the whole story
In the early 1980s I lived close to Wirksworth, a former mining and quarry town in Derbyshire. One day I was walking along one of its streets, North End, and was drawn to a low brick building with a large window, perhaps because it contrasted with the pale limestone building of most of the town. Through this window I seemed to see a room full of old machines and stacks of something. Making enquiries locally I found out that this was the abandoned workshop of a printer who had died some years previously, and the stacks were of fine quality paper. I found his widow living across the road and bought from her, in several instalments, a quantity of mould-made paper probably dating from before the 1940s, mostly a light cream Ingres Mongolfier and an off-white Arnold Unbleached. About that time we moved to Cambridge and the paper came with us.
The workshop had been called The Brooks Press. I thought the printer was called Henry Brooks, but his widow seemed to be called Mrs Buxton. He was a jobbing letterpress printer but also did some publishing. I’ve retained two of his publications, both dated 1920: a printing of Coleridge’s Christabel, a small square quarto hand-set in Caslon Old Face and printed on Arnold Unbleached in an edition of 300, bound in heavy grey paper wrappers, and a book called The Reality of Self, anonymous but consisting entirely of a linking of seven extended quotations from authors unknown to me except for one, Edward Carpenter. No sources are listed and possibly the texts were written specially. Small trimmed octavo, Edition of 600, hand-set in Cheltenham Wide and printed on Arnold Unbleached, bound in paper boards with a paper label pasted onto the front panel.
My intention to use this paper for poetry was vague but soon crystallised into a series of individually authored octavo pamphlets, each of two sheets folded together to 8pp, the front cover to follow the traditional title-page design format, with a coloured device or small illustration in the centre. It seemed essential, to match the quality of the paper, that they should be printed letterpress. Nigel Wheale found me my first printer, Richard Baxter, who taught printing at what is now Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. In consultation with him the details of design were established which held through the entire series. He pointed out that there was no need whatsoever to bind the pamphlets because two sheets of paper of that texture would hold together disbound perfectly well.
There was never any scheme of representation or coverage. Most of the poet I published I’ve known for a long time, others I came across in the course of poetical activities in Cambridge. I watched out for, and took, texts as they occurred, with the initial intention of encouraging the production of substantial poems which would fill the five or six pages available. As the series progressed most of any associates I’ve ever had as a poet appeared in it, but at the end there were some I would have liked to include but for various reasons didn’t, notably Andrew Crozier, Anthony Barnett, John Hall, and Martin Thom. I planned one by Mark Hyatt and can’t remember why it never happened. I had a plan to invite Roy Fisher, Colin Simms, and Matthew Mead and Rosemary Tonks if I could find them; I wrote to the executors of W.S. Graham without result, and would have to those of Lynette Roberts. None of these came to anything because by the time I was having such thoughts the paper supply was showing signs of beginning to run out. To make life easier there was a “British only” rule, which was occasionally broken for the sake of visitors.
The highly traditional, balanced and symmetrical, design format was meant to contrast with the modernity of the texts, but at the same time to embody a statement about the nature of the modernity I was promoting; that it was a modernity entirely in line with the history of English poetry from the 16th Century (as early “Cambridge” writing for instance so clearly was) as against “Movement” and more recent forms of populist poetry which I can only understand as radical innovations.
The series was financed by subscribers, 65 in number at their maximum at the end of the run. There were 60 numbered issues 1985-2004 plus a couple hors série.
Information below on subsequent republication of the texts is limited to what I know without doing any research, and may not be entirely reliable.
Poetical Histories No.1. Nicholas Moore, Disguises of the Soul. 1985.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150, all numbered and signed by the poet. The cover device was a drawing by Nicholas taken from one of the advertising post-cards he issued latterly as a horticulturalist. One poem in four sections, reprinted in his Lacrimae Rerum (1988).
