16 June 2022
We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published its first Caribbean-focused bibliographic guide: Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974, by Naomi Oppenheim.
Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974 is the unexpected outcome of research conducted for my doctoral thesis, ‘“Writing the Wrongs”: Caribbean Publishing in Post-war Britain from a Historical Perspective’. This thesis uses publishing as a channel to explore socio-political transformations and the relationship between print and politics. The bibliography emerged from what I had initially assumed would be a quick research exercise in which I’d call up a selection of nineteenth and twentieth-century Caribbean publications in order to garner a sense of key publishers. It soon became a much more ambitious task!
In essence, I decided to go on a mission to locate everything in the British Library collections that was published in Barbados, British Guiana, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, between 1800 and their respective independences: 1966, 1970, 1974, 1962 and 1962, excluding Government Printing Office publications. This entailed creative navigations of the online catalogue, using a combination of territories, cities and date ranges.
Although the bibliography began as personal research endeavour for my thesis, doing a PhD Placement with the Eccles Centre at the British Library – where I worked on the Caribbean Foodways project – meant that I had time to continue working on it with guidance from the Centre’s staff and thus turn it into a public resource. By the end of the project, I had tracked down over 500 books, many of which I had called up and looked at, driven by the curiosity that a sparse catalogue record provokes.
I believe that books are vessels for producing knowledge about history, culture, politics and the nation. My interest in the Caribbean publishing landscape as a lens to understand societal and cultural shifts motivated me to create a detailed subject index for the bibliography: I wanted to know what types of books were being published, by who, and when. I divided this subject index into 11 categories – including Cultural, Economics, Geography and Space, History, Literature, Slavery, Travel and Tourism, and Religion – and I gave each of them multiple sub-categories. The index reveals that history texts, which were the most popular genre, account for a quarter of all books published between 1800 and 1974. Likewise, a quarter are literary - poetry, fiction, memoir, folktales and plays.
As well as aiding British Library users’ navigation of the Caribbean collection, this subject index also helps us to understand historiographical, literary and print trends. And there is
a list of more than 50 digitised items that are accessible from the comfort of your home, local library or school.
Publishing was hugely important in shaping ideas of the Caribbean through articulations of history, literature and vernacular language: whether it’s Frank Cundall’s prolific writing about Jamaican bibliography, biography and history, published by the Institute of Jamaica in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries [Fig. 1], Claude McKay’s Songs of Jamaica (1915) [Fig. 2], or Eric Williams’ self-published Historical Background of Race-Relations in the Caribbean (1955).1
Published in Kingston in 1912 by Aston W. Gardner & Co., Songs of Jamaica is one of the earliest printed examples of Creole poetry. The introduction was written by Walter Jekyll, a planter who had a keen interest in collecting the songs and stories of the Jamaican peasantry, writing works that reproduced and appropriated this folk culture such as Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes (1907).2 Jekyll classified Jamaican Creole as a ‘feminine version of our masculine language’ and introduced the volume as offering ‘the thoughts and feelings of a Jamaican peasant of pure black blood.’ Despite his deeply essentializing and gendered framing of McKay’s poetry, Songs of Jamaica gives us insight into the early blossoming of Creole literature and the profound importance of publishing as a vehicle to express and circulate vernacular cultures. Published during a period of proto-nationalist sentiment – the Jamaican National Club was founded by Sandy Cox in 1910 – the book was indicative of a Caribbean, especially Jamaican, publishing boom that signified shifts in terms of author, language and audience.
Caribbean Publishing contains all of these works and a plethora of riches, yet like any research guide, it has its limitations. Publishers across the British Empire were required by law to send copies of all published works to the British Museum, so, technically the British Library should hold a copy of everything that was published in the Caribbean before independence. Yet, this is not the case, for several reasons to do with collecting and archiving. For example, ephemeral publications – which likely included radical, unofficial and DIY pamphlets – would have escaped legal deposit, thereby never becoming part of the collection. And even once items had arrived safely, they were vulnerable to loss, damage and destruction. For example, many of the cookbooks in the bibliography, including Caroline Sullivan’s The Jamaica Cookery Book: Three Hundred and Twelve Simple Cookery Receipts and Household Hints (Kingston: A. W. Gardner & Co., 1893) and 100 Jamaica Recipes (Kingston: Gleaner Co., 1934), were destroyed by bomb damage to the Museum during World War II. Despite these gaps, I hope that this bibliography will support further study of Caribbean publishing, book history, literature, and any of the subjects covered in this extensive guide.
I would like to end by noting that it was thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s student development fund that I was able to do a placement at the Eccles Centre focusing on Caribbean collections. And I would like to thank all of the wonderful Eccles Team!
