08 April 2020
by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. For more information about the challenges and opportunities posed by born-digital material elsewhere in the Library, see the Digital Scholarship Blog and the extensive work of the Library's Digital Preservation Department.
I. Capturing a Moving Target
If you’re adjusting to working from home, look around your working area: maybe you have a home office or you’ve repurposed the dining table, or you're out in the garden. Did anyone in your team — when making the move — scramble to transport the filing cabinets or stacks of unsorted paper that had accumulated on their desks to their new workspace? If not, this is sufficient evidence that the way a lot of us work has radically changed; a platitude that doesn’t get less true with repetition. Your computer (and, more often than not, the network) has at least partially relegated or replaced the paper in your professional life with ‘Digital Objects’ — a useful but deceptively complex archival term — defined by the Society of American Archivists as, “a unit of information that includes properties (attributes or characteristics of the object) and may also include methods (means of performing operations on the object)”. If the word ‘object’ seems ontologically insufficient to carry such a definition, with its emphasis on process, relationship, and contingency, then this is part of the problem we’re facing. (Archivists — and traditional archival methodologies — have a clear (and often justified) tendency to fetishise permanence and fixity).
This shift towards the ‘digital’ is no less dramatic in the personal archives of the novelists, poets and playwrights collected by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts department at the Library, whose historical remit (c.1950-) traces the rapidly evolving landscape of personal computing in the latter half of the twentieth century and the explosion of the internet and social media, which is by no means complete, in the twenty-first. This shifting landscape means that, more often than not, we collect ‘hybrid’ archives comprised of traditional paper material and — depending on the donor’s enthusiasm for new forms of technology — a variety of digital formats, including floppy-disks, CD-ROMs, spinning hard-drives, USB sticks, and even laptop computers. Creative writers are, much more-so than institutions, academics and scientists, given to superstition and mysticism regarding the tools of their trade. Most are methodologically conservative and eager to link their ability to produce work to their idiosyncratic habits and tools. (On this blog, Chris Beckett’s discussion of Will Self’s use of post-it notes and typewriters in one of our most significant hybrid archives is an excellent case-study of how complex these interrelationships can become).
A double-sided Amsoft branded Compact floppy disk from the Archive of poet Wendy Cope, dated 1989.
What becomes apparent when attempting to capture, preserve, arrange and fix these ‘Digital Objects’ is that an undeniable materiality — often partially erased by the term ‘digital’ — is fundamental to their structure. The history of computing is a history of design miracles, both technical and aesthetic. Recovering a long-forgotten Word Perfect file from an Amstrad Floppy Disk is an archeological task, demanding attention to the structure and format of the data, its physical housing, and the software-codex able to make sense of it. Like a dig, it requires sensitive excavation equipment capable of moving the object without altering or destroying it. Similarly, capturing a hard-drive demands knowledge of how it reads, writes and stores data mechanically in order that when we act upon it we capture everything (including, interestingly, apparently empty space) and disturb as little as possible. (In a strange turn, archivists have learned to use software and hardware first developed by law-enforcement for these and other tasks).
A Kryoflux machine reads a 3.5” floppy disk using magnetic resonance technology to achieve a complete capture where possible, often helping us to recover partially-corrupted legacy data.
II. Representing exchange
Next to draft material, correspondence is another major component of the traditional literary archive. The movement from paper to digital has been just as pronounced in this area too, with e-mail becoming the dominant mode of communication for the vast majority of our donors. Unsurprisingly, the collection of e-mail archives presents its own challenges, both technical and curatorial. In much the same way that a letter might come to us within an envelope, an e-mail message is held within a machine-readable envelope — from which it is possible to glean similar kinds of data about sender, receiver, the path which the messaged travelled through on its journey from one to the other. All of this data must be preserved in order to retain the integrity of the archival collection, but much of it must also be withheld from public access for a significant period of time in order to comply with legal restrictions relating to the use of personal data.
A side by side metadata comparison of a letter and an e-mail. The envelope sent by Samuel Beckett to B.S. Johnson contains critical metadata about dates and receiver, as well as about the French post-offices through which the letter travelled before reaching Johnson. The e-mail metadata contains much of the same information (highlighted) in a machine-readable format.