It was good to have a senior poet available to start the series. I had recently got to know Nicholas, a major force in 1940s poetry who had fallen on hard times in various ways. He had himself intended “Disguises of the Soul” as title for one of (very many) books of selections he planned. The pamphlet caused some slight stir, in Cambridge anyway, because nobody knew that he was writing poems in this mode.
Poetical Histories No.2. J.H. Prynne and Bernard Dubourg, Marzipan / Massepain. 1986.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 300, of which 10 were printed on a marzipan-coloured paper. One poem followed by its translation into French. The English text several times since reprinted.
Poetical Histories No.3. D.S. Marriot, Mortgages. 1986.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 130. The cover device is the maze on the floor of the nave of the Cathedral at Chartres. I don’t think this text, which was the author’s first separate publication, has ever been reprinted.
Thus the first three issues clearly indicated three generations, without intending to imply exclusivity or lineage. This wasn’t very well judged because Dave Marriott’s piece is in fact an attempt to write like J.H. Prynne, a mode he later abandoned.
Poetical Histories No.4. Peter Riley, Ospita. 1987.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 200, of which an unknown small quantity on a mid-grey paper. Sequence of ten 14-line poems, several times since reprinted.
Poetical Histories No.5. Grace Lake, La Facciata. 1988.
4pp on Ingres. Edition of 100 some few of which on a pink paper of the same manufacture. The cover device painted specially by the author. Two linked poems.
Grace Lake was the then pseudonym of Anna Mendelssohn.
Poetical Histories No.6. Ian Patterson, No Dice. 1988.
4pp on Ingres. Edition of 100 of which perhaps a half were printed on a pink paper. The cover device was by the author. Two poems.
Poetical Histories No. 7. David Chaloner, Where Once Was. 1989
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 100. The cover device was from a photograph supplied by the author, who chose its colour and placement low down on the page. Two poems, one of which in five sections. Republished in Collected Poems (2005).
Poetical Histories No.8. Dorian Cooke, Autumn to Summer Sequence. 1989.
8pp on Arnold Unbleached but a few on Ingres. Edition of 150. Cover device supplied by the publisher. A set of four sestinas, the first of which was first published in 1951. This remains the only edition.
This represented the emergence of Dorian Cooke into some kind of light of day for the first time for about 25 years. I learned of his existence while researching Nicholas Moore, and ran him to earth in Surbiton, in retirement from the BBC World Service.
I used to think that things like this publication, and the several I’ve done of Nicholas Moore, plus various essays, obituaries, reviews and so forth of these two, Matthew Mead, and others, however limited in their production, might initiate a process which would in the long run make some difference. Nothing makes any difference in this place. Reading of new poetry seems to be about 95 percent preconditioned by institutionalised endorsement routines. A lighted match could come out of the poem and insert itself into the reader’s nostril and they wouldn’t notice if they hadn’t been previously told to expect this by some award ceremony. Dorian died in 2005 and I wrote an obituary note on him in PN Review 168, 2006, quoting in full his elegy for Dylan Thomas, the beauty of which, I thought, must be evident to just-about anyone, and mentioning that Poetical Histories no.8 was still in print, and remained his only available work. I haven’t sold a single copy in the year since then, which means that all this made no difference, and that the quality of his Thomas elegy had failed to register on anyone because, in my belief, it lacked a signal from authority. Most authorities just say, “It’s all rubbish”, and people like that, it’s comforting, it reinforces innate ungenerosity without incurring responsibility. People agree at once without bothering to find out.
Poetical Histories No.9. Nigel Wheale, Remote Sensing. 1989.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 120, of which a very few on pink paper. The cover device, a Russian supermarket check-out slip, was supplied by the author. Three poems. Republished in Raw Skies 2006.
This issue was designed by Nigel and Richard Baxter without my intervention, emerging folded into a different taller format as suited the lengths of the three poems (thus scotching any ideas I might ever have had of getting the entire series bound together).
