In the archives

Matthew Sperling writes:

5 October 2013

 In a couple of days I’ll be returning to England from Stanford, California, where I’ve been fossicking in the archive papers of Nathaniel Tarn, thanks to the generous research support of the Leverhulme Trust. Tarn is not much read in England these days, but he’s a fascinating figure: a wide-ranging poet-anthropologist, and a true internationalist in his life and outlook. For the past few decades he’s been thought of primarily as an American poet, but he was in London throughout the 1960s, and there he played a major role in the publishing ventures I’ve been investigating, through his association with Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape Ltd. Tarn was the instigator and general editor of the innovative Cape Editions series, publishing short texts in attractive paperbacks by the likes of Roland Barthes, Charles Olson, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and also one of the editors of the Cape Goliard imprint – what Tarn called a ‘Little Press within a Publishing House’. Cape Goliard published poetry of an experimental, late-modernist tendency by Olson, J.H. Prynne, Tom Raworth, Allen Ginsberg, and many others, in beautifully printed and designed editions which aimed to reach beyond the coterie readership of most poetry books to the intelligent general reader.

Matthew Cactus

Cactus by my front door in Palo Alto, California

The Stanford papers concerning Tarn’s Cape activities show another side of the story that I’ve been investigating this year in Reading’s Special Collections, where we hold the Jonathan Cape papers, as part of the Random House archive. And before I came to California I spent the first part of September at the University of Connecticut, looking at other archives connected to this fascinating moment in poetry publishing and transatlantic relations. At UConn they have most of the papers of Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, and Tom Raworth, some of the key poets whose works were issued from the 1960s small presses I’m most interested in – Migrant, Goliard / Cape Goliard, Fulcrum, and Trigram.

Matthew groundhog

A groundhog at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

 Even 3,000 miles away in Connecticut and 5,000 miles away in Stanford, Reading cropped up in the archive. Not only did I read letters from the 1990s where Tarn and Maschler, now old men, discussed the deposit of the Cape archive concerning their joint ventures of thirty years ago in Reading’s Special Collections, then under the stewardship of Mike Bott. I also found the notebook in which Edward Dorn first drafted these lines in 1966:

 She got off the train in Reading

pronounced Red ing. I yawned a little

riding through Reading.

[Edward Dorn, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2012), p. 250.]

And I also found in the Dorn archive a 1976 letter from a plucky young poet-critic seeking submissions for a magazine called Perfect Bound. His name? None other than Peter Robinson, now my Head of Department and Capo di tutti Capi in the Reading poetry scene.

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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