As well as these technical challenges, the preservation and access provision for e-mail archives must take into account its threaded nature — its a conversation and so is not particularly amenable to the archival logic of ‘deliverable units' which guides our approach to paper manuscripts. Additionally, any robust archival process must consider e-mail's increased tendency to include rich media; including attachments such as word-processing files, images and sometimes even audiovisual material. The scale of the challenge for collecting institutions is huge. The largest e-mail archive held at the Library, (of the poet Wendy Cope, comprised of around 25,000 individual messages) contains everything from family correspondence, professional booking requests, draft revisions and shopping lists. Making sure that this material complies with data protection regulation in the UK before it is released is obviously a considerable task. Fortunately, software tools like ePadd, an e-mail archiving tool developed at Stanford University, exist to alleviate some of the issues; allowing us to filter and process messages more efficiently through the implementation of a tool-assisted approach.
ePadd’s user friendly interface allows curators to filter messages by correspondent, attachment and assign user-generated labels.
III. Managing Scale
Scale is a double-edged for born-digital literary archives. The growing size of these collections undoubtedly renders some established archival cataloguing techniques inadequate. Equally, as the the kinds of media stored on consumer-level storage devices become more complex, traditional techniques for information organisation and control become either too labour intensive or impossible to adapt to this new context. Nevertheless, the scale of structured metadata available for these new kinds of collection items allows us to explore new techniques for data visualisation and ‘enhanced curation’ in ways that would be impossible for more traditional archival collections.
Examples of how structured metadata can allow us to visualise and compile data in interesting ways using computing languages such as Python. The bar graph shows a time distribution for files in the Virago archive, with the 24 hour clock on the x axis and number of files on the y axis. The text describes some statistics and metrics for the same archive.
The processing, preservation and access provision for born digital literary archives is very much still an open field. The future is uncertain, but consequently still very exciting. Although there are many challenges ahead, if we are willing and able to leverage the technology, there are innumerable new discoveries to be made about the collections we hold, some of which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. In this way, our driving motivation for born-digital is no different than it is for paper -- to preserve, interpret and provide access to our collections for the inspiration and enjoyment of everyone.
12 November 2019
A celebratory conference placing Andrew Salkey’s legacy in the modern moment and exploring the Caribbean diasporic networks of today will be held at The Knowledge Centre, The British Library, London on Saturday 20th June 2020.
- Professor Robert A. Hill, leading scholar on Marcus Garvey and Research Professor, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles
- Professor Nadia Ellis, author of Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora, English Department, University of California, Berkeley
Writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey became a central figure in a circle of Caribbean writers, artists and intellectuals when he moved to London from Jamaica in the 1950s, later co-founding the Caribbean Artists Movement and dedicating his life to literary activism across the Caribbean diaspora. While his achievements and influence were widely acknowledged in his own lifetime, his name is less-well-known today. Twenty-five years on from Salkey’s death, this conference seeks to retrieve his legacy and to open up questions about today’s Caribbean diasporic networks. How have they changed? Are the same questions from the past still important today?
Born in Panama in 1928 and raised in Jamaica, Andrew Salkey was a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster and academic. He embodied the Black Radical Tradition as a member of the League of Coloured Peoples and the Movement for Colonial Freedom; as an author and folklorist; and in his support for revolutionary Cuba and the freedom struggles of Guyana and Chile. Salkey was the main presenter and writer-in-residence in the Caribbean section of the BBC World Service giving a platform for a generation of writers including Sam Selvon, George Lamming and V S Naipaul through its ‘Caribbean Voices’ programme. He was influential in the British publishing industry, recommending V S Naipaul and Wilson Harris to Andre Deutsch and Faber & Faber respectively, championing women writers such as Beryl Gilroy, and supporting Bogle L'Ouverture and New Beacon Books in their pioneering roles as the first publishing houses for Black writing in Britain. In 1966, he co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement alongside Kamau Brathwaite and John La Rose. From 1976 until his death in 1995, Salkey lived in the US and worked as Professor of Creative Writing at Hampshire College in Amherst. His life and work have been seen as embodying the Black Radical Tradition.
Dubbed the unofficial archivist of the Caribbean cultural scene by his friend Sam Selvon, he preserved not only his own literary drafts, diaries and wide-ranging correspondence, but also rare printed ephemera, news cuttings, project files and sound recordings. The Andrew Salkey Archive will be open to researchers at the British Library from autumn 2020.
