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little magazines

Punching beyond its weight

February 23, 2013

Richard John Davis


The ‘little magazine’ has been at the heart of literary innovation for centuries.


The literary impresario Michael Horovitz was more or less an underground figure who organised huge literary events, or “happenings”, as they were then called, in the 1960s. His literary publication, New Departures, had been established by Horovitz in order to, in his words, ‘bring into public readership in England the works of experimental writers and artists’. It was a notable example of a type of dissident publication known as the “little magazine”.

This strand of subversive literary publishing, which included other titles such as Stand and Ian Hamilton’s The Review/New Review, were to prove a new_departures and those of a more radical-experimental tendency. And it was most ferociously in the field of poetry that this divergence took place.

Many of the little magazines were published by small presses such as Cape Goliard, Ferry, Migrant, Parataxis and Fragmente. The flowering of such alternative, independent and entrepreneurial enterprises could be seen as a direct consequence of the enlightened volition of the 1960s. However, as is demonstrated in Horovitz’s example, that flowering had already begun before that decade. Indeed, although little magazine culture should not be confused with that of what has become known as “zines”, the two cultures do share a common ancestry in terms of free-spirited self-publishing.

The first zines were born out of the science fiction explosion of the 1920s, with little magazines first appearing around the same time – both thereby falling neatly within the modernist bracket – before being taken up as a form of self-expression by the beat writers in the 1950s. The effective splintering of motivation, ideology and textual result was, by this point, a reality that could not be ignored.

But what differentiated the little magazine? Whereas zine culture is wide and multifarious, the world of the little magazine would appear to be more focused. You can find a zine on virtually any topic. Little magazines, however, tend to take their topics solely from the cultural realm. What they share is their independence, both in spirit and in a practical sense.

Ford Maddox ford’s The English Review is often seen as the first notable little magazine, and it was first published in 1908, although there were precursors (for instance the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ). It comprised literature, criticism and political commentary. Ford himself, author of Parade’s End, edited the first 15 issues, handing the role over to other editors in 1910. The publication ran until 1937, when it was absorbed into The National Review. Early issues of The English Review published works by Joseph Conrad, WB Yeats and Thomas Hardy.

It was, in fact, because of Hardy that Ford started the review, declaring his “rage” that there was no place to publish him at the time. Circulation was low (less than a thousand) but the publication was respected and widely influential.

Little magazines were at the forefront of many early twentieth century cultural movements, including futurism, vorticism  and imagism. Ezra Pound’s independent publication, The Egoist, ran from 1914 to 1919. Pound claimed that it recognized “no taboos”. He backed this up by publishing within it extracts from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Meanwhile, Pound’s friend TS Eliot was working as editor of The Criterion, which was the first British literary magazine to publish Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust. Also notable was Wyndham Lewis’s Blast.

As Malcolm Bradbury has pointed out, this period of independence and fragmentation was frowned upon in certain quarters. This was reflected in the trials and tribulations of the publications. Many had little or no funding. Popularity was also an issue. By the time Eliot wound up The Criterion in 1939, subscriber numbers had fallen below 300. Nowadays, of course, such elements are arguably held up as admirable, with the niche audience no longer the bearer of stigma.

But the true age of the little magazine was still to come. Such publications as The Egoist and The Criterion were big-hitters in comparison with the proliferation of independence that was to mark the most intense little magazine period. As stated, the realm of poetry was to provide fertile ground. The Poetry Review had begun in 1912. Poetry “chapbooks” had already been in existence for some time, and had made literature portable and, perhaps more importantly, cheap to buy. After the First World War, publications began to appear outside the capital. Scrutiny had its base in Cambridge and ran from the early thirties to the mid-fifties. Contributors included WH Auden.

In the late forties, the beat writers’ voices began to be heard. At first, the beats found it difficult to get their work published. Some were writing about issues around homosexuality (Robert Duncan) and drug-taking (William Burroughs), at a time when to discuss such topics was almost unheard of and possibly dangerous. Many produced their own “chapbooks”. These were lightly-bound and printed in small quantities. Self-published poetry was a tradition that went way back in American culture. Walt Whitman had self-published the first edition of his famous collection Leaves of Grass. Beat writers began to produce their own little magazines, which included Yugen and The Black Mountain Review, publishing works by such writers as Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.

LeRoi Jones and the poet Diane De Prima published The Floating Bear Newsletter in New York in 1961 – it ran until 1969. Jones and De Prima were arrested by the FBI in 1961 and charged with publishing obscene material. They were successful in their defence, but debates around censorship and boundaries raged at the time. The Floating Bear published extracts from Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, a revolutionary  – at least in cultural terms – novel that was able to bring about its own controversies without any assistance. Allen Ginsberg also had work published in The Floating Bear.

MigrantCover2The independent publisher New Directions was founded in 1936 by James Laughlin. Laughlin, who had befriended Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound in the thirties, wished to react against cultural conservatism. His organisation was to be influential for the later little magazine publishers and he set about producing anthologies of work from the most transgressive writers and artists of the time. The aforementioned Michael Horovitz began New Departures in 1959, publishing contributions by Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, among others. Linked to this regularly published little magazine was a series of readings and live performances, called Live New Departures. These ran for eight years, throughout most of the sixties, and were held at various venues including the Marquee Club and the ICA.

During the 1960s and 70s the revival of the little magazine truly flourished, accompanied by an equal burgeoning of various underground movements in this decade. Many young emerging poets found outlets in this atmosphere, including Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, JH Prynne and Bob Cobbing. Indeed, Cobbing helped to set up the Association of Little Presses, in 1966.

bananasPublications that appeared in this period included The Review (Ian Hamilton), Poetmeat (Tina Morris and Dave Cunliffe), Migrant (Gael Turnbull and Dave Cunliffe– stencil and mimeograph), English Intelligencer (Peter Riley and Andrew Crozier), Outburst (Raworth). More recent examples include Bananas (Emma Tenant), Pages, Fragmente and Reality Studios. The little magazine continues to evolve and flourish, alongside the inevitable rise of online publications. It also maintains its position as a safe haven for those concepts and voices that might not ordinarily be heard.


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2 Responses to Punching beyond its weight

  1. Lisa on March 1, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Great article! Could Blast be included?

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