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To Shake the Torpid Pool: exploring the relationship between poetry pamphlets and little magazines[1]

Based on a paper given at “Interaction, Symbiosis, Overlap: Little Magazines and Small Presses”, English Research Symposium, Nottingham Trent University, 7/3/09, and first published in PS (the Prose Supplement of Painted, Spoken) 6, 2009

Recently I was involved in a British Library campaign to honour the authors and publishers of poetry pamphlets, the Michael Marks Awards. As part of that I compiled a list of ten poetry pamphlets from the last century that I found of interest, and which represent a range of poetry approaches, though not of course an exhaustive one. The hope was this would provoke discussion about the role of the pamphlet in the wider poetry infrastructure, perhaps in culture in general, while increasing publicity for the Awards and so encourage pamphlet publishers to enter.

Today I would like to use that brief list as a way of suggesting, in the light of the survey work David Miller and I carried out to produce British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000, certain patterns of behaviour shared by little presses and little magazines and certain connections between the two forms.

I decided to choose ten pamphlets, which I’ll simply list now: Edward Thomas, Six Poems [1916]; W. H. Auden Poems (1928); Dylan Thomas 18 Poems (1934); Philip Larkin The North Ship (1945); Roy Fisher, City (1961); Ian Hamilton Finlay, Glasgow Beasts… (1961); Bob Cobbing, Six Sound Poems (1968); J. H. Prynne, Fire Lizard (1970); Denise Riley, Marxism for Infants (1977); and Kathleen Jamie, Black Spiders (1982).

Friends Pre-United

The first element that immediately struck me when I looked at the publishers of these books was the role of the individual as publisher, meaning either self-publication or publication by a friend. Two of these books are arguably self-published – Finlay’s Glasgow Beasts and Bob Cobbing’s Six Sound Poems. Technically I suppose they are publications of The Wild Hawthorn Press and Writers Forum, respectively, but both presses were then owned by the authors and co-run with friends.

A further five of the pamphlets were published by friends of the poet in question. In Edward Thomas’s case, the artist-publisher James Guthrie (not to be confused with the better-known artist of the same name, whose heyday was the end of the 19th century); Auden is published by Stephen Spender; Roy Fisher by Michael Shayer and Gael Turnbull (as Migrant Press); Prynne by friends Barry MacSweeney and Elaine Randell (as Blacksuede Boot Press); and Denise Riley by her friend Wendy Mulford (as Street Editions).

Two authors appear neither to be self-published nor published by those in their circle – Philip Larkin and Kathleen Jamie.  If that is the case, it is interesting that Larkin and Jamie, characterised today as more mainstream poets, appear to have begun their publication history without an obvious help from any old boy or new girl network.

In a romantic history of the avant-garde this is counter-intuitive – perhaps there is an expectation of the little press world bravely operating outside the philosophy of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’. I would argue – not just from this tiny sample of small press books – that that would be a serious misunderstanding of the poetry infrastructure, little press or mainstream. Who you know in the little magazine world is likely, I believe, to be very significant for initial and later publication – whatever the claims for ‘standards’, ‘publishing the best’ etc, and from whatever aesthetic part of the poetry forest. This is also true, I would hypothesise, for whether a poet’s work is reviewed, wins prizes, or undergoes critical study. An anthropologist might go so far as to say that these such social relations are a significant part of what poetry (and any other artform) actually is. Apparent concentration on the actual text, repeated as a goal of reading lab isolated appreciation by avant-garde and conservative alike (though not of course all), is in this view an important but far from solitary pattern of behaviour within a much more complicated series of poetry-related activities which together, and often only together, constitute ‘poetry’.