We are currently accepting abstracts for 15-minute papers from scholars and early career researchers with an interest in Caribbean diaspora studies. We encourage paper proposals from a wide variety of institutions. We also welcome papers from writers, artists, performers, activists and archivists.
Themes to consider:
- The works of Andrew Salkey
- Literary and cultural networks across the Diaspora – past and present
- Women’s writing and activism
- The Caribbean Artists Movement
- Diasporic communication, languages and idioms
- Expressions of home, belonging, exile, transnationality
- Radical Politics, Black Radical Aesthetics, human liberation
- The politics of the archive, memory and erasure, the ethics of dispersed and contested archives, Decolonising the Archive
- New media, broadcasting, publishing, literary festivals
A British Library conference in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, Goldsmiths MA in Black British Writing and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library
Access bursaries of up to £250 will be available to delegates not in permanent employment to help with travel and/or childcare costs. Details of how to apply will be shared with applicants once paper acceptances have been circulated. The bursaries have been made available through support from the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. Any enquiries about the bursaries should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abstracts for papers and enquiries should be sent by e-mail to Eleanor Casson, Eleanor.Casson@bl.uk
Deadline for abstracts: Monday 27th January 2020
Decisions announced: March 2020
29 October 2019
By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. The catalogue will be made available in Autumn 2020. The British Library, in collaboration with The Eccles Centre and Goldsmiths, University of London, are also planning a conference celebrating Andrew Salkey’s legacy and exploring the Caribbean diasporic networks of today. Details of this will be released soon.
Andrew Salkey, who was born in Colón, Panama, brought up in Jamaica, and later relocated to both the United Kingdom and the United States, was instrumental in developing and refining a diasporic consciousness among Caribbean artists and intellectuals at home and abroad in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster, academic, promoter and activist, he presented the BBC’s hugely important ‘Caribbean Voices’ program, where he was also writer-in-residence; he co-founded the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM); taught Creative Writing at Hampshire College in Amherst Massachusetts; and supported influential publishers Bogle L’Ouverture and New Beacon Books. His archive, acquired by the Library in 2005, sheds light on the sheer variety of these roles, and the characteristic intensity and humanity which he brought to each of them.
Photograph of Andrew Salkey, from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. With kind permission of Jason Salkey.
The Archive is comprised of 158 boxes of correspondence, manuscripts, typescripts (including Salkey’s poem Jamaica), and ephemera from various events documenting the literary, academic, and political spheres of the Caribbean diaspora, as well as Salkey's important place within them. The diversity of Salkey's correspondence is striking. Notable inclusions range from political figures -- even world leaders like Michael Manley and Cheddi Jagan -- all the way to literary stars such as E.R. Braithwaite, C.L.R. James, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Beryl Gilroy to name a few. Throughout all of these conversations, though, we see how well respected and regarded Salkey was professionally and personally; as a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, a leading academic, a literary figure, a friend and a mentor.
Storage of the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310, showing the scale of the papers at the British Library. With the kind permission of Jason Salkey.
A selection of archival material; typescript of ‘Jamaica’ poem by Andrew Salkey, manuscript of ‘Joey Tyson’ by Andrew Salkey and correspondence from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. Reproduced with the kind permission of Jason Salkey.
The largest body of correspondence in the collection comes from Austin Clarke [1934-2016] a Barbadian novelist, broadcaster, and academic who spent most of his career in Toronto, Canada. The long distance correspondence was so prolific that Clarke asked Salkey whether he could publish their letters together in 1976, referring to it affectionately as a “frivolous and comical correspondence between two writers who said things that the rest of the world did not feel disposed to know”. Clarke’s letters to Salkey offer an insight in to his own working methods, his relationship with his publishers, and his opinions on Black Power movements around the world, but they are also notable for their evocation of the the deep and personal friendship which the two men shared. “I want to apologise to you my great friend for depressing you with all my sensations and problems", Clarke writes after a characteristic outpouring "but there is no other with whom I can share these feelings. I value your undying friendship and love”. Similar currents run through Salkey's correspondence with other leading Caribbean writers and intellectuals, including George Lamming and Jan Carew, and Sam Selvon.
A letter written by Austin Clarke to Andrew Salkey 10 January 1976 from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Austin Clarke.