This was the last issue printed by Richard Baxter, who had to retire from the series due to pressure of work. I found my next printer, Derek Maggs, by asking Anthony Rudolf, for whom he had been producing letterpress books for some time. He was a retired civil servant living in London, just the other side of the Woolwich Ferry.
Poetical Histories No.10. Andrew Duncan, Knife Cuts the Water. 1990
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150, of which a few on pink with all lettering in pale blue. Three poems. This was the poet’s first separate publication. Text since reprinted piecemeal, I think.
It was me who broke the tradition by having coloured lettering on the cover, from this one onwards, though printer after printer told me it was not the done thing.
Poetical Histories No.11. Tom Lowenstein, Filibustering in Samsãra: a footnote. 1990
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150, of which a few on pink paper. One poem. The title indicates that it depends from his book Filibustering in Samsãra (Many Press 1987). Strangely, it has never been republished.
Poetical Histories No.12. John James, Local. 1990 4pp
4pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. One poem, several times since republished.
Poetical Histories No.13. Peter Hughes, Odes on St Cecilia’s Day. 1990
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. Two poems. Published on Saint Cecilia’s Day 1990. Republished in Blueroads (2003).
Poetical Histories No.14. Kelvin Corcoran, Remember Remember. 1991
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. The cover is not all black, for if you look again you will see that the picture is a very dark brown. Group of six poems, only the first and last ever republished.
Poetical Histories No.15. Wendy Mulford, Nevrazumitelny. 1991
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. One poem or sequence on five pages. On page (4) a line drawing by Julia Ball. Republished in And suddenly supposing: selected poems, 2002.
Wendy decided that the entire cover should be printed in yellow-ochre, though I thought that at least some black lettering would have improved it.
Poetical Histories No.16. Ian Davidson, Human to Begin With. 1991
8pp on pink Ingres. Edition of 150, of which a few on cream Ingres. Cover drawing by the author. One poem in six sections.
Poetical Histories No.17. Rajiv C. Krishnan, The Watches. 1992
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 150. Three poems. His first separate publication, indeed I think still his only publication, and the only printing.
Rajiv came from Kerala, and has gone back there. He lived in Cambridge for about three years as a student of J.H Prynne, and brought a refreshing sense of a socially welcome poetry, sometimes improvised, which has not been seen since.
Poetical Histories No.18. Simon Smith, North Star. 1992. 4pp
4pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 150. Set of five 14-line poems.
Derek Maggs printed one more issue after this one, no.22, which was actually produced before nos. 19-21. About this time he stopped work and died not long afterwards. The next printer I found was Michael Coles, a large untidy Irishman living in a very small house in Cambridge which contained one small hand-press. He did little else but print Poetical Histories, and had problems with alcohol, but I was later told by those with expert eye that he was a particularly fine page-designer.
Poetical Histories No.19. Tony Lopez, When you wish... 1992
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 170. One poem. Republished in Devolution (2000).
Poetical Histories No.20. Michael Haslam, Sothfastness. 1992
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 200, of which an unknown small quantity on grey. One poem with a small preface. Several times republished.
Poetical Histories No. 21. Maurice Scully, Over and Through. 1992.
12pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. Cover drawing by Leda Scully, “then aged eight”. Set of nine poems. Since republished piecemeal somewhere within Maurice’s extremely complex bibliography.
Due to Michael Coles’ incapacity, and in order to get it done in time for Maurice’s visit to CCCP 1992, this issue was printed by Brian Allen, a commercial letterpress printer in a village near Cambridge, with the help of a special grant supplied by Eastern Arts Board.
Poetical Histories No. 22. [J.H.Prynne] [poem in Chinese only] 1992.
4pp. on Arnold Unbleached. First edition of 300 copies, of which an insignificant quantity on Ingres. One poem in Chinese only, title-page in Chinese only. The cover device is the author’s personal seal, impressed by him on each copy.
Second edition of 150 copies 2004, printed by Peter Lloyd.
