Jane Robbins Mize is a senior in English and Liberal Arts Honors and is a current intern in the Ransom Center’s public affairs department. She recently worked in the Anne Sexton papers for her English class “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.”
After several undergraduate poetry courses, I had heard Anne Sexton’s name countless times. I’d read samples of her work in course packets and anthologies, and I knew she was a “confessional” poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath. But, I had never read a complete collection of her poems (I could not even name the title of one), and I was even less familiar with her family and career.
So when given the opportunity, I signed up to give an oral presentation on Anne Sexton’s life and work in my English class, “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.” In a preliminary conference with Professor Carol MacKay, she described to me the Ransom Center’s collection of Sexton’s manuscripts and suggested that I explore the archive myself before presenting. I unhesitatingly agreed and soon found myself in the Reading Room holding the manuscript of Sexton’s best-known collection, Live or Die.
Sexton began writing poetry as therapy for her post-partum depression in 1956, the year following the birth of her second daughter. Soon after, she began working with poets such as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell and developed a close friendship with Maxine Kumin. She published her first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back, in 1960. Just six years later, Sexton released her most celebrated work, Live or Die, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.
The manuscript of Live or Die is, in a word, raw. Through it, I was able to experience Sexton’s work in an unembellished state. That is to say, my reading of the poems was not influenced by the presentation of the collection. I encountered no introduction or blurbs, biography, or portrait. Instead, I found only the table of contents, dedication, and poems themselves—in addition to frequent penciled corrections. In this way, the manuscript introduced me to Sexton’s work through the content and nature of her poems rather than the reputation that precedes them.
My relationship with Sexton slipped quickly from vague acquaintance to deep familiarity as I scanned her correspondences and sifted through her notes, photographs, and even the digitized pages of the scrapbooks and journals of her youth. Through the archive, I was able to develop a more complete portrait of Sexton than that which could be presented in a written biography. I was collecting the details and, through them, gaining a deeper understanding of the woman’s life, character, and creative process.
It is exceedingly rare to meet a writer and explore her work through her private, personal, and unpublished papers. At the Ransom Center, however, hundreds of authors and artists are waiting to be introduced. I look forward to many more first encounters.
Dariusz Pachocki, an assistant professor in Polish studies at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, worked in the Bolesław Leśmian papers at the Ransom Center in 2013. While here, he investigated the provenance of the collection and pieced together the long journey the papers took before their arrival at the Ransom Center in 1970, and below, he writes about that journey. Pachocki’s research was supported by the Edwin Gale Fellowship.
Manuscripts of many outstanding writers are stored in the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, and there are even archival materials from writers who never visited the United States and never wrote anything in English. For example, the Ransom Center has a great collection of manuscripts by Polish writer Bolesław Leśmian. How did the manuscripts of one of Poland’s greatest writers end up in the United States? This is the short story of a long and complex tale that brought these manuscripts to Texas.
Bolesław Leśmian (1877–1937) came from an assimilated family of Jewish intelligentsia. In importance, he ranks with other such poets of his time as T. S. Eliot or Rainer Maria Rilke. However, his work was appreciated only at the end of his life. Scholars of literature have described him as a great poet with a brilliant style of language, which he used skillfully in his creation of numerous neologisms. A man of great culture, he combined old philosophies with modern skepticism. He wrote fables, essays, and dramas, among other things, but poetry was the most important. Though he published only three books of poems during his lifetime, he influenced the history of Polish literature. Few manuscripts have been preserved, so the collection at the Ransom Center is very important for Polish culture.
The journey of the manuscripts begins in 1944 during the Warsaw Rising, a rebellion during World War II that was violently supressed by Nazi Germany. Many civilians, including Leśmian’s wife Zofia Chylińska and his daughter Maria, left the city because of military action. Leśmian had died two years before the outbreak of World War II, and so his wife and daughter were forced to manage on their own during the occupation. Before the women left the city, Chylińska divided his literary output into two parts and placed them in suitcases. The first included manuscripts of literary works that had been published, and the other contained manuscripts that were unknown and unpublished. The women did not know what their fate would be, and so they took with them only the most necessary and most valuable items. They could not take both suitcases, so they decided to leave the suitcase with published manuscripts in the basement of their acquaintance. Leśmian’s daughter Maria recalled these events after the war in her memoir:
“Notebooks in a black cover made from oilcloth. Lost manuscripts. It was impossible to save them all and take from the burning house. Mother was weak from despair. She could not lift a leaf from the ground. But Warsaw was burning. And despite this I carried bulging suitcase on Rakowiecka Street to the house which was not in flames. It was opposite to the fortress improvised by Germans. There, on the ground floor, lived our friend. Her surname was Czarnocka. We placed the manuscripts in her basement […]. These were published literary works.”
The second half of Leśmian’s works travelled with his family on a long and dangerous journey:
A few essays, unfinished poems had a similar fate as their owners, they travelled with us to Mauthausen concentration camp. They, through work camps, got to another hemisphere. I remember when I was carrying them. I was exhausted, with terrible pain of heart, after three days and nights of trip with a sealed train. We were surrounded by soldiers with torches. We climbed the hill, we carried valuable bundle with difficulty, in the light of these torches whose scrappy, fiery flames reflected darkness of the night. It was in August 1944.
The German Mauthausen concentration camp was built in Austrian territory. As in other concentration camps, people from across Europe were exterminated, and inmates who survived lived in unimaginable conditions. The most important thing was to survive, and in such circumstances, bread outranks manuscripts. However, Leśmian’s wife and daughter did not part with the manuscripts. They protected them as their most valuable treasure.
After a few months of appalling living conditions, they were freed by the American Army in May 1945. Starving and ailing, they made it to Italy with the aid of the International Red Cross, and they decided not to return to Poland because the Soviet Army was not only a liberator but also an occupier.
After World War II, Poland was under the influence of the Soviet Union. It had been placed within the communist bloc, where thousands of soldiers maintained order. Consequently, many members of the intelligentsia—writers, artists, or soldiers, and Leśmian’s family—chose not to return to communist Poland. After leaving Italy, Chylińska and Maria Leśmian lived for some time in London, where they published some of the saved manuscripts. Soon after that, they emigratedto Argentina and settled in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. While it seemed like the women and manuscripts would be safe there, both women had problems finding jobs, and they experienced poverty and suffered from illnesses. Also, despite being treated with care and reverence, the manuscripts were deteriorating because of the damp climate in Argentina.
The women could not afford professional conservation, and so they made a dramatic decision to sell the materials both to save themselves from starvation and to preserve the manuscripts. Polish intelligentsia emigrants and people connected with Polish culture were interested in the materials, but no agreement could be reached with Polish institutions, even though Chylińska’s health and the condition of the manuscripts were worsening.
Finally, a Polish antiquarian bookseller from New York, Aleksander Janta-Połczyński, was travelling throughout Argentina, met with Leśmian’s family, and was interested the manuscripts. He searched for an institution that could purchase the manuscripts and preserve them properly. When that proved impossible, he decided to pay for them with his own funds in 1967. Sadly, Leśmian’s wife had died three years earlier.
The antiquarian bookseller came to an agreement with the then-Humanities Research Center (now the Ransom Center). House of El Dieff auction house brokered the transaction, and after a long journey across three continents, the manuscripts arrived in Austin in 1970.
This collection of manuscripts includes seven literary works that are very interesting. While there is evidence that the family rescued more manuscripts from burning Warsaw, a considerable part of them seem to have been lost. However, the manuscripts that survived are perfectly protected and available to scholars interested in the literary output of Leśmian. The Ransom Center’s collection is now the largest collection of manuscripts of Bolesław Leśmian in the world. However, that could change one day if the other suitcase that was hidden in the neighbor’s basement resurfaces. The building survived bombardment and all military actions, but the suitcase has never been found.
As Elizabeth Bennet commented in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, poetry is not always the food of love. “If it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination,” she tells Mr. Darcy, “I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”
For Hartley Coleridge’s sake, let us hope Ms. Bennet was wrong. Hartley, the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, composed this sonnet for Valentine’s Day in 1810, at the age of 14. Throughout his youth he was considered a bright and imaginative child. In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” William Wordsworth described six-year-old Hartley as the “best philosopher” who “read’st the eternal deep.”
Hartley led a troubled life, however. Estranged from his parents at a young age, he was raised by poet Robert Southey. He attended Oxford and went on to receive a scholarship from Oriel College. Although expected to excel, alcoholism and inattentiveness to his studies caused him to lose his scholarship. His sister Sarah dubbed him “our Trouble in the North.”
Soon after losing his scholarship Hartley moved to London, where he worked as a private tutor and published poetry in the London Magazine. He excelled at writing sonnets and published a short collection, Poems, in 1833. It was received positively, as was his collection of author biographies Biographia Borealis; or Lives of Distinguished Northerns, which came out the same year.
Hartley’s continued instability, however, cut short his literary career, forcing him to return home to the Lake District at Grasmere. Although this valentine hints at a romantic streak, he never married. Yet he occasionally wrote sentimental musings from the point of view of “a whimsical Old Bachelor acquaintance of mine,” and many of these bear a resemblance to this early sonnet.
Among the papers in the recently acquired Billy Collins archive are materials related to his poem “The Names,” which was written to commemorate the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interspersed throughout the poem are the names of 26 victims of the attacks, one name for each letter of the alphabet, from “Ackerman” through “Ziminsky.”
Collins, a native of New York City, was the U.S. Poet Laureate when the attacks occurred in 2001. He wrote the poem and read it at a special joint session of Congress on September 6, 2002.
One of the notebooks in Collins’s archive contains his notes and early drafts of the poem, along with lists of names for different letters of the alphabet. An annotated typescript shows a later draft of the poem with Collins’s handwritten notes and edits.
The archive will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room once it has been processed and cataloged.
Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre this Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Billy Collins. The materials span Collins’ personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present and documents in detail his creative development.
Collins, born in 1941, is known as a poet for the people, with a witty, conversational style that welcomes readers and illuminates the profound details of everyday life. He has described the beginning of his poems as “a kind of welcome mat … inviting the reader inside.” This accessible style and public presence have garnered a wide following, and from 2001 to 2003 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.
“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Harry Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the Center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”
Within the archive are dozens of notebooks, which include Collins’ observations, notes, doodles, clippings, and extensive drafts of poems, both published and unpublished. It also includes desk diaries or datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. The earliest materials in the archive include childhood compositions and early family photographs. Also documented is Collins’ career as a teacher and his later emergence as a poet in the late 1970s. Audio and video recordings and drafts of speeches and talks document a full public life as one of the country’s most popular poets. The archive includes extensive correspondence, both personal and professional.
“I am deeply honored and not a little intimidated to have my papers join the literary trails of so many illustrious writers housed at the Harry Ransom Center, several of whom I count among my literary heroes,” said Collins.
Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.
The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.
Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”
Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.
When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.
My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?
The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.
Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.
Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.
Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.
Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784) was born in Africa and sold into slavery. At the age of seven or eight she was purchased by a Boston tailor, John Wheatley, for his wife. While in the Wheatley household, Wheatley learned to read and write. Within 16 months of her arrival, Wheatley said she could read “the most difficult part of the sacred writings.” She also read extensively from the poetry of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray, as well as classics from Ovid, Horace, and Virgil.
Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and in September 1773, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London. As the title suggests, Wheatley’s collected poems explored a variety of topics, from the well-known “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to elegies on the deaths of loved ones to a poem simply titled “On Imagination.” Two of these poems, “Goliath of Gath” and “Isaiah lxiii. 1-8,” incorporate the language of the King James Bible. This excerpt from “Isaiah” reveals the influence of the King James Version on Wheatley:
“Mine was the act,” th’ Almighty Saviour said,
And shook the dazzling glories of his head,
“When all forsook I trod the press alone,
“And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;
“For man’s release sustain’d the pond’rous load,
“For man the wrath of an immortal God:
“To execute th’ Eternal’s dread command
“My soul I sacrific’d with willing hand;
“Sinless I stood before the avenging frown,
“Atoning thus for vices not my own.”
Like Milton, Wheatley incorporated elements of classical literature into her poetry. Her retelling of the story of Goliath not only reproduced the language of the King James Bible but also followed the conventions of classical epic poetry. Wheatley’s poetry was largely forgotten after her death until abolitionists rediscovered and popularized her work in the 1830s.