Writing projects: update and non-update

So. Instead of being Insanely Productive Writing Month, November has turned into a cage match between my NoNaShoStoWriMo story and my embryonic Material Cultures paper project. The latter has been winning; the former is stalled out and sitting forlornly on my hard drive, waiting for a month when I can give it my undivided attention. It’s been a long time since I wrote fiction, and I’ve gotten self-conscious about it, too aware of when I’m veering into genre cliche, too worried about the depth of my characters and whether certain plot elements are overly contrived. It was more fun when I was a teenager and would have an idea for a story and just write it without fretting over it. Just sign me up for my “I Never Finish Anyth” t-shirt.

On the other hand, the paper proposal has led to a couple of really, really interesting trips to the John Hay Library at Brown University, and to a collection of 19th-century American poetry anthologies and verse commonplace books of which I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I’ve already found the makings of a fantastic project. Months ago I started thinking about the anthologization of minor poets, and then earlier this fall it occurred to me that it would be useful to have some actual data about which poems appeared in which anthologies, and when. Maybe, I thought (flashing back to data modeling and entity relations diagramming from my first year in library school), I could start building a database to track the movement of poems from one anthology to another and the rise and fall of poets’ reputations.

I soon realized that the database side of the project would be massively labor-intensive, though I still want to do it. Preliminary WorldCat searches turned up tons and tons of forgotten anthologies, many of them geared toward classroom memorization and recitation. At which point I remembered that I’d written a bit about memorization practices in 19th-century America in the coda to my dissertation, and I started wondering if there were differences between the poets most often memorized and the poets most often featured in other kinds of anthologies. At the same point I also discovered that the Hay Library’s Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays includes a huge collection of 19th-century poetry anthologies. And off I went on the train to Providence, an hour or so away, delighted that I could actually research this so close to home.

On my first visit, I noticed that quite a few anthologies were constructed more along the lines of the commonplace book than what we think of as the standard anthology format. “Hmm,” I thought, “I’m interested in commonplace books too. I wonder if there are any here?” And sure enough, there turned out to be a big, endlessly interesting collection of 19th-century New England commonplace books as well.

So now my project involves comparing the formats and content of commonplace books and anthologies, with a focus on poetry; I’m going to argue that each of these types of collections reflected the other.* And I’ll probably tie it back to my earlier research on memory, because stocking one’s memory with useful quotations and worthy sentiments is a constantly recurring theme among the anthologists. And, if you can’t tell already, I’m really excited. Here’s hoping this project won’t turn into another for the Never Finish Anyth Archive!

* I found an absolutely amazing manuscript poetry collection complete with an introduction (with copied-out quotations on the power of poetry) and an alphabetical title index. And another, apparently by a Harvard student, with cut-out engravings pasted onto the front and back endpapers and a section of poems by “Professor Longfellow.” And another in a beautiful copperplate hand with lots of little decorative rulings and flourishes (and the occasional manicle) after each poem. And another with an index of first lines. And that was just on the first visit!

One Response to “Writing projects: update and non-update”

  1. dale says:

    Oh, that’s wonderful. I bet you find some wonderful gems scattered about, too: making an anthology is always an excuse for squeezing in that poem you’ve always loved but no one else has ever heard of.