The art of poetry recitation has been with us for a long time. With the invention of printing, poets moved towards writing more for the eye than for the ear. It is one thing to enjoy the theatrical aspect of poetry and yet another to read and disseminate intellectual verse. Rare poetry book collectors have to also be poetry readers and poetry lovers at the same time. Just as the art book collector visually examines the artistic content of a book, the poetry collector reads and experiences the verse, which is certainly also an object of literary beauty.
Poetry book collectors came alive in 2011. The genre of poetry books had a solid price appreciation as recorded by our Rare Book Sale Monitor. The finest works by Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Pierre de Rosand, Wilfred Owen, Charles Bukowski, Robert Frost, Robert Burns, Robert Herrick, William Blake, Lord Bryon, John Keats ,William Wordsworth, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Archibald Rutledge and Charles Baudelaire, just to name a few, have in the past year attracted a great deal of interest and have sold at higher prices.
The highlight of the year was the sale of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in a Sotheby’s auction for 230,000 USD. The estimate ranged from 140,000 to 160,000 USD, at the auction event held in New York last October. Whitman began his writing of Leaves of Grass in 1851. The beauteous 1855 first issue contained twelve unnamed poems in a small folio with ornamental boards and a frontispiece portrait of the poet by Hollyer on thick paper. Unfortunately, later printings had much of the spine gilt and gilt-lettered title with floral ornaments on the covers and page edges removed, in an attempt to cut production costs.
The Leaves of Grass was a lifelong masterpiece that proved to be a work in progress for most of the duration of Whitman’s life. The poems did receive names in subsequent editions, as well as a number of other revisions and additions. For example, the 1856 second edition contains an additional thirty-two poems. These second editions are also quite scarce because of the few copies sold during 1856. They are currently priced around 30,000 USD, an amount significantly lower than that of the first edition. The third edition was published in 1860 by Thayer & Eldridge, after Whitman added another 124 poems. 1000 copies were sold and the publisher went out of business. Whitman continued to add, revise and consolidate the contents of the Leaves all the way through the eighth and final edition during 1891-92, right before his death.
Shortly after each work was printed, however, the poet and occasionally the publisher were attacked on a number of fronts. Primarily, the content was criticized because of Whitman’s exaltation of the body and sexual love. Secondarily it was the structure of the poetry itself that came under attack, because of its free verse form, comprising of long rhythmical lines instead of the customary structural rhyme that mimics ballads or sonnets.
Today it is a different story. Leaves of Grass is considered to be the most influential volume of poetry written in America.
…Good in all,
In the satisfaction and aplomb of animals,
In the annual return of the seasons,
In the hilarity of youth,
In the strength and flush of manhood,
In the grandeur and exquisiteness of old age,
In the superb vistas of death.
….Song at Sunset. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass
In 1967, the standard bibliographical reference book “Printing and the Mind of Man,” referenced Leaves of Grass as “America’s second Declaration of Independence: that of 1776 was political, this of 1855 intellectual.” Perhaps the time has come to add the third – “this of 2011 monetary.”