A Founding Member of the Caribbean Artists Movement
Salkey played a key role in the community element of the Caribbean Artists Movement. He would respond to correspondence about CAM’s work and maintained contact with CAM members after the movement ended in 1972. He was known for his prompt and courteous replies to anyone that contacted him. He could nurture friendships through his letters and act as a buffer between opposing personalities. He stated in an interview to Anne Walmsley for her book on CAM that “I was the one that most of them got on with. I also made sure that I was of service to friendships.” Many CAM members frequently appear in his general correspondence files including Marina Maxwell, Orlando and Nerys Patterson, and Horace Ové -- all of whom reminisce with Salkey about past CAM meetings and continue to exchange ideas and creative endeavours. Correspondents from the broader world of publishing are also present, perhaps most notably, Salkey maintained close links with John La Rose and Sarah White through his continued support of New Beacon Books. Salkey’s correspondence also includes a selection of letters with Kamau Brathwaite, one of the co-founders of CAM , which spans the period between 1965-1989. The early letters reveal a close professional and personal relationship between the two men, where Bajan forms and Standard English interact and blend in interesting ways: “For Christssake, man, they've got my TS [typescript]”, Braithwaite writes in one exemplary letter, ‘and I can't get a word out of them. Give them a lil ring fuh me, nuh man?’, blending the intimate and the professional, the formal and the informal.
Salkey’s role in CAM often extended to that of a mentor, especially to the younger members of the movement, including people like Michael Anthony. “I would like to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am for all that you have done for me" Linton Kewsi Johnson writes in one letter, “you have been of tremendous help to me and I couldn't have done without your encouragement”. Salkey was naturally fitted to the more pastoral aspects of his role as Professor of Creative Writing at Hampshire College, then, as he advised students taking credits in creative writing, particularly poetry. Through his role as an advisor, Salkey was able to foster great friendships through his personal encouragement and professional criticism. In one of his letters to a friend, he called teaching “a sacred profession, akin to the priesthood.” His correspondence illustrates how encouraging Salkey was with the students on his courses, particularly women. This was because he knew that women writers faced greater obstacles getting their work noticed and he wanted to help. Paule Marshall thanked him in a letter for “his encouragement, help and general all around prime-movership.” Toni Morrison thanked him in one of her letters for his praise of her novel “I am so pleased about your pleasure. Particularly because several men…have had hard things to say about it.” His students’ opinions of him illustrate a nurturing spirit and indicate the depth of trust he created in his friendships, one student wrote in a letter “your love and encouragement have really nurtured the poet in me”.
 Anne Walmsley, The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966-1972: A Literary & Cultural History, (London: New Beacon Books, 1992), p.44
 Ibid, p.44
17 August 2019
by guest blogger Di Beddow, PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. The notebook containing the Hughes poem 'Cambridge Was Our Courtship' (Add MS 88918/1/2) is currently on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery, and available to view -- in part -- through our Discovering Literature site.
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin, Copyright British Library Board
Ted Hughes omitted from Birthday Letters the poem simply known as “X”  which can be found in a notebook in the British Library. It begins -
Cambridge was our courtship.
Not the colleges, or such precincts,
But everything from the Millbridge
The Cambridge of Plath and Hughes, as pictured in Birthday Letters (Hughes’s award winning 1998 poetry collection) is a place where the university and the academic life of the city are all but absent. The landscapes of Hughes’s earlier poetry are also largely missing. No untamed Ireland, primitive or rural Devon; no ancient Elmet here, indeed, when such landscapes do make an appearance they tend to be used as a backdrop only for the central player on stage, who like Godot, never arrives. Sylvia Plath, Hughes’s first wife is however very much present in the poetry. Erica Wagner recounts in Ariel’s Gift  that Hughes in writing the work was not consciously writing poems, but the process was essentially about trying to, “evoke (her) presence to myself, and to feel her there listening.”  The collection travels from Spain to America, home to Devon and to Yorkshire, but when looking at the importance of Cambridge in Hughes’s work, the poem “X” has offered an entirely new and different pathway through the university city of the two poets and through Birthday Letters itself.
“Cambridge was our Courtship”, was brought to light by an article in The Times on Friday October 17 2008 (p.18) entitled “Rough-hewn genius of Hughes laid bare in unfinished verses”. Jamie Andrews from The British Library is quoted at the time, as saying the poem was probably omitted from the final selection to balance the poems between earlier and later life. We remember though as well that Hughes said the writing of the poems over the years was done with no view of publication and indeed in a letter to Keith Sagar, he reflects that, Hughes writes:
'I wrote them, months often years apart, never thinking of them as parts of a whole - just as opportunities to write in a simple, unguarded, intimate way - to release something! Nor can I recall how I came to shuffle them into that order - following chronology of subject matter was the only rule, I think. 