Dr. Naomi Oppenheim
1. Eric Williams, The Historical Background of Race Relations in the Caribbean. Trinidad: [s.n.], 1955; British Library shelfmark: Document Supply W9/3965.
2. Walter Jekyll, Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes. London: Published for the Folk-Lore Society by David Nutt, 1907; British Library shelfmark: Ac.9938/24.
20 April 2022
In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.
My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.
What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.
As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.
Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.
Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).
Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.
Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.
But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.
26 January 2022
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this post contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.
On the evening of 26 January 1972, four men set up a beach umbrella on the lawn opposite Parliament House (now known as Old Parliament House) on Ngunnawal Country in Canberra and established the Aboriginal tent embassy. The four men, Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie, and Bert Williams, erected a handmade sign claiming the site as the 'Aboriginal Embassy' and became the first occupants of the longest continual protest site for Indigenous sovereignty and land rights. Numerous, and often violent, attempts since 1972 to remove the embassy have ultimately failed and it remains a site of continued resistance. In recognition of its significance to Australian history, the site was included on the Commonwealth Heritage List in 2015. This blog will look at some of the poetry and prose which inspired or was inspired by the Aboriginal tent embassy.
In 1962, the poet, educator and activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, prepared a poem for the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement in Adelaide. Entitled Aboriginal Charter of Rights, the poem gave voice to the feelings of Aboriginal people, articulating them in 44 lines for the rest of Australia in a way that they had not heard before. Noonuccal, a descendant of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), uses short, sharp, repetitive lines to make clear the disparity between demands of basic human rights and the current conditions imposed on Aboriginal people:
We want hope, not racialism,
Brotherhood, not ostracism,
Black advance, not white ascendance:
Make us equals, not dependants (Noonuccal, 1962).
Aboriginal Charter of Rights was subsequently published in her first book of poems We are going: poems (Jacaranda Press, 1964, shelfmark X.900/2567.); the first collection of verse published by an Aboriginal poet. The poem reverberated in the Aboriginal rights demonstrations of the 1960s, fueling a growing civil rights awareness amongst students and leading to the 1965 Freedom Ride. Aboriginal Charter of Rights nears an end with Noonuccal asking "Must we native Old Australians, In our own land rank as aliens?".
Noonuccal's words were revisited by Gary Foley, the Gumbainggir activist and academic, who played a key role in the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy. In the 2014 edited collection of writing on the tent embassy, The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State (Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107), Foley recalls the decision to name the protest site an embassy was to reflect how Aboriginal people were treated as "aliens in their own land" and so, like other aliens, needed an embassy of their own. However this embassy wouldn't be a grand government building like the one across the lawn, but one which would reflect the living conditions of Aboriginals; a simple tent which Bobbi Sykes designated "Hope's ragged symbol" in the liberal newspaper Nation Review in 1972.
Bobbi (or Roberta) Sykes was a writer, activist, and the first black Australian to attend Harvard University in the US. She became the executive secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. Her piece in the Nation Review begins by outlining the symbolism of the tent:
From the first, the Aboriginal embassy represented the people. It was an embarrassment to the government same as the people are. It was poor and shabby just like the people. For many of the residents who passed through and stayed for a while it was more luxurious than their own homes despite the cold, the lack of facilities, the constant need for money, for food. The embassy was everything that the people still are (Sykes, 1972, 165).
and continues with her personal account of the multiple, violent clashes with police who attempted to remove the protesters and tent from the site; "I was hurled to the ground on several occasions, and walked over by heavy cop boots. 'The whole world's watching, the whole world's watching' we chanted". Sykes later revisits these struggles from 1972 in a haunting description of the tent being torn down in the second volume of her autobiography, Snake Dancing (1998, Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826). Bobbi Sykes was instrumental in publicising the fight for Aboriginal rights to an international audience and inspired many others to do the same.
In her 1998 speech for International Women's Day in Sydney, the Wiradjuri woman and activist Isobel Coe declared:
Now the Aboriginal tent Embassy is all about Sovereignty, this is Aboriginal land, always was and always will be and we are there to tell the truth about Sovereignty. [...] The time has come for us to sit down, we’re mothers, we’re grandmothers aunt’s we’re sisters and we all have a common goal and we all have a stake in this country because we all have children and if we are to go into the next century in peace and harmony we have to address the sovereignty issue. That dirty word that no-one wants to talk about, Aboriginal Sovereignty (Coe, 1998).
