Tag Archives: poetry

“My longing to burst into print grew into an uncontrollable mania”—Handmade editions of poetry by Frederic Prokosch (MS. Eng. poet. f. 33)

Working in archives, there is one thing which I find really special, and actually quite magical: even with a catalogue description, I am never entirely prepared for what is waiting inside the box. MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 is a perfect example of this. The Summary Catalogue entry for this item reads:

Twelve booklets containing copies of works by 20th cent. poets, written, and decorated in colour, by Frederic Prokosch, ‘New Haven 1932’, probably made 1968-70; a colophon in each states that it is one of five numbered copies.

I was intrigued by the date uncertainty, and by the fact that these would be handmade editions so I was curious to check out the contents. Inside a small dark blue box lay indeed twelve booklets, most of them with colourful marbled covers, along with an enclosed letter.

December 2.

Dear Sir,

I am sending you, as a gift, a group of 12 little handmade pamphlets of poetry which I did long ago. (They look rather Art Nouveau to me now!) 
I hope they will amuse you.

Cordially,

Frederic Prokosch

There are six poets featured in the series—W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, along with Prokosch himself—and two booklets per poet. Quite interestingly, the two that do not have marbled covers are works by Prokosch; an attempt, perhaps, to differentiate himself from his fellow writers? Apart from the difference in the covers, all booklets are built in the same way: around five leaves, with a unique illustration at the beginning, always containing gold elements, and the poem(s) in the middle of the booklet with an illumination for the first letter.


The Gull by Prokosch (MS. Eng. poet. f. 33/10, fols. 1v-2)


Two Poems by Yeats (MS. Eng. poet. f. 33/11, fols.2v-3)

Frederic Prokosch was born in Wisconsin, in the United States, in 1908. He studied literature before becoming a writer himself, publishing his first novel in 1935 (The Asiatics), and his first collection of poems in 1936 (The Assassins). His memoir, Voices (1983), although proven to be mostly a fictional work, depicts Prokosch’s passion for the arts of the written word. In Voices, the reader is treated to a collection of anecdotes, including a tale of his newly discovered passion for poetry and printing: “I turned to poetry . . . My poems grew twisted, exotic, impenetrable. I wrote of mountains and deserts, of icebergs and caravans. My longing to burst into print grew into an uncontrollable mania.”[1] Although not printed editions, the booklets that form MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 probably were a product of this desire. Through the memoir, the reader also follows Prokosch as he encounters a great number of famous artists, many of them writers, including Auden, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound. Although there is no indication of any meetings with Yeats, the Irish poet is frequently mentioned throughout Voices. As questionable as those stories might be, they are nonetheless a testimony of Frederic Prokosch’s respect and admiration for his fellow writers.

Voices is not the only thing about Prokosch that raises suspicion regarding its accuracy. Robert Greenfield, who extensively studied the American writer in Dreamer’s Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederic Prokosch (2010), pointed out:

As a consequence of this medley of twists and turns, apocryphal claims, misstatements, distortions, and falsifications encompassing more than a century, even the simplest facts of his life, such as the date of his birth, are still subject to dispute.[2]

It seems MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 is no exception to this, falling in the very shroud of mystery described by Greenfield. It is quite unclear when Prokosch actually produced the booklets; although he claims they were made in New Haven in 1932, the New Summary Catalogue entry suggests otherwise: “‘New Haven 1932’, probably made 1968-70”. And they might even have been made slightly later than that. Indeed, upon close examination, some of the papers chosen by Prokosch bear (very faint but still visible) watermarks revealing the brand of the material—Arches and Ingres, both French brands. Quite interesting when one knows Prokosch spent the last decades of his life in the South of France. This would also be a perfect match to the biography written by Greenfield:

In 1972, Frederic abruptly ceased his travels and retired to ‘Ma Trouvaille’, a cottage in Grasse, in the south of France, where he played bridge, made some half-hearted efforts to cultivate a garden, revived his interest in printing private limited editions of his favourite poems and withdrew into invisibility.[3]

When I opened MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 I was, as always, quite unsure what would be sitting within the box. In this case, I found very beautifully made booklets of poetry, including some by one of my own favourite authors. But I also discovered Prokosch, a writer I had never encountered before working here, and more than that, I found myself in the middle of a date riddle. Pretty exciting for a small dark blue box.


