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Lost Poems Come into the Light

Poem Discoveries in the Library, the Attic, the Auction House


Published poems, poems preserved in books or recordings or the memories of people who sing or recite them, are only the visible tip of the great berg of poetry—under the surface are all the lost poems, notes, scribbles, drafts, revisions and letters, in which there are inevitably treasures waiting to be discovered. Cheers for the workers who sift through the papyruses hidden in caves, the piles of paper stacked away in attics, the boxes of poets’ scrap heaps donated to libraries, and bring lost poems to light!

“The Brothers Poem” and “The Kypris Poem” by Sappho

Inscribed papyrus, 4th century BC codex, National Museum, Alexandria, Egypt
Leemage/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Our modern experience of Sappho’s poetry is limited to only one truly complete poem, her hymn to Aphrodite, and the few poetic fragments that survived on tattered papyrus or were quoted by later writers. But in 2014, her oeuvre expanded with the discovery of a new, nearly complete poem and another fragment, both in the Greek lettering on a worn and tattered papyrus owned by an anonymous collector who did not know what he or she had. Fortunately that collector took the papyrus to someone who could recognize what it was—Dr. Dirk Obbink, Oxford University classics scholar specializing in papyrology.

from The Times Literary Supplement, UK (2014):
New poems by Sappho,” by Dirk Obbink
“The first concerns her brothers, ‘The Brothers Poem’ for short. The second, ‘The Kypris Poem,’ is about unrequited love and addressed to Aphrodite (by her other name, ‘Kypris’).... key questions: why is the discovery important, what do the poems tell us about Sappho, and how do we know they are genuine?... ... The remarkable thing is that both new texts—damaged as they are—read almost as though they were complete poems today, partly due to the unique qualities of a poet who cannot have foreseen her poetry’s survival in fragmentary form.” Dr. Obbink’s article also includes an English translation of “The Brothers Poem” by Christopher Pelling.

“The Conqueror Worm” by Edgar Allan Poe

silviomedeiros/RooM/Getty Images

The original manuscript of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” showed up at Marion Antique Auctions in 2013—170 years after it came from Poe’s pen—and was sold to a collector. Interestingly, there was some question after the auction as to whether the manuscript was real, or one of the many, many Poe forgeries. But the winning bidder was eventually satisfied as to its authenticity and went through with the purchase.

“A Revolver” by Carl Sandburg

During the national uproar that followed the Sandy Hook school shootings in December 2012, a newly discovered poem by Carl Sandburg was revealed, adding his voice to the debate about gun ownership and gun control.

from the University of Illinois News Bureau (2013):
Previously unknown Sandburg poem focuses on power of the gun,” by Dusty Rhodes
“In an apparently unpublished and previously unknown poem, Carl Sandburg addressed the topic of guns. Titled ‘A Revolver,’ the short piece was discovered last week among Sandburg’s archives, housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.... by Ernie Gullerud, a retired U. of I. professor who has volunteered at the library every Thursday for more than seven years, helping to index the more than 4 tons of material that make up the Sandburg collection.”

“An Essay on Slavery” by Jupiter Hammon

from NBC Dallas-Fort Worth (2013):
UTA Student Discovers Forgotten Poem by Nation’s First African-American Writer,” by Mola Lenghi
“A University of Texas at Arlington graduate student recently found a piece of American history that offers more insight on U.S. slavery. Julie McCown, a doctoral student, discovered one of the earliest poems by Jupiter Hammon.... In the newly discovered poem, Hammon shifts from the ideology he held in previous writings, in which he described slavery as the will of God, to a new line of thinking that says slavery was a manmade evil.”

“Our Modern Watchwords” by Winston Churchill

from The Guardian, UK (2013):
Winston Churchill manuscript reveals his poetic side,” by Amelia Hill
Winston Churchill was a journalist, essayist, author and novelist; a historian, biographer and renowned speaker. But now, the man praised by John F. Kennedy for having ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’ has been revealed to be that most sensitive of all plants: a young poet.... Around 115 years after it was written, the only known poem written by an adult Churchill has been discovered by Roy Davids, a retired manuscript dealer from Great Haseley in Oxfordshire.”

Three new poems by Langston Hughes

Three previously unknown poems by black American poet laureate Langston Hughes were found in 2009, scribbled in the flyleaves of a book from his personal library. They were written in 1930, and in them we can hear the voice of Hughes as a young man.