Jeremy preferred not to have a translation included. “No explanations”, he said. Some clandestine photocopied translations were floated around Cambridge at the time (not by me). The second edition was produced mainly for him to take with him to China for his friends there.
Poetical Histories No.23. Ralph Hawkins, Routes & Abrasions. 1993
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 170 of which a very few on grey paper. Cover drawing by the author. Set of five short poems.
Poetical Histories No.24. Helen Macdonald, Simple Objects. 1993
8pp on grey Ingres. Edition of 150 of which a few on cream and a very few on marzipan paper. Cover drawing by the author. Set of five poems. Republished in Shaler’s Fish (2001)
Poetical Histories No.25. John Welch, Its Radiance. 1992
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. Set of five + three poems.
Poetical Histories No.26. Denise Riley, Four Falling. 1993
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. Cover drawing by the author. Four poems. Reprinted in Mop Mop Georgette a few months after this publication, and then in Selected Poems (2000).
To get this issue, with far more text than usual, done in reasonable time, the printing was split. Michael Coles printed the outer sheet, and Brian Allen the inner 4 pages with the texts of the poems. For this latter some cheating went on – the text was not strictly letterset, but electronically typeset and run off from a paper plate on a hand-operated machine.
Poetical Histories No.27. Peter Riley, Sea Watch Elegies. 1993
Edition of 200. Cover drawing by Helen Macdonald, after an illustration in British Birds by W.H. Hudson. The red beak and legs of the chough were coloured by hand by myself. One poem or sequence. Republished in Passing Measures and The Llyn Writings.
Poetical Histories No. 28. Douglas Oliver, What Fades Will Be. 1993
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. The cover device is from a woodcut by William Barnes. Four poems.
Not such a special issue as it should have been, because I very much wanted to get Doug into the series and as he had no substantial work to fill an issue available at the time, I got four stray uncollected poems. The printing here too was divided among Coles and Allen, but I don’t remember exactly how, and I don’t think any, or much, cheating went on. Brian Allen printed the next two, and Michael Coles resumed with no.30
Poetical Histories No.29. Seán Rafferty, Peacocks Full Stop. 1993.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 140. Ten copies had an extra poem written on page (7) by the author and signed. The cover was from a Korean paper cut-out. One poem in three sections.
Nicholas Johnson directed me towards Rafferty, who was looking after the chickens on Ted Hughes’ establishment in north Devon, having formerly been a light of the London amateur theatre scene, and an innkeeper whose lavishness in the culinary department wrecked him financially. He died at the end of 1993.
Poetical Histories No.30. R.F. Langley, Man Jack. 1993
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 120, of which 27 on grey paper. Cover drawing by the author, after a Greek coin. One poem.
Poetical Histories No.31. Geoff Ward, Ian Patterson and Stephen Rodefer, Rilke I, IV, VI. 1993.
12pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. No cover device. Versions of Rilke’s first, fourth and sixth Duino Elegies by the three poets, in the title-page order. The versions by Rodefer and Patterson have not been republished.
Poetical Histories No.32. Andrew Webster, Bottle of Pop. 1994
8pp on grey or cream Ingres. Edition of 130. Cover drawing by the author. Ten poems, the only edition and the author’s first publication.
About this time Michael Coles went to Northern Ireland to visit his mother and never came back, but, I was glad to hear, underwent a successful cure for alcoholism there. No.33 was printed by Brian Allen.
Poetical Histories No.33. Andrew Brewerton, Sirius. 1995
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150, of which some on grey paper. Three poems and one prose piece. His first separate publication, and still the only edition.
For the rest of the series my printer was Peter Lloyd, of the Holbeche Press, Rugby. He was passed on to me, as it were, by Peter Larkin, for whom he had produced the Prest Roots Press books. A hard-working professional letterpress printer with a special interest in the setting of poetry, and a very lucky find. In his system the setting was done on a linotype machine, which I never saw but it was described as an enormous typewriter with a card roll running through it. He employed a man he described as “very old” to work this thing and I got the impression that hardly anybody else in the realm knew how to. Each time I brought a new text to him I feared to hear that the ancient typesetter had succumbed to something, but he hung out to the end of the series and hopefully beyond.
