What are Little Poetry Magazines?

Bruce Wilkinson, John Rylands Research Institute researcher, writes:

New Departures
New Departures magazine, nos 2/3 (1960). University of Manchester Library.

The Dave Cunliffe Archive contains a superb collection of hundreds of British and American poetry journals stretching back to the 1950s. These are often described as ‘little poetry magazines’ but what are they and where do they fit within the broader history of modern verse?

The definition of the ‘little’ magazine refers to the size of its subscription list or the numbers produced, or is held by some to indicate that they are created by one person or a group of people rather than manufactured by a big company or organisation. Best described as cheaply made, they mostly contain experimental poetry and, although some are beautifully crafted, most appear similar to the ‘zines’ of the 1980s and ’90s (typed pages between hand-printed card covers) and are independently produced because editors choose to escape the limitations of the commercial publishers in terms of language, style and content.

Outburst magazine, no. 1 (1961). Courtesy of The University of Manchester Library.

Often their smaller circulations are largely made up of other editors, writers and poets, potentially creating a virtuous loop of literary influence far greater than a periodical with such a tiny readership would normally have. Created without the burden of trying to turn a profit, editors have the chance to be far more innovative in selecting poets and poems and, although restricted by budget, there is greater scope to push artistic boundaries both in terms of style and content.

Historically linked to art movements, early examples include The Germ from the Pre-Raphaelites and Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist Blast, while the work of the Imagist poets was produced in several small magazines such as The Glebe. There are also similarities between the magazines and an early form of cheaply produced, popular manuscript available from around the sixteenth century which later became known as a ‘chapbook’.

They are important because in the late-1950s new forms of avant-garde poetry were emerging in both the US (via the Black Mountain College, New York, and the West Coast) and in Britain (particularly influenced by Dada and Surrealism) but which were largely ignored by a mainstream UK literary press controlled by traditionalists. So, at a point when new forms of cheaper printing technology were just becoming available, dozens of small presses and hundreds of little poetry magazines sprang up around the UK publishing this new experimental verse. A network formed linking poets, presses, editors and retailers alongside live readings which were often in unconventional venues (pubs, clubs and halls) attracting a very different audience and inspiring many new people to take up reading and writing verse. This ‘British Poetry Revival’ of the 1960s and ’70s is largely then the story of how working-class people were stirred to pick up a pen by reading and hearing verse untrammelled by its previous traditional restrictions, excited that poetic language could be their own.

Poet and publisher Jim Burns (who also has a collection of material held at the John Rylands Library) here describes the importance of little magazines in CUSP (Shearsman, 2012):

“In 1957… [I] began to pick up on the new writing that was starting to filter through from the United States, with the Beats obviously to the fore. I think it’s essential to say that the little magazines were of key importance and without them it would have been much harder to find out what was happening and who the most interesting poets were. Publications like Evergreen Review, Big Table, Yugen and The Outsider in America and Migrant, Satis, Outburst, and New Departures in Britain, had an important role to play…”

Yūgen magazine, no. 2 (1958). Courtesy of The University of Manchester.

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