Curator's Choice: 10 Modern Poetry Pamphlets

Chosen by Dr Richard Price, Head of Modern British Collections, The British Library

What is a pamphlet? This can be a question on the lines of “How long is a piece of string?” but for these purposes it’s simply a short book – say, 36 pages or less. The pamphlet has been an important communicator of political and religious ideas over the centuries but it is poetry and poetry alone that is the subject here.

A pamphlet is usually a stapled booklet without a hard binding but our working definition is what we hope is a generous one, so it can still be a hardback: two hardbound heavyweights were T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Philip Larkin’s The North Ship, both 35 pages, each weighing in just within our upper limit.

The list below only scratches the surface of pamphlet poetry. It’s tempting to open the doors more internationally – in which case La prose du Transsibérien (1913) by Blaise Cendrars with images by Sonia Delaunay – would be a wonderful example. This long poem about an imagined trip on the Trans-Siberian Express is unfolded as one colourful sheet, a beautifully imagined rendering of the poem.

Eliot’s The Waste Land, mentioned above, would also be there but for a much larger selection with this title that had been published in the United States in the previous year. Even so this is a key twentieth century text in all its concentration: the poem, the whole poem and nothing but the poem. It was published in Richmond, Surrey, by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in the Hogarth Press imprint.

North of the border, a 1940 book with the utilitarian title 17 Poems for 6d contained poems in Gaelic, Scots and English. It announced what would come to be the towering presence in modern Gaelic poetry of Sorley Maclean and the master of Edinburgh Scots Robert Garioch. Seamus Heaney’s Eleven Poems (Festival Publications, 1965) is also notable: this sixteen page publication was the first book by the poet who later became a Nobel laureate. By the time it was published Heaney was already signed by the large independent Faber, who published Death of a Naturalist the following year. Other poets in the Festival pamphlet series included several now widely acclaimed, including Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and John Montague.

Over the course of the century many others have adopted the pamphlet for their poetry – including Ted Hughes, Edwin Morgan, Anne Stevenson, Carol Ann Duffy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Paul Muldoon, Ian Sinclair, Penelope Shuttle, James Fenton, Daljit Nagra, Barry Macsweeney, Tom Leonard, Simon Armitage, Jen Hadfield and Benjamin Zephaniah. So this list is an entirely personal choice.

1. Edward Thomas, Six Poems [1916]. Published under the pseudonym Edward Eastaway this is the only book of poems published by Thomas in his lifetime. It is a glimpse of the lyric poetry which only fully emerged posthumously, helping to re-focus English poetry in the direction of a subtle, sometimes angry, plain-speaking lyric. (British Library shelfmark: 11642.h.49)

quotation: “This is no case of petty right or wrong / That politicians or philosopher / Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.”

2. W. H. Auden, Poems (1928). This was printed by Auden’s friend Stephen Spender – initially quite badly – on the kind of press used for printing prescriptions. It was later finished by a professional printer, the Holywell Press in Oxford. (British Library shelfmark: C.190.aa.24)

quotation: “A blackbird’s sudden scurry / Lets broken tree twigs fall / To shake the torpid pool; / And, breaking from the copse, / I climb the hill, my corpse / Already wept, and pass / Alive into the house.”

3. Dylan Thomas, 18 poems (Sunday Referee and Parton Bookshop, 1934). The Welsh master’s debut was published after Thomas had won a competition in the Sunday Referee national newspaper. It was co-published by the Referee and the legendary alternative bookshop. Thomas was barely out of his teens. (British Library shelfmark: Cup.403.d.1.)

quotation: “Especially when the October wind / With frosty fingers punishes my hair, / Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire / And cast a shadow crab upon the land,”

4. Philip Larkin, The North Ship (Fortune Press, 1945). In a way a false start – in later books Larkin sloughed off the Auden and Yeats influences he displays here – but Larkin’s lonely melancholy is already present. (British Library shelfmark: Larkin 35)

quotation: “Heaviest of flowers, the head / Forever hangs above a stormless bed.”

5. Roy Fisher, City (Migrant Press, 1961). Fisher’s largely prose-poetry evocation of Birmingham was published by fellow poets Gael Turnbull and Michael Shayer. (British Library shelfmark: X.908/3159) .

quotation: “The society of singing birds and the society of mechanical hammers inhabit the world together, slightly ruffled and confined by each other’s presence.”

6. Ian Hamilton Finlay, Glasgow Beasts, An a Burd, Haw, An Inseks, An, Aw, A Fush (papercuts by John Picking and design by Pete McGinn; 1961). A charming book that combines Glaswegian, the ancient idea of a bestiary (about the secret life of creatures) and high production values. Despite or because of the lightness of touch it was controversial, offending some who weren’t open to the expressive potential of urban Scots. (British Library shelfmark: Cup.510.cop.1)

quotation: “see me / wan time / ah wis a fox / an wis ah sleekit!”

7. Bob Cobbing, Six Sound Poems (Writers Forum, 1968). Many of Bob Cobbing’s books were in pamphlet form. He was a founder of Writers Forum which published hundreds of stapled books by himself and by other poets. Some moved onto other kinds of writing - the US political writer P. J. O’Rourke for example, who had an early avant-garde collection published by the press. Some, like Maggie O’Sullivan and Bill Griffiths, continued to develop their poetry using the small presses. Cobbing was famed for his sound poetry performances but on the page he was also a visual poet, experimenting with fonts, collage, overlays and the full space of the page. (British Library shelfmark: YA.2003.b.3717)

quotation: “wan / do / tree / fear / fife”

8. J. H. Prynne, Fire Lizard (The Blacksuede Boot Press, 1970). Prynne is perhaps the pamphlet poet par excellence – many of his works exist first as individual sequences published as short books by small presses. This press was run by fellow poets Barry Macsweeney and Elaine Randell. Lyrical and many-layered, Prynne’s poetry rewards the contemplation given space by the pamphlet’s physical form. (British Library shelfmark: Cup.501.h.41).

quotation: “Still I love you. / That’s the reason too.”

9. Denise Riley, Marxism for infants (Street Editions 1977). An early book by a poet who is regarded as both a lyrical and avant-garde writer (see also her pamphlet collaboration with Wendy Mulford, No Fee: A Line or Two for Free, Street Editions, 1978). Riley is concerned especially with the way that domestic and everyday language shapes and challenges identity. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1993.b.442)

quotation: “hold fast in arms before astonished eyes / whom you must grasp through great changes / constant and receptive as a capital city”

10. Kathleen Jamie, Black Spiders (Salamander, 1982). The debut of a poet later acclaimed for her travel writing and the lyric power of her poetry. (British Library shelfmark: X.950/28488)

quotation: “Every taken chasing step / in the parting dark / from the old barred door / made a few stars fade.”