Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Celebrating Ronald Johnson and Poetry In Kansas

April 12th, 2013

April is National Poetry Month, and in honor of this KU Libraries will host an event celebrating Ronald Johnson and poetry in Kansas at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library on Tuesday, April 16.

Revered as a poet’s poet, Ronald Johnson (1935-1998) was born and raised in Ashland, Kansas. Though he spent much of his literary career away from Kansas, first on the East Coast and then in San Francisco (where he lived for over two decades), his literary papers have long acted as a physical tie to his birth state.

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library acquired its first cache of the poet’s papers in April of 1969. By this time, Johnson had already published his early collections A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees (1964) and The Book of the Green Man (1967), but was still building his reputation as a poet. Subsequent major installments followed in 1971 and 1987, culminating with a final acquisition of papers from Johnson’s literary estate in March of this year (2013).

Photograph of a selection of book and manuscript holdings for Ronald Johnson

The papers are a magnificent record of Johnson’s life and literary endeavors. They include,

  • multiple drafts of his poetic works, such as his erasure poem Radi os (a re-writing of sections of Milton’s Paradise Lost by excision), and ARK, a long poem composed over twenty years (which will be republished by Flood Editions later this year)
  • drafts and prototypes for his concrete poetry (poetry which emphasizes and plays upon the visual element)
  • correspondence with friends, loved ones, and literary peers, such as writer Guy Davenport, a great champion and admirer of Johnson’s writing; Jonathan Williams, Jargon Society publisher, poet, and former love; and fellow poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Louis Zukofsky, Mary Ellen Solt, and Robert Creeley.
  • materials documenting Johnson’s “other” career as a chef, caterer, and cookbook writer, including drafts of his popular cookbooks, such as The American Table and The Aficionado’s Southwestern Cooking, and (in the most recent accession) correspondence with food writer M. F. K. Fisher
  • research notes and writing journals
  • photographs and audio recordings of Johnson

One of the highlights of the new acquisition are drafts of Johnson’s The Shrubberies, poems which he composed upon returning to Kansas from San Francisco.  These were collected, edited, and posthumously published by his friend and literary executor, poet Peter O’Leary.  The poems were inspired in part by Ward-Meade Park in Topeka, where Johnson had worked before succumbing to brain cancer and where a plaque now stands in his honor.

Though the materials that arrived in March are not yet cataloged, an online guide exists for the twenty-nine boxes of Johnson’s earlier papers.  The library also houses a large number of Johnson’s published works, many of which exist in scarce and limited editions. These materials complement Spencer’s New American Poetry holdings and its wealth of materials for Kansas writers.

The celebration on April 16 will feature three Kansas poets renowned in their own right: Joseph Harrington and Kenneth Irby, Professors in KU’s Department of English, and Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate, 2007-2009.  These speakers will fête Johnson by reading favorite passages from his works alongside poems of their own.  A selection of materials from the library’s Ronald Johnson holdings will be on display during the event.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

 

 

Gossip and Literary Celebrity, Circa 1871

March 21st, 2013

Though public figures in late nineteenth-century England might not have had to contend with paparazzi or gossip bloggers, their lives and personal writings were nonetheless a subject of interest and speculation.  What might begin innocently as a jovial private communication between friends could one day find itself before a much wider circle of readers, or so Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) warned his friend and fellow poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909).

Photogravure of Dante Gabriel Rossetty by G. F. Watts.        Image of black and white reproduction of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's portrait of Algernon Charles Swinburne

Left: Dante Gabriel Rossetti from photogravure by G. F. Watts;  Right: Black and white photograph of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portrait of Algernon Charles Swinburne, both reproduced in H. C. Marillier’s Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of his Art and Life. London: George Bell and Sons, 1899. Call Number: E1470.

In a letter likely dating from November 1871, Rossetti cautioned Swinburne,

[…] You seem to think that such things are likely to be restricted to the circle of their recipients. Why, my dear fellow, every line you have ever written will one day be religiously raked up by greedy & often doubtless malevolent exploiteurs, and it is very hard for those who receive these wonderfully funny things of yours to resolve on taking the only safe course with them for your sake — that is, to destroy them after they have been abundantly laughed over by a circle of friends who know what mere fun they are. (Call Number: MS 23D:3.2)

Though we can only hope that Rossetti wouldn’t have considered the staff at the Spencer Research Library to be greedy and malevolent “exploiteurs”–he had in mind perhaps critics of the day, publishers, or members of the periodical press–time has proven the validity of his concern.  For example, a number of Rossetti’s own private communications now reside in Spencer’s collection of Rossetti Family Correspondence (MS 23).  This collection includes letters by his father, Gabriele Rossetti, his sister, the poet Christina Georgina Rossetti, his brother, critic William Michael Rossetti, and his sister-in-law, painter and biographer Lucy Madox (nee Brown) Rossetti.  These letters are a boon to scholars, students, and the general public, even if their creators might not have wished for all of them to reach our prying eyes.

To read Rossetti’s letter to Swinburne, click on the thumbnails below to enlarge:

Image of Rossetti to Swinburne [circa Nov. 1871p.1]  Image of page 2 of Letter from Rossetti to Swinburne.  Image of page 3 of letter from Rossetti to Swinburne  Image of page four of letter from Rossetti to Swinburne

Letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Algernon Charles Swinburne. [Shortly after 6 Nov. 1871?]. Rossetti Family Correspondence. Call Number: MS 23D:3.2. Click images to enlarge.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

Civil War Valentine

February 13th, 2013

Written at a time of great bloodshed and uncertainty, this valentine poem’s tone is more self-reflective and, perhaps, morbid, than you are likely to find in a card in the drugstore rack in 2013. The choice of stationery heightens the war-time effect.

The year on the first page of the poem might read either /64 or /66. What do you think it says? Was this valentine poem written during or just after the Civil War?

Photograph of poem manuscript, "A Valentine" (1 of 2) Photograph of poem manuscript, "A Valentine" (2 of 2)

“A Valentine” Addressed to Mr. Stephen Jones, [Kerney?] City, Colorado Territory. [1864 or 1866?] Amory K. Chambers Collection. Call number: RH MS 531, Box 1, Folder 7. Click images to enlarge (poem transcribed below).

A Valentine

When years have wrought their changes
Up on the human heart
When lifes bright hopes have vanished
And early friends depart
And would some voice attend
I think that mine for one would say
I truly am thy friend

When time has parted us on earth
And years have taken flight
Lets not forget our friendship here
That hope hath made so bright
Let us oft think of how we met
[page 2]
Our voices raised in prayer
And let our lives be pure on earth
That we may meet him there

When shared each others griefs and joys
We know each others hearts
But years will make great changes
For we will have to part
Yet let our friendship ere be true
While earth life here has given
And we if live as God requires
We will meet again in heaven

Whitney Baker
Head, Conservation Services