Originally Published in AB Bookman's Weekly
November 29, 1993
This week's Special Subject Issue devoted to Poetry celebrates a field of literature that has always been important in the world of scholarship as well as in popular culture. Much of the popularity of the genre is due to its role as a form of entertainment in the oral tradition that has come down to us through ballads that date back to early medieval times, and were developed as lyrics in classical and modern music.
The function of the poet to protest corruption, oppression and evil has also been a force in Western civilization that dates back to remote antiquity. The voices of protest were heard among the Greeks and the Romans, and if those voices were muted for a millenium or so, they subsequently returned with renewed force and vigor.
It was Ezra Pound who wrote, "The artists are the antennae of the race," - a truly noble sentiment.
A far better example of one man's view of the role of the poet was expressed by Walt Whitman: "Of all nations, the United States with veins full of poetical stuff must need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall. Of all mankind, the great poet is the equable man."
Whitman also noted that, "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."
In our own time, the poets and artists of deconstruction have represented all shades of philosophy and personality, and the causes they embraced have ranged from Fascism during the Second World War to the anti-war protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Poetry has long been a popular specialty among booksellers. One of those who played a pioneering role in the field was the 17th century English bookseller, Jacob Tonson. The son of a barber-surgeon, Jacob, at the age of 14, was apprenticed to Thomas Bassett, a bookseller, in 1670, and seven years later he was admitted as a freeman of the Company of Stationers.
Although Tonson's preference always ran to poetry, during his early years as a publisher he was forced to market books on law, medicine and theology, rather than poetry, which was not nearly as profitable at that time. It was only after he was rich and successful that he turned his efforts toward poetry and literature.
Within a few years poetry formed the chief staple of many booksellers' shops and became the most popular item sold by hawkers. Tonson's name is also closely associated with the production of Milton's Paradise Lost , a work that he produced in numerous editions that added to his wealth and success.
Jacob Tonson is credited with having contributed to the wide popularity of poetry among the book-buying public in England at that time.
In this week's feature article, Jett Whitehead, a Bay City, Michigan dealer specializing in poetry, presents an overview of Modern American and British Poetry . A sample of Jett's own poetry appears on the cover of this issue. [JLC]
Modern American and British Poetry
By Jett W. Whitehead
[A native of Saginaw, Michigan, Jett Whitehead grew up in that town, and earned his undergraduate degree in Business Administration at Northern Michigan University, and a master 's degree in creative writing and poetry at Central Michigan University. After teaching creative writing at a local college, Jett began to devote much of his time to his own writing and to poetry. It was while he was in graduate school that he acquired a serious interest in book collecting and he subsequently attended the Antiquarian Book Market Seminar in Denver. He currently operates his own rare book business out of his home in Bay City, Michigan, where he specializes in 20th century American and British poetry - JLC]
Leading up to the turn of our present century, changes in culture and society of western Europe and America sparked modernization throughout much of our business, social, artistic and academic lives. This exciting time period, just a short 100 years ago, brought to man challenges of a new existence. The innovations by and for mankind shook us into a new era.
Imagine the sudden influence of: The realization of air travel, both with the Zeppelin trial flights and the aeroplane; magnetic recordings of sound; Henry Ford's offer of independence; Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of architecture; the Cubist Painting Exhibition in Paris in 1907; and refinements of the typewriter, a practical tool now accessible to the hands of any writer.
These few fragments of history provide only a glimpse at the dawn of an age of modernization that influenced the shape and sound of modern verse. The influences of these institutions and innovations unleashed the spirits of men and women on both sides of the Atlantic, and not surprisingly this newly charged lifeblood found its way into the literature and creative styles of the time. Fallen away were barriers which once inhibited development of industry and the arts, and likewise the strict formal poetic forms were being challenged and changed by artists of verse.
Pound, Frost, Eliot
Looked upon as one of our earlier modern poets, Ezra Pound, born in ldaho in 1885 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, left this country in 1908 for Italy and in the same year his first book, A Lume Spento , was published in Venice. He later published Personae , which is credited with making Pound the leader of the lmagists movement. Ezra Pound's "critical concepts propounded during his imagist period probably had more to do with the development of modern poetry in England and America than any other single influence." 1
During this time, a young struggling farmer in New Hampshire was busy dividing his time between tending to his agricultural duties, teaching English at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, and perfecting his personal style of verse which he wanted so eagerly to see published. Robert Frost was finding more success at applying his teaching skills than he was with his efforts at farming.