[1] Prokosch, Frederic. Voices: A Memoir, New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1983, p. 45

[2] Greenfield, Robert. Dreamer’s Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederic Prokosch, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010, p. 21

[3] Ibid., p. 19

New catalogues: Papers of A.J. Ayer and Papers of Ruth Pitter (or: Everything is connected)

At first sight, they don’t have much in common: A.J. Ayer (1910-1989),  a philosopher known for his promotion of logical positivism and close association with humanist ideas who  enjoyed socialising at clubs in London and New York, and at college dinners in Oxford, and Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a poet deeply rooted in natural mysticism and spirituality, who preferred a much more reclusive life in a Buckinghamshire village.

However,  Ayer and Pitter have a connection, not only through the fact that their respective papers both share an archival home in the Bodleian’s special collections.

Both were regular contributors to the BBC talk show The Brains Trust in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and they actually met and talked, at least once, as this letter from the papers of Ruth Pitter confirms:

‘Fan mail’ received by Ruth Pitter after her appearance on The Brains Trust of 28 May 1957, with retrospective comment by Pitter.  MS. 7154/3.

The ‘other prof’ whose name Ruth Pitter could not remember when annotating her correspondence in the 1970s must have been Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and zoologist (John Betjeman, the poet, writer and broadcaster, completed the Brains Trust panel for that episode of the programme).

Which questions the Brains Trust discussed in May 1957 we do not know, but any queries about religion, divinity, spirituality, nature and evolution, morals and family values would have sparked a lively debate between Pitter who, inspired by C.S. Lewis’s religious broadcasts and writings, had joined the Anglican Church in the 1940s, on one side, and Ayer and Huxley, both staunch rationalists and secular humanists, on the other.

Ruth Pitter donated her extensive correspondence with C.S. Lewis to the Bodleian Library, and around the same time started sorting and extensively annotating her own papers with view to bequeathing them to the Bodleian. The archive comprises literary papers and other material relating to Ruth Pitter’s career as a poet (c.1903-1983 and some posthumous material), as well as personal correspondence with an emphasis on literary and social letters (1911-c.1988) and personal and financial papers (1897-1988), including material relating to Pitter’s decorative painting business Deane & Forester. Also included are photographs (c.1884-1981), prints, drawings, engravings and watercolours (c.1900-1989), audio recordings of interviews with, and songs and poems by, Ruth Pitter (1981-1987 and n.d.), and material relating to Ruth Pitter which was collected by her friend Mary Thomas (1897-1998).

A.J. Ayer’s papers arrived at the Bodleian in 2004, donated by his son Nick. The material comprises personal and professional correspondence and papers, as well as papers – mainly manuscript and typescript versions – relating to A.J. Ayer’s books, essays, lectures, articles and other (published) works. While the material spans Ayer’s academic and professional life from c.1930 to 1989 and includes some posthumous material, there is an emphasis on material from the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s.

For both collections, online catalogues are now available: Papers of A.J. Ayer and the Papers of Ruth Pitter.

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The Natasha Spender archive is now available

Programme for a piano recital by Natasha Litvin (later Spender) in 1944, from MS. 6647/54The archive of Natasha Spender, concert pianist, academic, and wife of the poet Stephen Spender, is now available.

Natasha Spender, Lady Spender, née Litvin (or Evans), was born on 18 April 1919, the illegitimate daughter of Ray Litvin and Edwin Evans, who was a well-respected (but married) Times music critic.

Ray Litvin (d. 1977) was from a family of Lithuanian Jewish refugees and grew up in Glasgow. She became an actress and was by 1915 a regular with Lilian Baylis’s Old Vic theatre company but in 1926 her career was crushed when she caught typhoid fever and became profoundly deaf.