It is important to note that this poem -- 'X' -- has no amendments, but is simply written out as though from dictation. The other poems in the exercise book bear the scars of much reworking, so this one was surely not omitted from Birthday Letters for lack of quality; it would seem that this significant poem is left out of the collection because it is so localised, too personal and specific. Unless you live or had lived in Cambridge, this area of the city and its boundaries would not be known or be of any real importance to you.
From the Millbridge the Cam flows through Coe Fen on the left bank, a green grazing area with small tributaries and sluices, rough pasture and meadow vegetation. On the right, as you walk away from the city, the meadows open out into Sheep’s Green and the old course of the Cam, underneath Fen Causeway and across to Lammas Land; the river then strikes out to skirt around Newnham and then on to Grantchester Meadows. Hughes describes this area as:
Ornamented with willows, and green level,
Full drooping willows and rushes, and mallard and swans,
Or stumpy pollard willows and the dank silence
Of the slippery lapsing Cam. That was our place.
Three maps showing the topography and layout of Cambridge, and especially the districts recorded in Hughes's poem, much as he and Plath would have known it. Copyright Jeremy Bays - awspublishing.
The absolute alliteration of “willows” and the sibilance throughout the poem describes the Cam as a slow and natural river, with a wildlife that takes us away from the hard consonants of “Cambridge … courtship” and “colleges” which seem alien to the pair. Instead, Hughes focuses on the wildlife of the meadows; the three part description of the willows, for example, is significant: first they ornament the fen and one is reminded of Plath’s description in “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” : “It is a country on a nursery plate.”  There is something quaint and unreal about the picture of river, willows and cows. Then the second set of willows here are “Full drooping” almost Pre-Raphaelite in their evocation of sadness and elegiac fecundity. Finally in the set of three, the willows have become, “stumpy pollard” and cut back much like the archaic symbolism of rebirth that enthralled Hughes, for example in his description of Shamanism in “Regenerations” in Winter Pollen:
'a magical death, then dismemberment…From this nadir, the shaman is resurrected, with new insides, a new body created for him by the spirits. 
This tone chimes with the “dank silence” of this environment, which suggests dark, dampness and decay, not an appropriate place for courtship and love one would have thought. The poets appear to have chosen this as their Cambridge because it was, “Not spoiled by precedent, for either of us.” In this landscape they do not need to match expectations of the past, or of academia, but instead they indulged their love “In the watery weedy dream” which as Hughes describes, is metaphorically, “An aquarium”. In this watery world Hughes, as ever, knows his geography, that Cambridge rises only slightly above sea-level with much of the fens to the north, falling below sea-level:
Waltzing figures, among glimpses
Of crumbling parapets, a horizon
Sinking below sea level.
Flat and low-lying, Cambridge is depicted by Hughes as a water land from a dream, with other people beyond the couple merely performing a dance across the set. The scenery and the horizon for Hughes is like an ancient monument of ruins, which has little relevance to him and his lover, indeed there is a nightmarish and chthonic quality to the vision. He weaves a spell of this scene with a perpetual repetition of “w” showing that their place was “willows…watery weedy dream…Waltzing figures…world…we…what…when…were,” and “wings.” The poem finishes with a final rhetorical question:
We did not know what wings felt like.
Were what we felt wings?
But this is the final question of several; Hughes asks the ghost of Plath if she can recall what they talked about; if they were actually going somewhere: if they were “exploring” or if they were actually:
… talking away
Bewilderment, or trying word shapes
To make hopes visible.
The “word shapes” they made here, particularly Plath’s, concentrate on this piece of land and its nature. She uses the meadows in “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” to show how the idyllic university vision of Cambridge also bears the threat of the owl hunting the rat; it is here that Hughes suggests she hides “The Earthenware Head” which she narrates in 1959 and he uses again in Birthday Letters citing the spot where they placed it:
… Just past where the field
Broadens and the path strays up to the right
To lose the river and puzzle for Grantchester,
A chosen willow leaned towards the water. 
