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This article is taken from PN Review 157, Volume 30 Number 5, May - June 2004.

Writing Poetry: Text and Artefact in Cambridge University Library John Wells

Exhibiting manuscripts has much in common with compiling anthologies. To refine a substantial collection of documents to a few dozen items under glass entails a similar process of sifting, selection and rejection to that of reducing a field of literature to a single volume. Exhibitions, like anthologies, are all the better for having points to make and arguments to develop, while related fears dog both editor and curator: the significant work not remembered, the choice manuscript lying unrecognised in its box. The fundamental difference between the projects is that an exhibition treats words not only as texts but as artefacts. `Writing Poetry', an exhibition opening in Cambridge University Library in May, aims to show how poetry has been transmitted in writing since before the time of Christ to within the last decade, but also explores the ways in which literary and historical interest accrues to written words.

When Philip Larkin drew his well-known (in library circles) distinction between the `meaningful' and `magical' values of literary manuscripts, he confined the `magic' to the moment of a work's composition: `these are the words as he wrote them, emerging for the first time in this particular miraculous combination'.1 Magic, however, is not restricted to autograph literature: there are more ways than one for papyrus, vellum or paper to acquire fascination. The oldest document in the exhibition is a fragment of Euripides' play `Iphigenia in Tauris' from around 250 BC, its constituent flecks of papyrus, carefully positioned in a frame, resembling ...


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