Another 'dirty' word in her speech that Coe, a prominent figure at the Aboriginal tent embassy, wanted to get people to talk about was genocide, "We are the first people, not just of this country but of the world and that recognition hasn’t come [...] and when there is another genocide you people [...] will be a part of the conspiracy to commit genocide now!". In 1998 Coe, along with three others, applied to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory to get the crime of genocide recognised as a crime in Australian law. The application was dismissed and the words in her speech here reflect the shared frustration among Aboriginal people that 26 years have passed since the embassy was established and little progress has been made.
One year later in 1999, that frustration is echoed by the essayists Felicia Fletcher and John Leonard in Australia Day at the Aboriginal tent embassy; an evocative account in the literary journal, Meanjin, of the corroboree ceremony for Aboriginal sovereignty which took place on Australia Day at the embassy in 1999 (58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn.). The piece oscillates between descriptions of the ceremony itself, which involved merging water and fire; "All day the smoke continued to billow out over Parliamentary Triangle; fragrant wood-smoke blowing over the non-native trees and formal gardens", and bitter humour:
'Dear Aboriginal people/s, I hereby enclose your citizenship rights. I have retained my rights to dispossess you of your land. Making a fuss will not prove worthwhile because we are many and you are few. Our God is now your God. Enjoy. Goodbye erstwhile companions of my explorers, and thanks for all the land' (Fletcher & Leonard, 1999, 13).
Canberra poet, Paul Cliff, who has co-published with Oodgeroo Noonuccal, similarly employed a particularly ignorant, non-Indigenous voice to great effect in his poem, Tent Embassy, Winter (Parliament House Lawn, Canberra) which features in his 2002 collection The Impatient World (Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502). In this short but striking poem, Cliff takes the position of an outsider looking in: "Frost grips the tents [...] 9am: and no one's stirred. Is that -- traditional?". This question brings us to one of the final writers to feature in this blog; Lionel Fogarty.
The poetry of Lionel Fogarty, Murri poet and activist, subverts the question of what might be considered 'traditional'. Described by poet, John Kinsella as ‘the greatest living Australian poet’, Fogarty's work is abstract, radical, and at times indecipherable through his mutinous approach to traditional grammatical structures. His poetry draws inspiration from Oodgeroo Noonuccal and is directly informed by his involvement in Aboriginal activism since the 1970s. His 2015 collection Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land (Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977) includes the poem Tent Embassy 1971-2021 as well as number of his own drawings which push and pull at the reader. Mogwie-Idan ends with the poem Power Lives in the Spears:
Power live in the spears
Power live in the worries
Power air in the didgeridoo
Power run on the people heart
Bear off the power come from the land (Fogarty, 2015)
Fogarty's words here are reminiscent of the closing lines of Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a poem from the Wiradjuri poet, playwright, printmaker and activist, Kevin Gilbert, which features in his award-winning 1994 collection Black from the edge (Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312.). Gilbert was instrumental in the continual occupation of the tent embassy site and spent the final year of his life there. A memorial was held at the embassy for him following his death in 1993. Gilbert's poem, Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, begins with the lines; "We see them, shoulders hunched, standing in the rain", and pays homage to the undiminished, and vital, flames of anger and hope in those who have kept the Aboriginal tent embassy site running for fifty years. The poems ends with the following lines which feel an appropriate way to conclude this blog post:
human spirit flames for love
to light the pages of history
with their heroic form (Gilbert, 1994, 30).
Pay attention,"The whole world's watching."
Lucy Rowland, Oceania Curator
Cliff, P. (2002). The Impatient World. N.S.W. : Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502
Coe, I (1998). Speech for the virtual tour Sydney 1998 IWD. [Online] Available at: http://www.isis.aust.com/iwd/docos/tour98/coe.htm
Fletcher, F., & Leonard, J. (1999). Australia Day at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Meanjin, 58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn. Also available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.898736456225388
Fogarty, L. (2015). Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land. Newtown, NSW : Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977
Foley, G. (2014). A reflection on the first thirty days of the embassy. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
Gilbert, K. (1988). Inside Black Australia : an anthology of Aboriginal poetry. Harmondsworth : Penguin, published with the assistance of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Shelfmark YH.1989.a.6
Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312
Sykes, R. (1972). Bobbi Sykes 'Hope's ragged symbol' Nation Review, 29 July-4 August 1972. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. 165-168. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826
Walker, K. (1964). We are going: poems. Brisbane : Jacaranda Press. Shelfmark X.900/2567.
Watson, I. (2000). Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 28 years after it was established [Interview with Isobell Coe by Watson, Irene.]. Indigenous Law Bulletin, 5(1), 17–18. Available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/ielapa.200104820
23 November 2021
The British Library’s Caribbean Collections recently acquired a beautifully compact volume of poetry by the writer John Agard.