Young Natasha, who had been fostered out during her early years, went on to spend her holidays with the wealthy and very musical family of George Booth (son of the social reformer Charles Booth) and his wife Margaret at their home Funtington House in West Sussex. A gifted pianist, Natasha trained at the Royal College of Music and following graduation, studied with the musician and composer Clifford Curzon and the pianist Franz Osborn before starting her professional career. During the war, she gave concerts for ENSA and in 1943 she, along with the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, founded the Apollo Society which presented poetry with a musical accompaniment. She appeared often on television and radio including as the soloist in the very first concert televised by the BBC. She also gave recitals in the UK and abroad, including a concert for former prisoners in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the 1960s Natasha made a move into academia after earning a degree in psychology and from 1970 to 1984 she taught music psychology and visual perception at the Royal College of Art. She later contributed to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Natasha met the poet Stephen Spender in 1940 at a lunch party hosted by Horizon, a literary journal that Stephen was co-editing at the time. They married in 1941. For decades, the Spenders were central figures in the London (and international) literary scene, with Stephen Spender’s career as a writer, professor, lecturer, editor and delegate taking them all over the world, with long periods in America.

In the 1950s, Natasha became friends with the terminally alcoholic, noir author Raymond Chandler, who fell in love with her. The exact nature of their relationship became an ongoing source of speculation among his biographers. This, along with controversies over unauthorized biographies and interpretations of Stephen Spender’s life led to Natasha fighting hard for the rights of biographical subjects and particularly for her husband’s reputation. Following Stephen Spender’s death in 1995, Natasha founded the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust, which continues to promote poetry in translation, and she collaborated first with John Sutherland on an official biography of her husband (published in 2004) and then with Lara Feigel on an updated edition of Spender’s journals (published in 2012). Natasha also published articles about friends and associates, including Dame Edith Sitwell and Raymond Chandler, and her archive includes an unfinished memoir covering the early years of her life and marriage. She died on 21 October 2010 at the age of 91.

The papers will be of interest to readers researching the history of early twentieth century theatre and performance, the academic field of visual perception, and the literary circle of Stephen Spender.

Jenny Joseph archive is now available

Jenny Joseph standing in a lane Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire, 2009 © Georgie Brocklehurst

Jenny Joseph in Minchinhampton, 2009 © Georgie Brocklehurst

The catalogue of the archive of the British poet Jenny Joseph is now available online.

Jenny Joseph (1932-2018) is best known for her much-loved poem ‘Warning’ with its famous opening lines:

 

 

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me

It was 1961 and Joseph was still in her 20s when she wrote ‘Warning’ for the newsletter of the old people’s home her husband was working in at the time. It was first published in The Listener magazine in early 1962 and then revised for her 1974 Cholmondeley Award winning poetry collection Rose in the Afternoon. The poem wasn’t an immediate hit but it built up steam through the 1980s in the UK and abroad (particularly in the US), becoming much anthologised, reprinted and re-used, featuring in everything from tea-towels to cancer campaign adverts. The poem took on such a life of its own that the archive includes an unauthorised poster attributing the lines to a mythical ‘Anonymous’. In 1996 it was voted Britain’s favourite post-war poem and it even inspired a social movement: the Red Hat Society, a group for women over 50. (You can find recordings of Jenny reading ‘Warning’ and other poems at the Poetry Archive and on YouTube).

Jenny Joseph was born in Birmingham and raised in Buckinghamshire. She won a scholarship to St Hilda’s College in Oxford to study English, and graduated in 1953. She trained as a secretary and then as a reporter, starting at the Bedfordshire Times and moving to the Oxford Mail. She sailed to South Africa in December 1957 and worked as a secretary and as a reviewer for the leftist newspaper New Age. In February 1959 she had just started teaching at Central Indian High School in Johannesburg when she was expelled from the country for reasons stated as ‘economic grounds or on account of standard or habits of life’ – likely connected to her anti-apartheid views and associations. She returned to London and thereafter lived mainly in London and in Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire.

