Five Rare Books for Collectors: National Poetry Library

National Poetry Library

Buile Suibhne by Seán Hewitt

The National Poetry Library celebrates its 70th birthday on July 23. The celebration will include extended live readings from headlining poets from Poetry International festival 2023 - CAConrad, Jorie Graham, John Kinsella, Lidija Dimkovska, Belinda Zhawi, Yang Lian and Olive Senior. In addition, each poet has been invited to select their favourite poem from the National Poetry Library’s collection to share on the evening.

Here are five rare books from the library's collection, chosen by Assistant Librarian Will René.

* Buile Suibhne by Seán Hewitt [Rochdale, England : Andrew J. Moorhouse, 2021]

Since establishing Fine Press Poetry in 2013, Andrew J Moorhouse has published work by - among many others - Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Oswald, and Zaffar Kunial, regularly combining poetry with artworks and engravings. Seán Hewitt’s Buile Suibhne, published earlier this year, is a brilliant example of the attention to detail that goes into these publications: letterpress printed and bound in dark blue linen with a bright green leather spine, and accompanied by wood engravings by Amy Jeffs, this item is testament to how the tradition of crafting beautiful poetry books continues to this day. Seán Hewitt won the Gingko Prize in 2017, and this year judges the 2023 shortlist at the Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry: Shortlist Readings at the Southbank Centre on July 21 during Poetry International festival.

* If You by Robert Creeley [San Francisco : The Porpoise Bookshop, 1956]

Published in an edition of 200 copies by the Porpoise Bookshop in San Francisco, this beautiful item gives us an insight into the early work of Robert Creeley, an American minimalist poet often associated with the Black Mountain poets. The poems, accompanied by abstract illustrations by Fielding Dawson, are presented here on loose sheets, and laid between two large pale blue covers. To add to this taste of literary history, also inserted into the covers is a flyer for a Robert Creeley poetry reading on Southampton Row in London in 1966.

If You by Robert Creeley
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National Poetry Library

If You by Robert Creeley

In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks
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National Poetry Library

In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks

To Answer! by Vladimir Mayakovsky
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National Poetry Library

To Answer! by Vladimir Mayakovsky

short-cuts by Erica Van Horn and Simon Cutts
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National Poetry Library

short-cuts by Erica Van Horn and Simon Cutts

* In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks [New York ; Evanston ; London : Harper & Row, 1968]

In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks - the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry - was the poet’s first collection of poetry after a gap of ten years, and saw her writing with renewed power and urgency about working-class black lives and social injustice. This first edition copy held by the library is made particularly special by a handwritten inscription by Brooks: “For Floyd, Sincerely and with Pride, Gwendolyn Brooks, October 19, 1983.”

* To Answer! by Vladimir Mayakovsky [S.l.: M.C. Caine : Privately Printed, 1982]

This unique item was privately published in a limited edition of 55. The colophon reads that the book was produced to commemorate the ‘arrival of Mayakovsky in London’ - an enigmatic claim, given that the Russian poet died in 1930, having never visited London. The eight pages of this beautiful item contain an English translation of a single poem written in 1917, with text set in bold type, with Russian characters boldly spelling out the poet’s name in black and red along the top of the pages. The poem’s anti-war sentiment - ending with the question “WHY ARE WE FIGHTING?” - resonates even after more than a century.

* short-cuts by Erica Van Horn and Simon Cutts [Clonmel, Tipperary : Coracle, 2008]

Active since 1975, Coracle have long been playing with the notion of the book as an object in interesting ways, and over the years they have produced a huge number of strange, beautiful and ephemeral objects. 2008’s short-cuts - made by Erica Van Horn and Simon Cutts, who run the press - is an artist’s book in the form of a concertina folded card, which simply presents words used in Britain to describe alleyways or shortcuts between buildings, from ‘jowlers’ to ‘snickleways’. With its emphasis on language and materiality, this item fits perfectly among the library’s unique holdings of rare poetry pamphlets and ephemera

Poetry International is a major biannual poetry festival founded by Ted Hughes in 1967. The Southbank Centre’s longest running festival, Poetry International returns for the first time since 2019 to examine ecopoetry and the environment, celebrating poets as activists and those using their craft to preserve languages and environments. Poetry International runs at the Southbank Centre July 21-23.

The Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library is the largest public collection of modern poetry in the world and is housed in the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre in London. Founded by the Arts Council in 1953 and opened by poets T.S. Eliot and Herbert Read, the library contains over 200,000 items spanning from 1912 to the present day, extensive resources for poets, academics, schools and families. Hosting exhibitions and events, as well as offering an extensive catalogue and ebook service accessible online, the library is free to use.

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