But his real love was verse, and his ambition to publish was fierce. By 1912, having found little encouragement in finding a publisher in this country, Frost, with his wife and four children, booked passage from Boston on the steamship SS Parisian bound for Great Britain.
It was in England, at the firm of David Nutt, that Frost would find acceptance of his first booklength manuscript for trade publication, A Boy's Will . First published in a very small printing (ca.300 copies in binding "A") in 1913, it would later be published in many variant issues. The following year saw his second volume from that Nutt firm, North of Boston , and his readership following was established. During these important years, Frost had visited Ezra Pound in Europe, and it was Pound who furthered Frost's career by favorably reviewing A Boy's Will in the new American literary journal, Poetry.
Poetry magazine, founded in 1912 as a monthly journal by Harriet Monroe, would prove to be an important catalyst for many poets of the modern movement. As testimony for its strength and appeal, it has endured through the many years that followed, and is held by many in high regard today as one of the leading traditional modern poetry journals of the English language.
Under the untiring leadership and direction of its founder, Poetry magazine has helped to introduce a cross section of many modem poets to its readership, including William Butler Yeats, Ben Hecht, T. S. Eliot, Muriel Rukeyser, Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, Josephine Miles, Randall Jarrell, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Robinson Jeffers, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, and a host of other poets familiar to readers of 20th century American and British poetry.
An interesting view of the literature being published during this exciting century is afforded by scanning the reviews and publisher's advertisements in the pages of Poetry magazine. The February issue of 1918 offers a full page ad for The Egoist , a literary journal founded in 1913 in England by Dora Marsden as the New Freewoman . The journal was renamed The Egoist in 1914 and the editorship passed to Harriet Shaw Weaver. The advertisement offers:
This journal is NOT a chatty literary review; its mission is NOT to divert and amuse; it is NOT written for tired and depressed people. Its aim is rather to secure a fit audience, and to render available to that audience contemporary literary work bearing the stamp of originality and permanence; to present in the making those contemporary literary efforts which ultimately will constitute 20th century literature. ... In poetry, its pages are open to experiments which are transforming the whole conception of poetic form, while among its writers appear leaders in pioneering methods radically affecting the allied arts ... Obviously a journal of interest to virile readers only.
Fans and followers of T. S. Eliot will recall that it was in this periodical that the first printing of Prufrock and Other Observations , Eliot's first published collection of verse, appeared in June of 1917. In yet an earlier issue of Poetry , May 1917, an advertisement for The Egoist claimed contributors such as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and others.
Later issues of Poetry announced (Oct. 1940) Kenneth Rexroth's first book, In What Hour ; published a review by Conrad Aiken (June 1940), of Dylan Thomas' The World 1 Breathe ; and devoted an entire issue (May 1951) to the "Activists." This issue, guest edited by Lawrence Hart, "the founder of the Activist group," includes a letter by William Carlos Williams and an article "About The Activist Poets" by Hart.
More recent issues of Poetry have offered works by Robert Creeley, Frank O'Hara, Anne Sexton, Hayden Carruth, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Galway Kinnell, Howard Nemerov, and Thom Gunn, among many others. Within the pages of the past year's issues was featured poetry by W. S. Merwin, Mona Van Duyn, A. R. Ammons, and Sandra McPherson, and reviews by Alice Fulton and Sandra M. Gilbert.
lt comes as no surprise that an early editorial in the New York Tribune , in writing of Poetry magazine, states "The livest art in America today is poetry, and the livest expression of that art is in this little Chicago monthly." (Taken from Poetry magazine, Feb. 1918.).
Among the promoters and sponsors of modern poetry, James Laughlin must be recognized for his efforts and successes with his New Directions publishing company. A sampling of titles includes work by Gregory Corso. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who was featured in last year's AB Special Poetry Issue), Denise Levertov, Thomas Merton (the subject of another recent AB issue), Kenneth Patchen, Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams, William Carlos Williams and a nearly endless list of other favorites.
