English and Drama blog

19 March 2021

Contemporary Poetry at the Library: A Quick Start Guide

A collaborative blog from colleagues across Contemporary British Collections for World Poetry Day.

The British Library is privileged to hold and make available for study manuscripts, archives and publications relating to world-renowned poems and poetry, from Beowulf to Jalal al-Din Rumi, Chaucer, to John Donne, Rabindranath Tagore to T.S Eliot and from Una Marson to Ted Hughes. But for World Poetry Day this year we thought we’d do something a little bit different and shine a light on some of our efforts to collect and promote Britain’s vibrant, diverse and endlessly shifting contemporary poetry scene; bringing together colleagues working with Archives and Manuscripts, Contemporary Published Collections, Sound and Vision and the UK Web Archive.

By working together, and with practicing poets, independent publishers and others, we have been able to capture some of the most interesting work going on in Britain today – but there’s still much more to do. If you’re a poet or if you’ve used any of our poetry collections in your work – or even if you’ve just felt inspired -- please let us know on Twitter @BLEnglish_Drama, we’d love to hear more.

Contemporary British Publications

Debbie Cox, Lead Curator of Contemporary Publications

So, first of all, I’d like to highlight the latest Michael Marks Awards and all the submitted poetry pamphlets which are now part of our collections. You can read about the shortlisted pamphlets here. The winning pamphlet was Paul Muldoon’s Binge (Lifeboat Press) but all of the shortlisted poets read a poem aloud for the Award presentation, available to view in full here. 

Logo for Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

Overall, it was an incredibly strong year for the prize, but my personal favourite poem at the event was Gail McConnell's reading from ‘Fothermather’, which comes in at 1 hour and 8 minutes. The winner of the Celtic Language pamphlet reading starts things off in the video around the 1 hour mark (with an English translation on-screen for all the non-Welsh speakers who might be interested).

Following on the topical theme of online events recorded to view at your pleasure, the Library also hosted the PEN Pinter Prize, which is available to watch in full here. Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the prize, which is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination... to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. Kwesi Johnson read two poems at the event, ‘Sonny’s Letter’ in the video from 15:14 onwards and ‘New Cross Massacre’ from 20:38. (For more context around this, take a look at the blog I wrote over on Social Sciences about the Black People’s Day of Action that followed the New Cross fire, and some of the resources we pulled together to mark the anniversary of the Day of Action).

Another Library event featuring contemporary poets was a Diwan to celebrate the poetry of Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.  Poets Simon Barraclough, Dzifa Benson, Nancy Campbell, João Concha, Kirsten Irving, Ricardo Marques, Peter McCarey and Richard Price read Morgan's poems and each responded with a work of their own.    Building on our events programme in Yorkshire, another of the Library’s online events still available to watch is Spoken Word Showcase with Studio 12 and Sunday Practise. Sunday Practise is a leading grassroots poets, DJs, musicians and vibes night from Leeds that represents a wide cultural perspective of women poets in the UK.

The last – but by no means least – of the poetry events available to watch online this year was the Forward Prize, which the Library also hosted and which is now available to view in full.

Portrait of Linton Kwesi Johnson, seatedThis year at the PEN Pinter Prize, Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the prize, gave and address and read two poems.

If I had to highlight a single poetry collection to recommend for English and Drama Blog readers, though, it’d be Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s Postcolonial Banter (Verve Poetry Press, 2019). A recording of her poem ‘This is not a humanising poem’ from the collection is featured in the Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. ‘Ranging from critiquing racism, systemic Islamophobia, the function of the nation-state and rejecting secularist visions of identity’, Verve Poetry Press writes "She interrogates narratives around race/ism, Islamophobia, gender, feminism, state violence and decoloniality in Britain."  Her words made a powerful contribution to Unfinished Business.

