry notebook in the bottom of a drawer. It is hard however to resist the temptation to see what war reporter Martha Gellhorn was like when she was 17.

759px-Martha_Gellhorn_stamp (1)
Martha Gellhorn postage stamp. Part of the 2008 American Journalists stamp series (Source: US Postal Service via Wikimedia Commons)

As a star correspondent for the American magazine Collier’s Weekly during the late 1930s and 1940s, Martha Gellhorn became well known for her first-person chronicles of the Second World War. Gellhorn covered the principal fronts during the conflict, and wrote a memorable report on the liberation of the Dachau camp for Collier’s in 1945. Gellhorn had started her career as a war reporter in Spain during the civil war, and went on to cover most major twentieth century conflicts, including the Vietnam War. Her best journalistic writing is collected in The Face of War (1959) [9104.d.10.].

Gellhorn’s life, and especially her turbulent marriage to Ernest Hemingway, has been fictionalised in different genres, from our Eccles Writers in Residence Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to the less successful HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn.

Before she became well known for her reporting and ruthless commentary however, Gellhorn was writing poetry. From 1923 she attended the newly founded John Burroughs School in her native St Louis, Missouri. The school was a coeducational and progressive institution for the time. The British Library holds an issue of the John Burroughs Review [ZD.9.a.2618], the school magazine where Gellhorn published her first works. The magazine was published five times a year by the students of the school and Gellhorn was part of the board of editors.

JBReview

The John Burroughs School Review is an impressive publication for a high school magazine, with a modernist cover designed by Clark Smith.  The November 1925 issue contained poems, short stories and book reviews, as well as adverts for local businesses.  Gellhorn was 17 when the magazine printed a sequence of six poems titled ‘Bits of Glass’, three of which are reproduced below:

Bitsofglass1
The John Burroughs Review, November 1925 (extract from page 16)

Gellhorn was fiercely protective of her reputation. She banned the reprinting of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical work What Mad Pursuit, published in 1934 (the Library holds a copy at YD.2012.a.2572 - read more about it in Naomi Wood's blog post). But despite Gellhorn’s and many other writers’ anxiety about their early attempts at writing, these texts will always remain fascinating for readers who want to find out how and when they became the writers they admire.

Now remember to hide that notebook the next time you visit your parents’ house.

 

Mercedes Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

American Collections blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs