Modern Poetry Opening talk

Modern Poetry
Opening talk
Poetry books have a mysterious quality of accruing value over time. They’re published in very small
print runs, with usually only a few copies sold, and can sometimes seem worthless even to their
authors at the time they appear. They are stocked in bookshops for only a brief period, with maybe a
few reviews in specialist journals, and then very quickly vanish. T.S. Eliot’s first book sold 371 copies,
and earned him ten pounds (he did better with The Waste Land). But it turns out that these
overlooked commodities, by some subterranean process of transformation, can become remarkably
valuable fifty or a hundred years later. The quite priceless works that Rare Books have gathered for
this exhibition is a kleptomaniac’s delight for anyone interested in twentieth century poetry – I have my
eye particularly on the 1933 Active Anthology, which is the signed personal copy of William Carlos
Williams. All of the major figures are represented here by their most exemplary work, and it’s a tribute
to the perspicacity of Richard and his colleagues who have gathered this remarkable collection that
they can present such an authoritative and wide-ranging representation of what’s happened in poetry
over the past hundred years.
Artefacts of this kind have another kind of value, of course, which is directly related to their
importance for scholarly work. The opportunity to view original texts of this kind provides the shock of
excitement that always leads directly to research. This isn’t just a matter of the frisson of authenticity,
though that shouldn’t be underestimated – the opportunity to hold William Carlos Williams’ copy of
that anthology, for example. It’s also the palpable sense of history that comes from seeing works in
their proper context, in their milieu, against their exact period. This is particularly the case with
anthologies and literary journals, which allow you to position writers in their precise relationship to
those who were working alongside them, allowing you to identify similarities and allegiances that
would otherwise be overlooked. Even extra-textual information – the style of cover art, for example –
can be revealing. Or paratextual advertisements: a poetry journal published in Melbourne in the
1930s included ads for all the art exhibitions happening in the city at that time – it provides a sense of
an entire scene, and a background far more sophisticated than one might have suspected, for the
work that was being published here during that period.
So when students come to me with an interest in undertaking research projects in poetry, the first
place I send them to is the Rare Books Library at Monash. The collection of artefacts relating to
Australian poetry from the past fifty years is really about the best in the country – and as this
exhibition identifies, the international holdings are just as impressive and useful. So I thoroughly
recommend 20th Century Poetry: Britain and America, and I’ll continue to send my students to Richard
for his vast knowledge and enthusiasm.
John Hawke
14 June 2013