Of course what is needed is more empirical survey work to test and quantify that and to probe further into what “who you know” means. Theoretically this would take in measures of association that went beyond the printed page, including, as it were, body presence solidarity: for example, the hosting of events to promote friends, attending those friends’ events, and so on. It would be interesting to note possible solidarity determinants in terms of identity politics (including self-identifying English ethnicity, city-loyalty, “citizen of the world” self-identification, perhaps). Class, gender and educational affiliation might also help us understand better the history of little magazines. It’s not a surprise that the female poets on my list of pamphlets emerge only later on, though again you need to be so cautious with that list: the role women had as editors in little magazines within modernism – Dora Marsden, Harriet Monroe – and as poets themselves – H.D., Mina Loy - is not reflected in such a selection. If the collaborative ideal is accepted as an ideal, why shouldn’t all be credited – and top-tennism should have a health-warning large enough to almost obliterate its packaging

That said, for me one key set of questions in the discussion of the production, distribution and reception of poetry revolves around the issue of acts of friendship. How does little magazine and little press publication constitute initiating acts of friendship which then have active power later on in the participants’ lives? What role, too, do regular workshops and reading series have within that friendship network, and so back into the poetry infrastructure?

My belief is that the spectrum of friendship relationships is a key and under-researched concept in little press publishing even though it comes up again and again in critical studies incidentally. The circles of friendship around, say, Ezra Pound or Ford Madox Ford; the friendship within the modern Scottish renaissance – Catherine Carswell, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Muir, MacDiarmid and Neil Gunn; the Bloomsbury group, MacSpaunday and so on. All work through complex friendship processes that have to varying degrees been studied case by case but not, I think, aggregated or theorised (although I understand that Raymond Williams did begin to do this). I’d suggest that little magazines and little presses initiate and continue lasting or critical acts of friendship. What needs to be further probed, however, is whether, historically, the social capital invested in and constituted by these magazines and presses worked within existing power structures or was a counter to them.

In particular, for English-based magazines and presses did they augment and maintain the pre-eminent cultural capital of high-brand institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, the geographical location of London and the South-East as ‘the centre’, and the status of the male as the arbiter of taste? Or, by the same token, could magazines and presses also offer social capital opportunities to those outside those zones of power? Did second wave feminism, for instance, impact on the editorial control of little magazines and little presses in the 1970s and if so were their differences in success rates across different kinds of little magazine?

One aspect of such a social sciences approach is to go beyond the life of a press or magazine. I would predict, for example, that those publications that seem to “fail” – perhaps operating for a year or less, for example – may actually be very successful in social capital terms. Even short-lived publications are the means by which enduring alliances are built beyond the life of that particular publication or press. However, for literary historians, to test this in different contexts requires a tracking apparatus. I’d suggest that such tracking should follow authors and editors through the years after a magazine or press has closed into other publishing realms – review journalism, the broadcast media, more capitalised presses and so on. Furthermore, scrutiny should extend to the judges and the judged in literary competitions, grants, and to appointments at universities and the arts. (Because this is likely to point fingers at avant-garde, liberal and conservative aesthetic groups alike, and there is not the neutral environment in which to defuse the likely evidence of super-connectivity, perhaps it might be safer to keep this strictly in the distant past!)

Friendship is significant in publishing at large, too, of course: ‘the old boy network” figured in establishment terms is in a way collaboration with a marketing budget. Both little press and mainstream publishing can quietly infer an objectivity of standards neither can truthfully meet, probably because microscoping down to a concept of standards in so much moot poetry is a category error. Professing standards is important to most presses, however. Within certain porous limits, no press should actually feel the need to be objective – except to the ‘mere public’, for whom the presentation of the magic of precise judgement is maintained by the poetry clerisy (everyone involved in poetry).

Friendship in little or large presses is an enabler of publication which, to the outside world at the time, may be unnoticed and so appears, outside a circle of friends, to be more disinterested than it is. And, as I say, friendship is privately enscribed in the public act of publication: ‘between you and me, you are my friend because-and-as-demonstrated by the fact that I am willing to make your works better known by publishing them’. Perhaps only when friendship itself can be mobilised as a positive – “a collaboration”, “a school”, “a movement” – does it announce itself more publically.

Personally, I do not take a puritan view of friendship as a negative force in the arts. I regard an artistic and intellectual community as underwritten to some degree by the public good of private friendship. Perhaps entirely justified attacks on cronyism in political life have carried on too far to the endangerment of the concept of friendship itself.