Shoot Me with Flowers was the writer’s first collection of poetry which he self-published in his birth home Guyana.
Jon Purday, a retired British Library staff member who volunteers with Oxfam in Boroughbridge, Harrogate spotted Shoot Me with Flowers in October and contacted the Library. Once catalogued, the book will be available for enjoyment and research.
While surprisingly inexpensive, the little book is a big treasure for the British Library. It is also a personal highlight for a couple of reasons: my appointment as Curator of the Caribbean Collections began in September and John Agard is someone I have known for some years! We saw each other some days after the Oxfam find and I told him that the BL would be acquiring Shoot Me with Flowers to which his proud response was “Self-published you know!”
Earlier this month within a day of the Harrogate Advertiser running an article on the discovery and subsequent acquisition of Shoot Me with Flowers, John Agard became the first poet to win the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. An apt turn up for the books!
Nicole-Rachelle Moore is the British Library's Curator for its Caribbean Collections
Images by Nicole-Rachelle Moore 2021
26 October 2021
We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published a new Americas-focused bibliographic guide: US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings (just scroll down a little to find it!)
This guide grew out of a conversation in late 2019 with then-Head of the Centre, Phil Hatfield, who had recently pledged financial support towards the cataloguing of a backlog of US fine press publications. A large number of these works – produced on old-fashioned hand-presses by contemporary printers – had been acquired by our curatorial colleagues in the previous 15 years. Phil rightly noted that without some kind of check-list or guide, it would be almost impossible for Library Readers, now or in the future, to appreciate the depth and richness of these holdings.
Initially, the guide was just going to list the works that were then being catalogued. This suited me perfectly since at that point I honestly didn’t understand the time, money and effort that my colleagues had devoted to obtaining these items! Thankfully, as I immersed myself in this world, my appreciation grew – both for the beauty, originality and boundary-pushing nature of the items themselves, and for the imagination and skill of their printers. And as my appreciation increased, so too did the scope of this project. After discovering P.A.H. Brown’s Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library (London, 1976) it seemed sensible to push our own guide’s start date back to 1965.1 And as it became apparent that several post-war presses had been omitted from Brown, so we pushed that date back even further, to 1945.
The first step in tracking down these presses was to search the Library’s catalogue. Covid-19 related Library closures, combined with often-minimal cataloguing data, made it difficult to verify many of the items’ fine press credentials in person. Thankfully, however, online access to rare bookseller and auction websites made it possible, slowly but surely, to determine whether an item was hand-printed and whether a press had been founded after World War II.
In total, items by more than 180 such presses were found in the Library’s collection. More than 160 of these presses started after 1965 and – incredibly – more than 90 were established between 1965-1980. This fifteen-year period truly was a golden era for hand-press printing in the United States – a cultural phenomenon which seems entirely in-tune with that counter-cultural moment. Crucially, too, this was the point at which graduates from the recently established university book arts programmes began founding fine presses of their own.
Researching the emergence and development of these presses was absolutely fascinating. Time and again it showed me the profound impact that great teachers can have not only on individuals, but on an entire creative landscape. For this reason, in addition to listing the names of these presses and some of their works, the guide offers a short ‘biography’ of each of press, including, where possible: the name of the press’s founder(s); the founder’s training and/or education and mentor; how long the press was in operation; how it developed over time; any speciality in subject matter or genre; any change in location; the type of equipment used; and whether it made its own paper. After this ‘biography’, the full details of up to ten works are listed for every press. And at the end of the guide there is a geographic index to the presses, arranged by US state.
I hope this guide will prove useful to all those working in this field. And for those who are not, I hope it will offer an insight into a lesser-known aspect of the Library’s Americas holdings.
- Philip A.H. Brown, Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library. London: British Museum Publications Ltd for the Library, 1976. Shelfmark: Open Access Rare Books and Music 094.4016 ENG; General Reference Collection 2708.aa.36; Document Supply 78/9820.
24 April 2020
Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues. In 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!
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!
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.*
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.
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.
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,
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
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
Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137]
Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project
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
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
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 (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.
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).
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.
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)
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:
¿Máax ku tich’ik chuchul uaj yétel u xdzik k’ab,
ku jósik u xnoj k’ab u tial u jadz?
Pek’ má ta p’atik a yúmil,
Pek’ má 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 ní ti uínik,
tiólal u yusnítik utz yan chen tu k’ab chichán pal.
majant a dzaay tí uínik,
tiólal u chíik u túkul.
Who is he who holds out the stale tortilla with his left hand
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.
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)
Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137]
Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project here
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
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
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:
24 March 2020
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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