Again in “Chaucer” Hughes celebrates Plath’s performance of The Canterbury Tales to the cows in the Meadows. He admits that they were enthralled, “twenty cows stayed with you hypnotised.”  Hughes recognised that Plath was very different to the history of the Cambridge colleges:
The Colleges lifted their heads. It did seem
You disturbed something just perfected” 
Hughes contends that both poets started to formulate their futures, there, along the Cam and across the meadows. In Birthday Letters he returns to this place to settle in himself his responsibility for the vision of a shared future,that like the university in the poem, becomes, “crumbling parapets” and sunken horizons. Poem “X” omitted from the collection, for me, conjures up the Cambridge of arguably English Literature’s most famous couple. In a languid flow of the Cam’s willows and a “watery weedy dream” we find a landscape as personal and compelling as any that Hughes wrote of in earlier works.
Ted Hughes “X” in notebook of the Hughes collection, labelled “18 Rugby Street” (Add. MS 88918/1/6 in the British Library) and published in an article in The Times p.18 “Rough-hewn genius of Hughes laid bare in unfinished verses” Friday October 17 2008
 Erica Wagner Ariel’s Gift (Faber London 2000) 2001 paperback edition page numbers follow, hence forward abbreviated to AG
 AG p.22
 Ted Hughes to Keith Sagar 22 June 1998 The Letters of Ted Hughes and Keith Sagar (The British Library London 2012) p. 267
 Sylvia Plath “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” in Collected Poems (Faber London 1981) pp. 111-112
 Ted Hughes “Regenerations” in Winter Pollen (Faber London 1994) p. 57
 Ted Hughes “The Earthenware Head” Birthday Letters (Faber London 1998) Hence forward abbreviated to BL
 Ted Hughes “Chaucer” BL p.51
 Ted Hughes “God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark” BL p. 26
26 April 2019
a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019.
Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell
The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films.
Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.
Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton
A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images. By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons. They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.
There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints. Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.
In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone. The monastic life was seen as the epitome of proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.
A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.
The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags. This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.
Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett
What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.
Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.
Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.
All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator.
05 April 2019
by Sara Hale, AHRC Innovation Placement Fellow at the University of Manchester, working as part of the British Library's Heritage Made Digital project and the Modern Archives and Manuscripts department.
The British Library is currently undertaking a project to catalogue the Harley manuscripts collection for the first time since the early 19th century. Although one of the library’s foundation collections, the catalogue has not been updated since a four-volume printed edition was published in 1808–1812. Improved descriptions in ‘Explore Archives and Manuscripts’ will make these items more easily discoverable by researchers and users.
This huge manuscript library was amassed by Robert Harley (1661–1724) and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741), 1st and 2nd earls of Oxford and Mortimer, and sold to the nation when the British Museum was established in 1753. Both Harleys were important literary figures and patrons of the arts, and their wide-ranging collection includes – among many other things – a number of important English literary manuscripts.
Harley MS 4064, f. 257r: a copy of ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ by Ben Jonson.
Among the items recently catalogued are a number of 17th-century verse miscellanies containing some of the best known authors of the period. Of these John Donne is by far the most prevalent. Known for writing for a small group (or ‘coterie’) of readers and preferring the privacy of manuscript to print, Donne was one of the most widely circulated poets of the 17th century. Other writers that frequently appear in these miscellanies include Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, Thomas Randolph, William Habington, Sir Walter Ralegh, Francis Bacon, Robert Herrick, to name but a few. These manuscripts tell us much about how their poems were read, circulated and responded to.
Above: Harley MS 4064, f. 286v: Donne’s ‘Songe’. Below Harley MS 6057, f. 15r: an imitation of the same poem.
Study of manuscript circulation demonstrates how different versions of a text could co-exist outside of the certainty offered by print. Variations in wording or titles could result from a mistake or deliberate alteration by the copier, or have been duplicated from a variant manuscript copy. Harley MS 4064 (the ‘Harley Noel MS’) is a particularly important miscellany. It contains just under 50 poems by Donne and eight by Jonson in the hands of two professional scribes, including a copy of Donne’s ‘Song. Goe, and catch a falling starre’ attributed to ‘J.D.’. This poem appears in another form in the verse miscellany Harley MS 6057. Although attributed to ‘John Dunne’, an epigram beginning ‘Goe catch a starre that’s falling from the skye’ (indicated by the manicule in the top right corner in the image above) is actually a loose imitation of Donne’s original poem.