“Pollyanna” by Dorothy Parker

The Uncollected Dorothy Parker published in 2009 included a new and unusually autobiographical poem that had never before appeared under her name: “Pollyanna Takes the Air,” which deals with her brief affair with playright Charles MacArthur in the 1920s.

from The Telegraph (UK):
Found: Dorothy Parker poem reveals pain of rejection,” by Tom Leonard
“Dorothy Parker had much to say about the romantic misfortunes of others but the celebrated wit was curiously silent about her own doomed love affair.... Although Parker famously said of MacArthur: ‘How like me, to put all my eggs into one bastard,’ there had been no solid evidence until now that she had ever written about their relationship.”

from The Age (Australia):
Dorothy Parker poem found
“A ‘lost’ poem by Dorothy Parker has thrown light on her affair in the early 1920s with emerging playwright Charles MacArthur, which led her to an abortion and a suicide attempt.... editor Stuart Silverstein has included a previously anonymous poem, ‘Pollyanna Takes the Air,’ in a fresh anthology, having found the original copy in a 50,000-item collection of manuscripts amassed by an eccentric millionaire collector.”

“Poetical Essay Against War” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s long poem, published anonymously in 1811, disappeared soon after its publication and is thought to have been the last straw leading to his expulsion from Oxford University. Scholars searched for Shelley’s pamphlet in vain for nearly 200 years. It surfaced briefly in 2006, but was sold by Quaritch Rare Books & Manuscripts in London to a collector who has not seen fit to share the poem with the public.

“To the Queen by the Players” by William Shakespeare

Just in time for his birthday in 2007 came the publication of a new poem by William Shakespeare—only 18 lines, a throw-away epilogue written for a command performance of one of his plays, probably As You Like It, in 1599 for Queen Elizabeth I. The text of “To the Queen by the Players” was discovered 30 years before by American Shakespearean scholars William Ringler and Steven May, but it was not included in the Oxford complete edition of Shakespeare’s works published in 1986. It was printed for the first time in the Complete Works of Shakespeare published by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

from CBC Canada (2007):
Lost Shakespeare poem published for first time
from the Daily Mail, UK (2007):
To my Queen...the Shakespeare poem on the back of an envelope,” by David Wilkes
Jonathan Bate, editor of the new RSC edition of Shakespeare, said of the new poem, “When plays were put on at court, it was a requirement that there should be a prologue and an epilogue tailor-made for the occasion. Shakespeare was probably in the habit of dashing some lines down on the back of an envelope and then chucking them away. By chance, this one example has survived.... it’s a precious addition to the canon.”

“War Thoughts at Home” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost inscribed an unpublished poem by hand on the title page of one of his own collections—it was discovered in 2006 and published for the first time in the venerable Virginia Quarterly Review.

from The Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia):
“Frost poem found at U.Va.,” by Carlos Santos
“A U.Va. graduate student, poking through a box of uncataloged material at the school's library, has found an unpublished poem by Robert Frost.... The poem, ‘War Thoughts at Home,’ was handwritten by Frost in a copy of North of Boston, his second collection of poetry. The poem is signed by Frost and dated January 1918.... Robert Stilling, an English graduate student at the University of Virginia, recently unearthed the 35-line poem. It is a tribute to Edward Thomas, an Englishman who was killed in France in 1917 during World War I. Thomas, a good friend of the poet, was carrying a volume of Frost’s poetry when he died at the front.”

from The Boston Globe (AP):
Obscure Robert Frost poem discovered by grad student,” by Hillel Italie
“Frost’s poem imagines a soldier’s wife in an old house at wintertime, when she is alarmed by the ‘rage’ of some blue jays. She puts down her sewing, looks out the window and watches the birds.

And one says to the rest
We must just watch our chance
And escape one by one
Though the fight is no more done
Than the war is in France.

from Virginia Quarterly Review:
Between Friends: Rediscovering the War Thoughts of Robert Frost,” by Robert Stilling
“‘War Thoughts at Home’ embodies the stories of two great friends in Frost’s life. The first was Edward Thomas—who died in the trenches during World War I—and the poem narrates Frost’s ambivalence about the war that claimed Thomas’s life. The story of the other friend picks up where the first leaves off. It is the story of a new beginning for Frost in his friendship with Frederic G. Melcher, a rising star in the book trade, and it was Melcher who preserved this lost passage of Frost’s poetic thoughts about the war.”

“And Yet” by Philip Larkin

from The Scotsman:
Unpublished Larkin poem ‘Written in Grotty Bedsit’
from BBC News:
Haul of rare Larkin poems found
Heretofore unpublished poems by Philip Larkin have been discovered in England, including a quite moving elegy to his father, about whom he famously wrote “They fuck you up, your mum and dad...” The newly discovered poem, “And Yet,” is a brief and eloquent meditation on life and death.
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