She married pub landlord Charles Coles in 1961 and had three children while continuing to write, teach English as a foreign language, and lecture in language and literature for the Workers Education Association and West London College.

Jenny Joseph’s poetry was first published and broadcast on radio in the early 1950s on programmes like Thought For The Day and Poetry Please. Her first poetry collection, The Unlooked-for Season, was published in 1960 by Scorpion Press (in 1962 it received a Gregory award for poets under 30). She did a great deal of work for children – writing six children’s reading books in the 1960s, teaching workshops in schools, and in 2000 publishing All the Things I See – Selected Poems for Children. Her last poetry collection Nothing like Love (a collection of love poems) was published in 2009. In 1995 Joseph won the Forward Prize for her poem ‘In Honour of Love’ and her experimental fiction work Persephone (1986) won the 1986 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999.

The archive is particularly strong on business correspondence, with a section dedicated to her most popular poem, ‘Warning’ that includes not only agency correspondence and fan letters but artefacts (from cartoons to quilts) that were inspired by the poem.

Cataloguing was generously funded by Jenny Joseph’s friend Joanna Rose, and by Joseph’s family.

New Catalogue: Papers of Louis MacNeice

The catalogue of the papers of the Northern Irish poet and playwright Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) is now available online.

MacNeice studied Classics at Oxford from 1926, and together with Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, he became part of the circle of poets and writer that had formed around W.H. Auden. His professional life began in 1930 as a lecturer in Classics, but in 1941 he joined the BBC and for the next twenty years produced radio plays and other programmes for the Features Department.

Whilst he also wrote articles and reviews, theatre plays, a novel and even a children’s book, MacNeice is best known for his poetry. Between 1929 and 1963, he published more than a dozen poetry volumes, such as Autumn Journal (1939) – regarded by many as his masterpiece, Springboard (1944), Holes in the Sky (1948), Ten Burnt Offerings (1952), and Visitations (1957). His last poetry volume, The Burning Perch came out just a few days after MacNeice’s untimely death in autumn 1963.

Amongst other works published posthumously were a book entitled Astrology (1964), Selected Poems (1964) edited by W.H. Auden, the autobiography The Strings are False (1965) edited by E.R. Dodds, and Varieties of Parable (1965), as well as the radio/ theatre plays The Mad Islands and The Administrator (1964), One for the Grave (1968) and Persons from Porlock (1969), and the song cycle The Revenant (1975).

(Frederick) Louis MacNeice by Howard Coster,
nitrate negative, 1942. NPG x1624.
© National Portrait Gallery, London.
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The archive at the Bodleian Libraries comprises more than 70 boxes of literary papers and other material relating to Louis MacNeice’s career as a writer, as well as extensive personal and professional correspondence, and some personal papers. Continue reading

Display – Wilfred Owen: The Pity of War

The last photograph of Wilfred Owen, Hastings, 30 Aug 1918

The last photograph of Wilfred Owen, Hastings, 30 Aug 1918

A hundred years ago, at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918 (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month) the Armistice was signed, bringing to an end the First World War. As the celebratory church bells rang out, a telegram was delivered to Susan and Tom Owen informing them of the death of their eldest son, Wilfred, one of 17 million casualties of the Great War to end all wars. He had been killed at the age of 25, just seven days before the Armistice. Owen received the Military Cross for gallantry, but was unknown to the public as a poet: only five of his poems were in print before his death. Today he is recognised as one of the greatest writers of war poetry in the English language.

To mark this double centenary the Bodleian has mounted a display of original material from the Owen Collection, which was given to Oxford University by Owen’s sister-in-law, Phyllis, in 1975 and transferred from the English Faculty Library to the Bodleian in 2016. Included in the exhibition are manuscripts of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’; editions of the Craiglockhart Hospital magazine which Owen edited while being treated for shell-shock in 1917, and a selection of photographs and personal belongings preserved by his family.

Curated by Judith Priestman and Andrew Wheale

Wilfred Owen: The Pity of War
26 October – Christmas 2018
Proscholium, Bodleian Old Schools Quadrangle
Free entry