The Pamphlet: A Compact Universe

Pamphlets are one of the first places the reader can encounter new poets. Arguably the best way the public can discover very recent work, the pamphlet offers a concentrated burst of poetry for its audience. Whether it’s a well-judged showcase of a new poet’s range or the powerful concentrate of a themed sequence, the short book, the pamphlet or “chapbook”, is a compact universe, an art-form in itself.

It’s often the poet’s publication of choice, too: it may be as portable as a passport but it quickly crosses so many more borders – real borders but checkpoints of the imagination as well.

Pamphlet publishers help new authors emerge while giving established poets the thinking space for new ideas. They match text with sympathetic graphics, well-judged typography and visual panache. They invest in new writing and new ways of presenting poetry and promoting it to readers, helping to develop a wider audience for the form.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf knew this when they published new poetry by TS Eliot and Robert Graves in the little books of the Hogarth Press. The only poetry book Edward Thomas published in his lifetime was a pamphlet, Six Poems by ‘Edward Eastaway’.

WH Auden’s first book, Poems (1928) is another remarkable example. It was printed by his friend Stephen Spender on the kind of press used for printing prescriptions. As history has shown, its contents did turn out to be strong medicine in a small bottle.

All traditions are represented by the pamphlet : Philip Larkin, Bob Cobbing, Ted Hughes, J H Prynne, Carol Ann Duffy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Penelope Shuttle, Tom Leonard, Kathleen Jamie, Simon Armitage, Daljit Nagra and Jen Hadfield have all used the very slim volume with aplomb. Across the decades the pamphlet has announced new poets and new poetry, and the tradition continues today.

The British Library holds one of the most extensive collections of modern UK poetry pamphlets in the world.