“Printing Paris” is the blog of ArtSlant’s Georgia Fee Artist-in-Residence, Shoshana Kessler. Kessler will be undertaking a contemporary resetting and retracing of Hope Mirrlees’ experimental poem, Paris: a Poem (1919), employing a combination of traditional and modern printing techniques. The blog will feature small essays following her research on the poem and Mirrlees more generally.
On the corner of Boulevard Garibaldi and Rue Jean Daudin is a small café-bar called Zig Zag Café. It has over a thousand likes on Facebook, and no Twitter (not to be confused with @ParisZigZag, a Paris travel/recommendation site). Zig-Zag is a popular cigarette rolling paper brand, developed by brothers Maurice and Jacques Bernstein in the 1890s. It was the first rolling paper packet to be able to dispense a single sheets at a time, interweaving individual leaves. The aesthetic is fairly recognizable: almost all packets show a picture of an unknown “Zoave” (a French African soldier) credited with using paper to roll the first cigarette after his pipe was destroyed.
“ZIG-ZAG” is also the third line in Hope Mirrlees’ Paris: A Poem, beginning a tercet of cigarette adverts: advertisements that were ostensibly shown on the metro company “NORD-SUD,” which is also the poem’s second line. Whether the café is consciously using the Zig-Zag branding is unclear (I haven’t been in and asked). And whether it’s an interesting fact about the longevity and omnipresence of cigarette advertising that warrants further investigation, or simply something I noticed because it’s nearby and I’m in Paris working on a contemporary re-setting of Mirrlees’ poem, nearly a century after its publication, is also, as of yet, unclear. One of the most captivating elements of letterpress printing is the ability to get under the skin of a text, so to speak, and as a printer, re-setting and printing a poem with such protean possibilities is compelling.
Hope Mirrlees (b. 1887) was a modernist writer, poet, and translator. She read Classics at Cambridge, where her family was based. At Cambridge she moved in various circles, her friends including Wittgenstein, T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, and, predictably, the Bloomsbury group. She was the author of three novels (Madeleine, The Counterplot, and Lud-in-the-Mist), Paris: A Poem, and co-translator of 21 Russian short stories (The Book of the Bear) with her partner Jane Harrison. Mirrlees met Harrison—a highly influential Classicist academic and early feminist—at Newnham College, and the two were to live and travel together until Harrison’s death in 1928. In her later life, Mirrlees published a larger (and more demure) collection of poems, as well as a biography of the antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. She moved between Cambridge, London, Paris, and Russia, before retiring to Headington in Oxford, where she died in 1978.
“Obscure, indecent and brilliant” was Virginia Woolf’s diagnosis of “Paris.”
Mirrlees has been alarmingly under-appreciated both in scholarship and a wider reading audience. In many ways she acts as a bridge between French and British experimentalism, her situational nexus alone placing her at the heart of the 1920s avant-garde—names such as Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Cocteau, etc., routinely cast into her ring of influences. And it is almost patently clear that (if not a direct influence) Paris: A Poem preempts elements of T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land. Both poems utilize similar typographic innovation, thematic content, and even the inclusion of explanatory notes.
Networks aside, Mirrlees’ greater writings—published and unpublished—reveal a writer deeply fascinated by the use of language, image, and symbol in the creation of art. In her archives there are masses of scribbles devoted to the study of “Aestheticism.” Keats, in particular, is a common point of reference; a quotation from his “Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds” begins one such investigation, exploring the nature of materiality and imagination. In her published work, there are little explicit philosophical ruminations, and aside from a brief manifesto on fiction and literature that begins her novel Madeleine, her theoretical inquiries into art and literature lie tacit. Within her fiction, her ideas are expounded in plot or symbol—or, as in Paris, upon the page itself.