Poetical Histories No.34. Stephen Rodefer, Answer to Doctor Agathon. 1996.
12pp on grey or cream Ingres. Edition of 200. Cover drawing by the author. One poem.
The second honorary Britisher in the series, resident in Cambridge at that time for over a year. The author described the letter in which I persuaded him to have the ugly cover picture reduced greatly in size, as “a masterpiece of tact”.
Poetical Histories No.35. Jennifer Chalmers, Peat. 1996
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. Cover drawing by David Quine from his St Kilda Revisited. One poem. There was an unfortunate misprint on page (4) whereby the author’s “a couch of oak” became “a coach of oak”. This was corrected either by hand in pencil or by an inserted slip. Her only separate publication, reprinted only in the anthology FOIL (2000).
Poetical Histories No.36. Ken Edwards, I Go to Sleep. 1996
8pp on mid-grey Ingres. Edition of 200 of which a small quantity on cream. A reprint of the edition done by Short Run Press, Cheltenham, 1995, in 26 copies. Five poems in sequence.
Poetical Histories No.37. John Kinsella, Anathalamion. 1996
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. One poem in five sections.
The third honorary Britisher in the series, resident in Cambridge for about a year by then. I’ve never seen this poem, one of Kinsella’s finest, reprinted, but I can’t be sure.
Poetical Histories No.38. Randolph Healy, Envelopes. 1996
8pp on grey Ingres. Edition of 150. Two poems. Republished in Green 532 (2002)
Poetical Histories No.39. Keston Sutherland, vac stucco. 1996
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. One poem in seven sections, the only printing.
Poetical Histories No.40. Tony Baker, As You Were. 1996
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150, of which some on grey paper. The cover picture is a Bewick woodcut. One poem in six sections.
Poetical Histories No.41. Andrea Brady, Cranked Foil. 1997
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. One poem.
Poetical Histories No.42. Simon Marsh, The Ice Glossaries. 1997
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. Set of seven small poems. The only edition.
Poetical Histories No.43. Adrian Harding, This House is But a Butchery. 1997
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. One poem in three parts. Never since republished.
Poetical Histories No.44. Michael Ayres, 1976 Streets.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 150. Cover drawing by Lisa Dedman. One poem in nine sections, republished in a.m. (2003).
Poetical Histories No.45. Alice Notley, Byzantine Parables. 1998.
12pp on grey Ingres. Edition of 200. Two connected poems.
Alice’s Britishness was established by her partnership with Douglas Oliver and by living in Paris, as so many British (and Americans) have. This text might never have been reprinted.
Poetical Histories No.46. Robert Adamson, Meaning. 1998.
12pp on Ingres. Edition of 200. Cover drawing by Robert Duncan. Nine poems, variously republished since.
Done for his visit to Cambridge for CCCP 1998. One-off visitors didn’t normally get this privilege, but Robert was known to be so resistant to any attempt to absent him from the Hawksbury River in Australia, that some memorial of the occasion seemed to be called-for. The drawing was one sent to Robert by Robert Duncan many years previously.
Poetical Histories No.47. Ralph Hawkins, Part One Puskin. 1998
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 130. One poem in eight sections. Republished in The Moon, the Chief Hairdresser (2004)
Poetical Histories No.48. Sam Brenton, Telephone Voices. 1998
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 130. Sequence of 14 poems. The author’s first publication.
Poetical Histories No.49. Barry MacSweeney, Pearl in the Silver Morning. 1999.
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 170, of which a few on marzipan paper. Cover after a photograph by the author, treated by Peter Lloyd. Five poems. Since republished in Wolf Tongue (2003).
