Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Poetic Letters

Finding a cache of significant and insightful letters is a delightful way in which to invigorate one’s historical research. Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young, in their Between the Lines: A History of Poetry in Letters; Part II: 1962-2002 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-1-56663-636-8, is a window into such an archival collection. Using Poetry’s archives, located at the University of Chicago and Indiana University, Bloomington, Parisi and Young tell the story of the second half of this influential literary publication (they told the first in a volume published in 2002). Culling through 600,000 items, they selected initially about 7,000 letters and ultimately published 1100 (500 in this new volume).

Organizing the letters chronologically, with brief historical contexts and a modest but useful annotation, the compilers have created a rich tapestry of documentation both about the journal Poetry as well as the shifting nature of literary publishing and literary figures in the twentieth century. Parisi and Young describe how they originally conceived of their project to result in one volume instead of the two, “But the riches we uncovered in the archives, particularly the correspondence files, were so abundant, the poets’ first-person accounts of their lives – the private struggles, professional rivalries, backstage maneuverings, quarrels, kindnesses, and other little-known facts of poetry publishing revealed in the letters – were so fascinating, instructive, and often humorous, it became clear that two volumes would be required to tell the tale properly” (p. xvii). What is in Poetry’s archives is not a simple set of submission and acceptance or rejection letters, but an open dialogue about the meaning of poetry and its health and status in society. “Whether writing about their work, private lives, literary theories, peers, pet peeves, or events of the day, the poets spoke to Poetry’s editors over the decades with remarkable frankness” (p. xvii).

In one sense, Between the Lines is a kind of guide to Poetry’s archives. In fact, one could imagine this being an effective finding aid if there was additional discussion about the 589,000 items not used in the publication. We can imagine an archivist generating such a guide online by providing descriptions of the nature of the documents, then providing extensive samples of the kinds of records included in the archives.

Between the Lines is also a remarkable success story about publishing in our world of increasingly complex challenges posed by intellectual poetry. Many of the letters featured in this publication are by or to individuals still alive, all of whom gave their permission for the letters to be used in the book. If there were complex negotiations or difficult objections to resolve, Parisi and Young don’t reveal anything of such matters. The willingness of the poets and writers about poetry to allow their documents to be used is a testament to the vitality of this particular literary community.