Harley MS 3991, f. 113r: short extracts from various poems by Donne.
The advent of print publication also impacted manuscript practices. Harley MS 3991 gives an indication of the ways in which the two mediums could interact. Once owned by Thomas Rawlinson (1681–1725) and known as the ‘Harley Rawlinson MS’, this late 17th-century verse miscellany includes various poems, songs and extracts from plays transcribed by several hands. One section entitled ‘Donnes quaintest conceits’ (ff. 113r-115r) presents short extracts from 30 poems including ‘Woman’s Constancy’ and ‘A Valediction: of weeping’. In this case the reader has gone through the printed text of the 1635 and 1639 editions of Donne’s poems and transcribed passages they found particularly elegant or witty to read at their will.
Collected alongside the literary heavyweights of the period are the works of lesser known and anonymous authors. As well as three of Donne’s satires, Harley MS 5110 also includes an anonymous English tragedy entitled ‘Pelopidarum Secunda’, verse paraphrases of the Psalms and Book of Proverbs and a collection of Latin letters, poems and translations by schoolboy Milo Hobart. This composite volume contains an interesting range of texts. Also recorded are copies of late 16th-century Latin speeches by Elizabeth I (f. 9r-v), one delivering a forceful extempore rebuke to a Polish ambassador and another addressing academics at Oxford University.
Harley MS 5110, f.9r: Latin speeches by Elizabeth I.
In many cases it can be hard to trace the ownership of these miscellanies, but some were clearly compiled by or for particular people. Harley MS 3511, for instance, was compiled by English statesman Arthur Capell (1631–1683), 1st Earl of Essex. Capell inscribed his name at the beginning of the volume (f. 1*), which includes many poems by Donne, Carew, Habington and Randolph. Such inscriptions sometimes took unusual forms. In the 1630s one Thomas Crosse inscribed his name in Harley MS 6057 in the form of ‘An Acrosticke upon my name’ – a poem in which the first letter of each line forms his name. Unfortunately nothing further is known about Crosse, but this volume shows how miscellanies could move between various different owners. The previous folio contains a deleted acrostic on the name ‘Edward’, and the name ‘Samuell Snoden’ is inscribed towards the end of the volume and dated 1670.
Harley MS 6057, f.1r: an acrostic poem on the name Thomas Crosse.
Even this small selection gives an insight into the practice and importance of manuscript circulation in 17th-century literary culture, and the private literary world built on social relationships that poets such as Donne, Jonson, Carew and their readers inhabited.
Peter Beal et al, ‘John Donne, (1572–1631)’, Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700 (CELM).
21 March 2019
To celebrate World Poetry Day, and 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, we have added four new readings to our Michael Marks playlist.
The judges and shortlisted poets and publishers for 2018 Michael Marks Awards. Photograph by Jonathon Vines
The readings are from four of the five shortlisted poets for the 2018 Michael Marks Poetry Award. In each of the recordings, our poets read from their pamphlet and also talk about the poems and the pamphlets.
Carol Rumens reads from ‘Bezdelki’, winner of the 2018 Michael Marks Award for Poetry. The title of the pamphlet, meaning ‘small things’, refers to a poem by Mandelstam, and the poems in the pamphlet are written in memory of Carol’s partner, Yuri Drobyshev. In this recording, Carol describes the pamphlet, and reads the poems ‘Vidua’, ‘Shapka and spider’, ‘He drank to naval anchors’, and ‘King Taharqa’s Last Thoughts’. ‘Bezdelki’ is illustrated by Emma Wright and published by the Emma Press.
‘If Possible’, by Ian Parks and published by the Calder Valley Press, is a collection of translations of Constantine Cavafy, and poems inspired by Cavafy’s understanding and engagement with the stories and literature of Classical Greece. In this recording, Ian Parks reads, ‘Candles’, ‘Windows’, ‘Ithaka’, ‘The god abandons Antony’, ‘Come back’, and ‘The shades’.
‘The republic of motherhood’ records Liz Berry’s experience of becoming a mother, and the support from other women during the early weeks and months of motherhood. In this recording, Liz Berry talks about the pamphlet form as accessible, a ‘passport to this strange new Queendom’. Liz reads her poems, ‘Horse heart’, ‘The visitation’, and ‘Placenta’. ‘The republic of motherhood’ is published by Chatto and Windus.