What might be helpful in understanding this is to find a neutral vocabulary which avoids both positive and negative terms, perhaps seeing friendship in terms of an index of association. In the little magazine world analysing a dataset containing, for example, editor, publisher, advertiser and contributor information to establish the relationship between these variables would be one way of establishing patterns of association and understanding its nature, especially if it is then extended to wider access media. Since the poet as editor is such a common element in both the little press and the little magazine world it is a key node of reciprocation.[2] Looking at the work of social scientists in the field of friendship may bring some clarity to this – I’ve found Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl’s Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities (Princeton University Press, 2006) especially helpful, for example.


As I’ve hinted another pattern that is fairly obvious in the ten pamphlets, and does have a bearing on little magazines, too, is the massive over-representation of Oxford and Cambridge. Of the ten poets, at least half were educated at Oxbridge colleges. I haven’t looked in detail at the publishers, but I can see that at least four of the ten are Oxbridge educated and that figure will probably rise with further investigation to be over half the sample.

When you look at little magazines in the period 1914-2000 at the simple level of numbers of titles published in these university towns you still find Oxbridge over-representation, though not of the same order as this tiny unstatistical sample.[3] Actually, some of the functions that little magazines serve could come into play earlier for these attenders at excluding, I mean exclusive, universities, with networks being kick-started through the school magazine. The schools concerned would be overwhelmingly private schools or, as the English say, public schools.

Again there are references here and there to the school magazine in biographical studies of particular authors but unless I’m mistaken a more social sciences orientated study of this kind of publication is yet to appear. There is also the anomalous position of the student magazine / newspaper. So, in Oxford, say, there would be The Cherwell and Isis. These types of publication are not generally classified as little magazines but they are probably significant within the poetry infrastructure – it’s no surprise that one of Larkin’s poems in The North Ship, “This was your place of birth”, was published in The Cherwell for example.

It may be that the ability to network is inculcated within Oxbridge and pre-Oxbridge environments and, not of course forgetting the immense advantage of their typical students’ starting positions, that early networks themselves, and so their ability to forge further ones, are something that education outside the establishment could use to give their students a better chance. There is probably much more to the debating society and school magazine than meets the eye. Modern universities and the schools that feed them could help counter the obvious and serious imbalance in privilege in education by better fostering clubs, groups and, especially, small-scale publishing as a means, probably a very significant means, of offering counter capabilities to those alumni power networks that to this day continue to dominate private capital and public life.

The 1950s and All That

If Oxford and Cambridge may be significant in pamphlet publication, the question arises: how do they figure in little magazine publication? Using the place of publication in the magazines logged in British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000 you can glean a fair idea.

In the period 1914-1939, the megalopolis of London dominates with about half the new titles in our survey (117 of 236). Next Dublin is, if anything, slightly more productive than either Oxford or Cambridge, accounting for just over 7% of new titles in our survey, while Oxford and Cambridge account for just under 6% (but we are now looking at very small numbers and the difference may not be significant). 1914-1939 is of course a huge swathe of history and more needs to be done to break this down to clarify better publication patterns. New titles-wise the 1940s were proportionally quiet for Oxbridge, but the 1950s are more interesting.

That decade saw the average rate of new titles per year increase in these university towns at a time when little magazines overall were being produced less across the country. Quite a few other university towns – Belfast, Keele, Hull, Newcastle upon Tyne, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh – produced more new titles per year than they had in the previous decade. This seems to confirm that the 1950s was a time of cultural re-building in poetry, probably setting the literary foundations that underwrite the 1960s. It’s no great shock that the universities appear to have been part of this, but it is interesting to see circumstantial evidence of it at least in the pattern of little magazine publication. The overall decline in the 1950s of the little magazine in terms of number (from 152 in the 1940s to 125 in the 1950s) might be better considered as the unsustainability of so many magazines outside a war context (the fraught but substantial leisure time by the military and by those on the homefront was particularly suited to the lo-fi form of print). The Fifties should also, I think, be seen as a time when the UK saw a clarifying and founding of poetry networks by those who had been children or young adults during the war and who were now taking advantage of wider access to university education in an environment of culturalas well as physical rebuilding).