Mirrlees quoting Keats
The poem moves through the city in a single day, beginning in an ambiguous Metro line, passing under the Seine, moving through galleries, Parisian institutions, nightlife, bars, cinema, streets. Paris encompasses years—it is steeped in the history of France, both contemporary and ancient. The burden of the First World War, in particular, sits heavy upon the poem. Mirrlees interweaves Parisian and French history with snatches of conversation, meandering between English and French. She captures the city’s art, both within galleries and on the streets (such as the aforementioned ZIG-ZAG cigarette advertising), creating an archive of a very specific time and place. The structure of the poem is itself opaque: it could start either at the beginning—“I want a holophrase”—or mid-way through the poem, as the narrator, transfixed, stands at the top of a hotel in Rue de Beaune, and watches the city move beneath her.
“Obscure, indecent and brilliant” was Virginia Woolf’s diagnosis of Paris. Mirrlees met Woolf under unknown circumstances (likely through her friend Karin Costelloe, who married Woolf’s brother, Adrian Stephen). By 1919, however, Woolf’s Hogarth Press was undertaking the publication of the poem, and in 1920, 175 copies were published and distributed around London and the Bloomsbury milieu. Due to its formal experimentation, Paris was an exceptionally tricky poem to set. Mirrlees plays with indented spacing and capitalization to visually force pauses in reading; she shifts typographic size, directly representing the advertisements seen on the route. It was perhaps the most laborious task Woolf undertook in her time at the Hogarth Press, having to pencil in small mistakes on many of the copies, and deal with Mirrlees’ very particular edits and suggestions.
The poem is a masterpiece in terms of language play and typographic innovation, and when placed within its period, begs belief as to how it has remained “underground” for so long. A transcribed version of the poem does now exist, available as part of Julia Brigg’s article on Mirrlees in the 2007 publication Gender in Modernism: New Geographies, Complex Intersections. In her commentary, Briggs called for its recreation in its original form, “in facsimile, as it was set out in the Hogarth Press edition, typos and all” (page 268). Currently, the poem—set out as such—is only available as an online pdf.
I’m going to make an assumption that most female writers were hoping, at some point, to be read.
I also understand that they were hoping to be read for themselves, and not simply reinstated for their sex.
First and foremost this is my aim: to recreate and reassess the poem during my stay in Paris over the next couple of months. There is a growing fascination in finding “lost” female writers, and bringing them to the fore. In a 1991 London Review of Books evaluation of a collected works of the modernist writer Mary Butts, Patricia Beer wrote that “[s]he [Mary Butts] is one of the current victims of the fashionable drive to exhume ‘forgotten women writers.’ The category is dreary. Mary Butts is not.”
I agree that Mary Butts was fab. I disagree with the rest. “Fashionable” implies an end, exhumation implies a corpse, and victim implies a perpetrator. I’m going to make an assumption that most female writers were hoping, at some point, to be read. I also understand that they were hoping to be read for themselves, and not simply reinstated for their sex. But when their lack of recognition has been part and parcel of a gendered tradition, to rectify this necessitates a certain labeling.
There has, is, and will continue to be, such “dreary” drives. Recent movements in the publishing world (such as the #ReadWomen Twitter campaign, publications from the Silver Press, the London-based Dead Women’s Poets Society, among many others) demonstrate the importance of revealing the rich lineage of female authorship, previously submerged beneath the ink-stains of male pens and pedagogy.
Hope Mirrlees and Jane Harrison
Hope Mirrlees has not simply been undervalued because she was a woman. There are many other reasons why Paris failed to achieve wider success. Straddling two experimental worlds can create chasms wider than bridges. Limitations of print culture meant that Paris had little chance of reaching a wide audience. And its obscurity obscures itself: the secret nods to Harrison within the poem create a detachment between narrator and audience, and the classical references (such as the tenth line, which alludes to Aristophanes’ The Frogs) aren’t exactly singing to the masses. But it’s not so hard to believe, especially when viewed in comparison to The Waste Land, that, were Mirrlees to have been slightly more male, as opposed to living in her “Sapphic flat somewhere” (again, commentary by Woolf), the poem may have found its way into classrooms and anthologies, as it justly deserves.
More recently, academics and writers have begun to reassess Mirrlees’ place as a force of early experimentalism. There has been some very good work on the subject. There remains far more to be done.
Shoshana Kessler is a printer and publisher at Hurst Street Press.
Tags: Georgia Fee Artist | Writer Residency paris residency Hope Mirrlees