Book jacket for Postcolonial Banter by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan


Sound Archive

by Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Sound Recordings

The Library’s Sound Archive holds many hundreds of unique recordings of live poetry readings, which are (or soon will be again, rather) available to listen to in our Reading Rooms. The range is vast: from Sylvia Plath recorded live in London in 1961 – one of the earliest live recordings we made – to 10 years of Poetry Society events in the 1980s, which really are fascinating for anybody interested in contemporary poetry. We should also mention the Library’s live recording arrangement with Poet in the City, which is temporarily on hold – of course – because of the pandemic, but we will be excited to get it up and running again.

5- Poet in the City

For copyright reasons, most of our recordings may only be listened to on British Library premises, but we are working to increase online access, most notably through our Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. An enhanced ‘sounds’ web site will be unveiled later in the year.  For now, the following collections of contemporary poetry are available to listen to online: Between Two Worlds: Poetry and Translation and The Power of Caribbean Poetry: Word and Sound

  A woman controls the sound levels of a recording using an analogue mixing deskThe Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project – part of the Save our Sounds programme – aims to preserve and provide access to thousands of the UK's rare and unique sound recordings: not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections across the UK.



UK Web Archive

Carlos Rarugal, Assistant Web Archivist at the UK Web Archive

At the UK Web Archive we collect millions of websites each year, preserving them for future generations. Literary work is of particular interest, especially since so many of these conversations move to be partly or even primarily online. We even produce curated collections of websites, organised by theme, for researchers. For those interested in contemporary poetry, the Poetry Zines and Journals Collection is invaluable.


6- Zines and JournalsThe Web Archive's collection of UK-based online poetry journals and magazines is concerned with contemporary responses to the increasing ubiquity of the internet and networked culture as Poetry communities are increasingly emerging out of and operating within digital spaces.

Some especially notable poetry websites which we actively archive, and which are available at home through Open Access, are:


Archives and Manuscripts

Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives

Collecting contemporary archival or manuscript material presents a number of challenges, the main one being that we usually acquire this material towards the end of a donor’s career – when it represents as much as possible a complete record of a life’s work. This means that our collections have a certain amount of ‘lag’ built in.

Nevertheless, these collections provide a crucial insight into the development of key trends in contemporary British poetry at the level of the poets themselves, their publishers and influential magazines.  As ever, Discovering Literature 20th Century remains an invaluable resource for contemporary literature across all genres, especially whilst our buildings are closed and especially for viewing digitised manuscript material. However, our buildings won’t be closed forever, so see below for what’s available when we’re up and running again.

Some interesting personal collections available in the Manuscripts Reading Room include papers relating to:

  • Al Alvarez, who – among other things -- edited the highly influential anthology The New Poetry: Beyond the Gentility Principle (1962) (Add MS 88482-88611)
  • James Berry, a Jamaican-British poet, childrens’ writer and teacher whose work explores the relationship between language, identity and empire. (Currently being catalogued but delayed due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, material is available to view on request by e-mail (mss@bl.uk) or take a look at an earlier English and Drama Blog for more details.
  • John Betjeman, Poet Laureate from 1972-1984 and writer of wry, humorous accessible verse well loved by poets and the public alike, unless you happen to be from Slough! (Add MS 71935-71937)
  • Bob Cobbing, legendary sound, visual, concrete and performance poet and publisher central to the British Poetry Revival (Add MS 88909
  • Wendy Cope, writer of poignant and comic collections of satirical verse such as the highly lauded Making Cocoa With Kingsley Amis (1986), Serious Concerns (1992) and Family Values (2011)
  • David Gascoyne, poet and translator associated with surrealism and involved in the Mass Observation movement. (Add MS 89011)
  • Lee Harwood, another poet associated with the British Poetry Revival who worked in experimental forms – referencing visual arts techniques such as collage (Add MS 88998)

And some key collections relating to publishers and magazines working within mainstream and independent poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century onwards are:

  • Peter Hodgkiss - Galloping Dog Press, Poetry Information and Not Poetry (Add MS 89404)
  • Macmillan & Co, 19th-20th century Poets and Dramatists (Add MS 54974-55014)
  • Poetry Book Society (Add MS 88984)
  • Wasafiri Magazine of International Contemporary Writing (uncatalogued but available to see on request mss@bl.uk)