Recognizing his interest in poetry and publishing, Laughlin has devoted much of his life and personal resources to giving poets and their poetry a voice. He founded New Directions in 1936, and his earlier titles include The Complete Collected Poems: 1906-1938 , by W. C. Williams; We'11 to the Woods No More , by Edouard Dujardin; A Glad Day , by Kay Boyle; Guide to Kulchur , by Ezra Pound; and Delmore Schwartz' In Dreams Begin Responsibilities . By 1939 he was publishing work by other new poets including John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop in his annual anthology.
Much of James Laughlin's life, and accounts of his publishing adventures has been well covered in an article by Cynthia Zarin and published in the March 23, 1992 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Zarin's article followed from an interview with Laughlin, and is lively and informative for those readers interested in the lives of the modern poets.
The art of poetry does not end with the reading, nor sound, of the line. In recognizing the often important visual shape that a poem makes, many poets and publishers have employed the artists of fine printing houses to assist in crafting the poem to the page. A harmony of suitable papers and inks, together with the proper choice of type, and final selection of binding, can make an enormous difference in the artistic product of the poem. To exemplify this condition is the historic typographical and personal relationship between Joseph Blumenthal's Spiral Press and Robert Frost.
Soon after Robert Frost had found success in publishing his first two books in England, he prepared for his return to the United States. Mrs. Henry Holt, wife of the American publisher, had come upon a copy of Frost's North of Boston and encouraged her husband to secure the publishing rights for an American edition. What followed was a long, personal and mutually rewarding relationship between a publisher and a poet.
Much of this relationship was nurtured by Frost's interest in how the poem looked on the page, and Holt's eager response in securing careful typographers. Of the earlier books produced, "Frost's first two books, originally issued in England, were reprinted and issued in the United States. They were followed by Mountain Interval in 1916 and New Hampshire in 1923, published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, and of course, set up, printed and bound in the United States. None of these first four books, whether English or American, showed any typographic distinction. Physically they were typical of the best books of fiction and verse of the period - decent, unpretentious, readable." 2
Although attempts were made at producing a limited edition of New Hampshire , according to Blumenthal, not until the limited edition of Frost's fifth book, West-Running Brook in 1928, was Frost genuinely pleased with the finished product. This volume was printed at Updike's Merrymount Press in Boston, and was selected for inclusion in the American Institute of Graphic Arts' 1929 exhibition of the "Fifty Books of the Year."
Included in this beautiful production are four woodcut illustrations by J. J. Lankes, each a full page in size, and each plate signed by the artist. Additionally, a special Japanese paper covered the boards which enhanced the binding, and the volume was enclosed in a slipcase. Needless to say, Frost was pleased.
It was at this time that Holt was working out an arrangement with Random House that would allow for a limited edition of the first volume of Frost's Collected Poems . Holt would publish the trade edition, and Random House would issue the limited edition. Bennet Cerf, who operated Random House at the time, arranged with Joseph Blumenthal to design and print the volume.
Blumenthal's own account of the proposal, and his artistic sensitivity to the project, are beautifully relived in his book Robert Frost and His Printers , itself finely printed at the Press of A. Colish, and published by W. Thomas Taylor, of Austin, Texas. Blumenthal shares with us how the book must "design itself," albeit in the hands of a trained craftsman. The pain involved and subsequent pleasure in producing this beautiful Random House limited edition of Frost's Collected Poems began a lasting friendship and prolific printing and design relationship that would last until Frost's death.
Why collect original poetry publications, or any first editions for that matter? If you accept literature as an art form, and the process of creative writing, then the explanation is simple. Artists, in whatever medium, produce their first original of any given piece of art after working through a series of sketches, drawings, and trial plans. For a painter it may be in preparation of an oil painting or a watercolor. A fiber artist may be composing a geometric arrangement, and a sculptor may be planning a statue in clay or bronze. The author, on the other hand, may control the development of a manuscript in the form of a hand written document on a yellow legal pad, or perhaps a hand typed draft annotated throughout with marginal notes in pencil or ink. Indeed, today for many authors, a manuscript might be shaped by using an electronic tool such as a word processor or computer. By any of these means for the "author artist," the finished manuscript is the author's original creation and it is from this creation that the first publication is made possible.