These were selected by me, at Barry’s request, from a typescript of about 50 poems. The only change he made after seeing the selection was to reverse the order of the last two poems; I had favoured a more optimistic ending.
Poetical Histories No.50. Lorand Gaspar and Peter Riley, Nocturnes. 2000
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 150. Cover drawing from an ink-wash by T’ang, adapted to a relief block by Peter Lloyd. Six poems, set sequentially by the author for this edition, in French with English translation under each on the page.
Poetical Histories No.51. Michael Ayres, The Sky that was your Guide. 2000
12pp on grey Ingres. Edition of 150. Cover artwork by Lisa Kirkham (the Lisa Dedman of no.44 as was). Four poems. Never since republished.
Poetical Histories No.52. John Temple, A Tension. 2001
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 120. Cover picture by Colin Temple. Nine poems. Republished in Collected Poems, 2003.
Another Poetical History which represented an emergence, after people had been going around saying, “What became of John Temple?” for thirty years or so. These were selected and ordered by me in collaboration with the author.
About this time editions got smaller and the grey paper was used more because the supply of cream Ingres obviously didn’t have a lot longer to go.
Poetical Histories No.53. Pete Smith, Harm’s Length. 2001
8pp on grey Ingres. Edition of 100. Cover drawing by Lyn Smith. Eight poems.
Poetical Histories No.54. David Chaloner, Villa of Mysteries. 2001
8pp on Ingres. Edition of 120. One poem and one prose piece.
This was published partly to correct an error, by which the opening poem somehow failed to appear in the collection, April Eye, made for my 60th Birthday, for which it was destined..
Poetical Histories No.55. Peter Riley, Messenger Street: to the memory of Douglas Oliver. 2001
8pp on grey Ingres. Edition of 160, of which a small quantity on marzipan or cream paper. Set of three poems and a version of Baudelaire, since republished in The Day’s Final Balance.
Poetical Histories No.56. Al-Mutanabbí, He Said to his Prince & Patron Sayf al-Dawla. Translated by Walid Abdul-Hamid and Nigel Wheale. 2002
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 120.
Issues from here onwards appeared without the acknowledgement “With financial assistance from Eastern Arts Board”, who had been intermittently extremely helpful through the series. About this time I was told that in their 27th reorganisation that year, the literature department had been absorbed into the performing arts department and I received a form to fill in requiring to know how many actors I intended to employ, and details of disabled access. I learned from Tim Longville the techniques of surviving under Arts Council grants.
Poetical Histories No.57. John Seed, Divided into One. 2003
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 120. Sequence of five poems, republished in extended form in New and Collected Poems (2005)
Poetical Histories No.58. Andrew Brewerton, Cade l’Uliva. 2003
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 120. Sequence of five short poems in memory of Douglas Oliver, with a note. Part of the long sequence Raag Leaves for Paresh Chakraborty, published as a book by Shearsman, 2008.
Poetical Histories No.59. Thomas A. Clark, Creag Liath. 2003.
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 120. Cover drawing by Laurie Clark. Set of four poems and a note.
Poetical Histories No.60. Kelvin Corcoran, Helen Mania. 2004
8pp on Arnold Unbleached. Edition of 150. Cover picture by David Rees. Sequence of ten poems, reprinted in Backward Turning Sea, 2008.
unnumbered) Barry MacSweeney, False Lapwing. 2002.
4pp produced variously on Arnold Unbleached, and cream, marzipan or grey Ingres. Edition of 250. Two poems.
Produced because of another, not exactly error, but uncertainty, in April Eye. These were the poems Barry originally intended to send for that collection, but he sent others instead, we don’t know whether by design or not. These were recovered from the MacSweeney archive at the University of Newcastle Library.
unnumbered) Peter Riley, Only the Song. 2004.
4pp on Arnold Unbleached. No limitation stated. Cover picture by Colin Whitworth. One poem, with introduction.
This was produced “as a gift to the subscribers who have supported the series through its history.” The series ended because there was no paper left.