Our holdings of books and manuscripts by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Richard Wilbur are well known to most poetry aficionados, but the poetry collections at Amherst College extend well beyond these three greats. In the past year I worked with two undergraduate courses that prompted me to dig deeper into other areas of our poetry holdings.
In the spring semester of this year, Nigel Alderman of Mount Holyoke College brought his seminar in modern poetry to the Archives & Special Collections to take a look at some of our books by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. For students who usually only encounter their readings in modern academic editions, spending some time looking at these poems in their original format can be enlightening. Instead of the dense brick of a Norton anthology, these students got to hold the slim booklets published in the nineteen-teens and twenties.
We are fortunate to have a very strong collection of Modernist literature in the Archives. We have two copies of the first edition of The Waste Land — numbers 46 and 811 of the limited run of 1,000 copies. While our holdings of Eliot’s other books are not quite comprehensive, we do have very nice copies of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), and many others.
Ezra Pound played a critical role in Eliot’s career, and those of many other Modernist poets. We have excellent holdings of the many iterations of Pound’s Cantos, including the very rare A Draft of XVI. Cantos (1925), as well as fine copies of the books that preceded that massive project. Our copy of Cathay (1915) in its original paper wrapper is particularly lovely with its very simple cover design.
Another rarity in the collection is our copy of James Joyce’s only book of poetry, Pomes Penyeach (1927). This very small volume includes just thirteen poems composed over a twenty year period from 1904 to 1924. Our Joyce collection is as complete as one could hope — we have first editions of Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Exiles (1918), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegan’s Wake (1939).
While these first editions are all wonderful, many of the works of these authors first saw print in a variety of small magazines. In the fall semester of 2011, Jen Acker (founding editor of The Common) taught a course about Little Magazines for which she made use of the holdings in the Archives & Special Collections. Some of her students were so interested in the history of these ephemeral publications that they curated an exhibit in the John William Ward Exhibition Room on the A Level of Frost Library. They selected items from the collections and wrote the text for the labels. The exhibit includes everything from Charles Dickens’s Household Words to recent issues of McSweeney’s. The students also selected several issues of The Little Review where Joyce’s Ulysses was first serialized, and Coterie, which published work by both Eliot and Pound.
The exhibition will be on view through the end of the summer 2012.