Gina Wilson reads from her pamphlet, ‘It was and it wasn’t’, published by Mariscat Press. Gina explains that the poems in the pamphlet reveal the ‘rich uncertainty of all things’, with the poems often being about more than one thing at the same time. Gina reads, ‘Grit’, ‘Child’s play’, ‘I haven’t seen this boy before’, and ‘Reunion’.
These new readings join our recordings from the past four years of the Michael Marks Awards, including from past winners Richard Scott, Gill McEvoy and Charlotte Wetton.
04 January 2019
A guest blog by Susan Connolly, whose poetry pamphlet, The Sun-Artist, was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets. The Sun-Artist will be on display in the Treasures Gallery until the end of February as part of an exhibition which celebrates the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.
Sunlight, a big window, ruler, pencil, compass and tracing paper were the tools I used to write my first visual poems on sheets of white A4 paper – cutting and pasting, not on the computer, but with scissors and Prittstick. Written in 2005, these were freehand word-drawings of poems called ‘Mirrors’, ‘Many Selves’ and ‘Like Leaves on a Tree’.
Some of these early visual poems were published in Shearsman magazine in 2008. In early 2009 Shearsman Books published Forest Music, my second full-length collection of poetry. The collection is in two sections: Forest Music and Walking the Seawall. Walking the Seawall contains twenty-three visual poems.
In October 2009 a friend showed me the Olympia portable typewriter which she had bought in a charity shop. I looked at this object and a whole range of possibilities opened up in my mind. I borrowed her typewriter and set to work. The first poem I typed was ‘The Sun-Artist’. It required a huge amount of concentration not to make a mistake and have to start all over again. Later I copied ‘The Sun-Artist’ onto my computer.
The idea for this poem came from a visit to the Cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice, near Drogheda, one July evening in 2009. This is an elaborately carved High Cross made of sandstone, dating to the 10th century. Its sides are covered with panels of interlace reminiscent of the Book of Kells. The interlace usually looks faded, but the way the sun shone on it that evening made it look new again. I wanted to depict this interlace in a poem. I wrote the line ‘deepshadowed sunset renews fading patterns’. Then I used these words re-creating how the interlace appeared, renewed by the evening sun.
My poetry moved increasingly from word-drawings to poetry which could be made on the typewriter and copied from there to computer. The best font for my work is Courier New, a font which gives equal space to each letter of the alphabet, just like the typewriter. I also realised that there were other possibilities on the computer: changing the size of the letters, line spacing, colour. Nowadays I use only the computer. However, my visual poems have been greatly influenced by my earlier engagement with the typewriter.
In 2013 Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books asked me if I had enough visual poems for a chapbook. I had and so I concentrated on gathering individual poems into a collection. The Sun-Artist was the title I gave to the chapbook. Several poems had already been published in poetry journals, which was great, but sometimes they were printed too small so that the reader could barely see the letters. The chapbook was my chance to put things right, to have the poems on the page exactly as I wanted them. I made a mock-up of the book and went in search of the right order for the eighteen poems I had chosen.
The manuscript became proofs which were emailed back and forth until everything had settled into place. The cover image is from a poem which was originally in red and black. About six weeks later the first copies of The Sun-Artist arrived in the post. It was an incredible feeling to turn the pages of this very slim book and read the poems again.
Cover page of The Sun-Artist.
With thanks to Susan Connolly for permission to use this image.
The Sun-Artist eventually led to the publication in 2016 of a full-length collection of visual poetry; eighty pages complete with introduction and notes. The main dilemma for me when approaching my third collection was whether it should contain visual poetry only or whether it should also include lyric poems many of which had been published in poetry journals. In the end I decided that Bridge of the Ford would consist entirely of visual poetry.
Bridge of the Ford has thirty-three visual poems. The book is in a larger than usual format to give the poems plenty of space. There are two sections: Bridge of the Ford and The Dream-Clock. The poems in the first part are arranged so that the reader can imagine drifting down the river Boyne in a boat, past the Neolithic tumulus of Dowth, past the mediaeval town of Drogheda (Droichead Átha / bridge of the ford) and out towards the sea. These sites are in my blood as I grew up and still live in this area.
And what happened to those lyric poems? Shearsman Books published them separately in a chapbook called The Orchard Keeper in 2017.
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