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History of the Chapbook

What is a Poetry Chapbook?

Traditionally, a poetry chapbook is a single signature of pages, folded in half and bound at the fold with thread, staples, or whatever material its maker desires. The term can also be used to describe a poetry book that is smaller in length, size, or print run than a standard poetry collection. As chapbooks are easy to create and distribute, emerging poets often publish collections of poems in the chapbook format. But poets at any point in their careers can publish chapbooks, either as a step toward building a full-length collection or as a discrete project for work that demands a shorter, more focused publication form. Chapbooks help to focus a reader’s attention on a series or sequence of poems, or on a long poem that might otherwise lose its impact amid a larger collection.

Chapbooks can range from photocopied pamphlets to hand-sewn letterpress publications to perfect-bound books. They frequently highlight the tactile and visual qualities of the book, with special attention paid to design, typography, and paper, often including illustrations, photographs, or other artwork. Poets House’s chapbook collection of 11,000 items features many rare and special chapbooks, distinctive for age, rarity, binding, materials, or size. During recent years, Poets House has presented exhibitions of its chapbooks, including Chapbooks of the Mimeo Revolution: From New American Poetry to the New Sentence, curated by scholars Meira Levinson and Kyle Waugh. Below is an adapted excerpt of Waugh’s exhibition essay.


A Little History of the Poetry Chapbook

Here's Henry Mills Alden, from his colorful account of "Chapbook Heroes," published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, v.51, June to November, 1890: 

No doubt, from a modern book-maker's point of view, the chapbook
is a squalid, degraded product of a rude, now happily by-gone time.
Truly in itself it presents little or nothing to please either the eye or
the taste; yet, considering it apart from such supersensitiveness, it is
a question whether the study and analysis of this low, humble, obscure
branch of literature might not reward the investigator with very considerable
results, touching upon the manner of thought and intellectual pleasures of
the great lower mass of humanity.

Needless to say, chapbooks are, traditionally, cheap books, trim and portable. The object itself, with progenitors in the broadside and pamphlet, dates back to the introduction of moveable type in Western Europe, but the word "chapbook" (defined by Merriam-Webster as "a small book containing ballads, poems, tales or tracts") doesn't enter the language until the end of the 18th century—1798, to be exact, the year of the publication of the collaborative lodestone Lyrical Ballads &­ Other Poems, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which reinvented the mode in which many American poets would operate over a century-and-a-half later.

The Encyclopedia Brittanica tells us that "most chapbooks were 5 ½  by 4  ¼ inches (14 by 11 cm) in size and were made up of four pages (or multiples of four), illustrated with woodcuts. They contained tales of popular heroes, legend and folklore, jests, reports of notorious crimes, ballads, almanacs, nursery rhymes, school lessons, farces, biblical tales, dream lore, and other popular matter. The texts were mostly crude and anonymous, but they formed the major part of secular reading and now serve as a guide to the manners and morals of their times." Thus chapbooks were often "news," of one sort or another, and almost as often apocryphal or pirated, or both—news that took "poetic license," one might say, news that, as Pound once said of poetry, "stays news."

Etymologically speaking, “chap" is related to “cheap”—from OE ceap, meaning “trade”—but most agree “chapbook” is specifically derived from “chapman,” the itinerant merchant who peddled like items across Europe, Britain, and North America from the 16th through the mid-19th centuries. Hucksters of the "imagined community's" periphery, these peripatetic emissaries of such "squalid, degraded" products linked urban centers to their outlying rural districts. A Chaplinesque and Whitmanic trade, chapmanship was not without its mischief and modest larceny. Sometimes chapmen doubled as petty thieves or highwaymen, a fact underscored by their profession's affiliation—a multiform binding—with Hermes, the original nomadic trickster: protector and patron of travelers, merchants, thieves, orators, and poets, and overlord of the in-between, of borderlands and interstices, who freely traverses dimensions, mortal and deific, conveying souls into the afterlife. Stitching a fascicle here, lifting a pocketbook there, chapmen knew their way around, were journeymen, on the road, incipient cultural geographers and, like all drifters, strangers, in an eminently Western sense. "The man who doesn't belong in a community is probably the man to pay attention to," Edward Dorn writes in his lecture "The Poet, the People, the Spirit," delivered at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, which he attended in place (and at the request) of LeRoi Jones, who'd cancelled due to the recent assassination of Malcolm X. The stranger, Dorn concluded, "knows where he's come from."

As Alden's arch positivism makes clear, a number of forces converged in the 19th century to quash the chapbook's popularity and shrink its circulation (and to stigmatize the stranger as an outlaw, a threat to societal cohesiveness): the mass production of religious tracts, for example, the widespread distribution of inexpensive magazines, the ratification of early copyright legislation and laws curtailing public solicitation and the "hawking of wares," etc. It wasn't until the early 20th century, when the hegemonic "center" of the pre-WWI world could no longer hold, that the Dadaists resurrected the chapbook, along with certain leftist political organizations that exploited the medium's potential as an efficient and inexpensive means for disseminating propaganda. At this point, the chapbook begins its rich 20th-century history as an instrument of the avant-garde and an ideological weapon of radicalized class, race, and gender consciousness. It was now a product of and from the outskirts; the current of the chapman's conduit had been reversed.

—Kyle Waugh

Kyle Waugh lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute. He has edited numerous books, including the collected poems of Edward Dorn and Kenneth Irby. His writing has appeared in Jacket2Hot Gun!Washington Square, and elsewhere.

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