At least three little magazines from the 1950s relate in this way to the pamphlets in my list. Bob Cobbing’s magazine And began in the 1950s. Although it began as the magazine of a north London group called Arts Together it soon became a Writers Forum title, so there is a direct link between the magazine, that innovative press, and the pamphlet portfolio Six Sound Poems published in 1968. Interestingly, as I’ve learned in part by talking with Steve Willey who is a research fellow at the Queen Mary and the British Library, Cobbing’s background is not, I believe, university education. Rather he was grammar-school taught, then going on to teacher-training college. As Steve has suggested to me, there is also his dissenting and Quaker background to think of as models of support and artistic procedure: the workshop as a secular Quaker meeting. With this in mind – and thinking of similar non-establishment backgrounds in writers associated with the London grouping - some of the apparent animosity between London and Cambridge ‘schools’ of poetry can, yes, be put down to differences in formal approaches to the making, workshopping and means of dissemination of poetry. But another reason appears to be rivalry between modes of education, at times even a turf war over educational hegemony. From the outside, however, the (quite possibly false) differentiation has a good cop / bad cop effect: whatever the truth of the divide, both groups of poets and their poetry have more recently benefitted from the interest their apparent conflict has generated and a wider UK perspective (of great interest) is elided by and concentrated to some degree within the London-Cambridge nexus.

Roy Fisher’s City emerged from Migrant Press, the imprint of two men who had known each other since they were schoolchild boarders at a Cambridge private school in the 1940s. Michael Shayer and Gael Turnbull set up the magazine Migrant in the 1950s, moving into relatively regular pamphlet publication once they closed the magazine in September 1960. Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press was also directly influenced by Migrant, magazine and press, and may have been brought into being directly because of it. For Finlay, the conventional publishing model of progression from little magazine to small press was reversed: only after Wild Hawthorn Press had been established did he set up, in 1962, the classic little magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. This may have been because Wild Hawthorn was largely a means of self-publication, whereas Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., probably with a little help from Gael Turnbull’s address book, was a way of continuing and radically widening the poetry network Turnbull and Shayer had built around and through Migrant. Unlike the Migrant publishers, Finlay did not have a university education, nevermind a Cambridge one. Fisher’s education, at Birmingham University, may also mark a post-war difference in relative accessibility to education.

Finally there is J. H. Prynne’s Fire Lizard, published by Barry MacSweeney and Elaine Randell under their Blacksuede Boot Press imprint. Again this can be seen, admittedly very broadly, as a consequence of a chain of events set up in the 1950s by the emergent little magazine and little press infrastructure: Prynne was the final editor of the Cambridge magazine Prospect, set up in 1959 by Elaine Feinstein and concluding in 1964. Roger Banister and Peter Redgrove’s Delta was also a force in Cambridge in the 1950s and 60s. Later Prynne went on to co-edit series 3 of the magazine The English Intelligencer in 1968. Randell, while she was co-running the Blacksuede Boot Press, was also editing the magazine Amazing Grace. It’s obvious, too, that Cambridge University is, if not a protagonist in these publications, an enabling, or provoking, environment. There appears to be a slight quantitative difference, too - when you look at the titles in our survey you see that in the 1950s Cambridge produced more new little magazines per year than any other location except London – on average, 1 new little magazine per year. This rate was sustained in the period 1960-1975 (though Oxford began to publish more) and in arguably the key period 1966-1972 was higher. When that is mapped on to the appearance of presses who publish Cambridge-associated poets – Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press and John Riley’s Grosseteste Review – the suggestion is that there is something like a critical mass both being represented and stoked. More quantitative information – a survey of little presses, for example – would help build up a better data set to put the correlation in perspective.

In the meantime here is a simple comparison of the association between the little press scene in that sixties and seventies and the era many of those magazines and presses looked back to in admiration, the classic modernist period of 1914 to 1939. A word of caution: you may have noticed that those time periods are of different duration. Although using a ratio smoothes out a problem of comparing two different time-lengths (constructed using post-hoc notions of modernism and its re-birth), I think it’s more satisfactory to compare equal time periods: work for another day.

Misunderstanding the Media of Modernism?

In the first period there were approximately 236 new magazines in our survey (on average about 9 new titles per year). Of these 236 new magazines approximately 23 had an associated book imprint: publishing single author collections, anthologies or in some cases local history. So a book press to new magazine ratio of just under 1:10. For every ten new magazines there was a book imprint associated with one of them.