The first edition may be a finely printed and bound limited issue carrying the signature of the author artist on the colophon page. Or, it may be a simply produced publication in paper wraps. By whatever means, it still represents the first form of the artwork to meet the public's eye. And is therefore the first public representation of the author's creative work.
This representation of the author's artistic contribution to the collection of contemporary literature is the brick and mortar of the record of our civilization and is worth collecting and preserving. It is through all forms of artwork that the life of mankind is exemplified and recorded for the study of those who follow. It is through the preservation of paintings and illustrations, musical compositions, and the record of printed literature that we leave the footprint of our time and culture. What better way than through the public and private collectors of our time to organize and assemble these contemporary treasures, and to assume the important role of caretaker.
I am often asked, as no doubt other book dealers are in their field of speciality, "What should I buy?" "Who should I collect?" "What's the best selling title, or poet, on your shelf?" There are probably hundreds of "right answers" for each question for different reasons, and for different times. I generally encourage collectors to build around their own personal tastes and interests, rather than being influenced by who's hot at any particular moment.
Author collections are just as popular in poetry as in fiction and other prose. Likewise, fields or groups of poets can provide collecting guidelines. A poetry collection could be based around the "Beat" poets, and would therefore probably include the works of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman (credited with coining the term "Beatnik"), Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Diane DiPrima, among many others associated with the Beat movement.
Other influences of modern poetry for the collector could include the Black Mountain Poets, such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, or the New York Poets, such as John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara. There have been fine collections of modern poetry based regionally and examples of this can be found in Edward Field's A Geography of Poets (New York: Bantam, 1979).
It should be well understood that many poets fall into overlapping areas, and most often such 'schools' of poets are loose generalizations at best. Indeed, many poets shun being grouped and labeled - and for good, respectful reasons.
Several approaches to becoming familiar and comfortable with modern poetry could come into play. 1 suggest sampling from a few anthologies as a good overview, and many anthologies are easily available. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry is one often suggested in the classroom, and 1 believe every public library has a copy on the shelf. But there are many other anthologies that should not be overlooked. Recommendations include:
Mark Strand, ed. The Contemporary American Poets , (New York: Mentor/New American Library, 1969).
Donald M. Allen, ed. The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 , (New York: Grove Press, 1960).
Ralph Mills, Jr., ed. Contemporary American Poetry , (New York: Random House, 1965).
John Malcom Brinnin and Bill Read, eds. The Modern Poets , (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970). N. B. This one contains wonderful photographs of the poets by Rollie McKenna!
And there are hundreds more, but don't stop here, please.
The spirit of modern poetry lives and breathes in the world of the small and private presses. Without a good exploration among the small press selections, you've really missed the adventure. Additionally, the journals most often referred to as the "little magazines" provide a platform for the poetic voice as wide and as varied as the landscape of our country. This subject could be another article for these pages, but the names to look for that are not too difficult to find are offered here to help guide you.
Small press/private presses: Black Sparrow Press, North Point Press, Sixties/Seventies Press, Toothpaste Press, Copper Canyon, Sheep Meadow Press, Old Harbor Press, Graywolf Press, are only a small beginning, and don't miss the many fine university presses publishing poetry today.
The variety of "little mags" is endless, and many are found at, or associated with, colleges and universities. A few to consider are offered here: Colorado Review , Kentucky Poetry Review , The Antioch Review , Antaeus , Beloit Poetry Journal , Poetry Northwest , and a host of others quite easily found in academic libraries, and they usually find their way into book stores, too! Forgive me if I left out your favorite. If you've never explored these "little mags," you have missed out on an important segment of American culture. Who knows, you may even want to support one and subscribe!
Modern poetry is alive and living well among us. If you own and operate a book store you should not be afraid to sample it, but as with most specialties it sells best when you offer a good variety. A dozen titles on a dusty shelf in the back corner of the shop does not stand for a department. But with a little fun adventure on your part, it could prove to be an area more popular with your customers than you might otherwise think.
1. Hester R. Hoffman, ed. The Reader's Adviser , (New York: Bowker, 1964), 358-359.
2. Joseph Blumenthal. Robert Frost and His Printers , (Austin: W. Thomas Taylor, 1985), 9.
Read Jett's thoughts on Collecting Books