In the second period, 1960-1975, there were 539 new magazines in our survey (on average about 34 new titles per year). Of these 539 new magazines 141 had an associated book imprint, so a book press to new magazines ratio of about 1:4. For every four magazines there was a book press associated with one of them. In other words, not only were there quite simply many more little magazines per year in the 1960s and first half of the 1970s, a little magazine was much more likely to have a little press associated with it as well.

That sounds good on the one hand – lots of presses, lots of poetry – but it might also have posed difficulties for the clear transmission of poetry to a centralised and near-unitary media that had not necessarily moved in the same direction as the little press infrastructure. Even if it had, it would have found it physically impossible to accommodate such prodigious diversity. The classic modernist period, often seen as a model and inspiration for the British Poetry Revival, seems actually to have worked in a quite different way: comparatively few magazines, comparatively few presses, and so, arguably, comparatively easy to transmit modernist texts into the reviewing press and beyond.

One way of thinking about why this may be so is to consider the electric power industry. At the moment a very small number of very large power generators produce power distributed through the national grid. It is possible now for a small number of small power generators to localise energy production by small-scale solar and wind-generation on domestic properties and even to feed that into the National Grid.  Even if there were hundreds of thousands or millions of such small-scale producers, however, their ability to make their political presence felt on the national grid as a large community of small-scale producers would be difficult. At least the product would already be in a communicable form that the National Grid would immediately understand. The same could not be said for the different varieties of little press poetry, especially with a paucity of contextual and directing articles that would have greatly helped plug those texts into the Grid. What the history of 20th century little magazines and little presses may be pointing to is both the widespread benefits of constructive anarchy at numerous local levels, and the limits of influence that such constructive anarchy may achieve. The establishment in the late 1960s of the Association of Little Presses was probably a recognition of this though it remains to be seen whether ALP’s methods established a way into a more powerful transmitting infrastructure or in fact established a parallel but perhaps less effective network instead.

Across the Water, with Love

Finally a word, now, about format cross-over.  Fire Lizard, Six Sound Poems, and City, all make a similar statement about the potential of a small press book to be a time-bound event closer to periodical publication than book publication. When you look at Fire Lizard you see that there is a statement about the occasion of its publication: the colophon states that it is “written in Cambridge, New Year’s Day 1970”. Perhaps the presentation copy dedicated to Charles Olson, lodged now in the Ed Dorn archive at the University of Connecticut, was an alternative Christmas card: “For Charles, across the water, with love, New Year’s Day 1970, Jeremy”.

Both Fisher’s and Cobbing’s work are dated not just with the year but with the month [May 1961 says the title page of City, September 1968 says the colophon of Six Sound Poems]. It seems to me that both Migrant Press and Writers Forum, even when they didn’t specifically mention a periodical-like date on their publications (my memory is that they often did), were probably functioning as presses somewhere between a little magazine press and a book publisher: they were probably issuing books regularly to a list of subscribers.  Their slim light-weight nature also made them more post-able and again this is a characteristic of magazine culture. Writers Forum’s frequently meeting workshop was probably a further means by which its little press books were sold and the fact that there was a regularity to that workshop may have strengthened the sense of each Writers Forum being a kind of instalment in an open-ended series of booklets. So, to conclude with a reference to today’s theme, it may not have been a case that little presses and little magazines had a symbiosis but that, in some special cases, they were practically the same thing….


[1] The title is taken from W. H. Auden’s “II” (“I chose this lean country”), in Poems, [London:], S.H.S, 1928, p.11

[2] Richard Price, “Curator’s Choice: Ten Modern Poetry Pamphlets”, British Library website www.bl.uk/poetrypamphlets/curatorschoice.html [downloaded 19/3/09]

[3]Well, I don’t want to say more about friendship except to say that applying Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship as set out in his The Nichomachean Ethics (1155a3; 1156a16-1156b23) to modern sociological discourse on friendship (such as Ray Pahl’s work On Friendship (Polity, 2000) might be helpful. From there, understanding and measuring the different kinds of connection poets make through, by, and beyond little magazines could be taken forward.

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