Letter to Merle Brown from Jon Silkin, 19 July 1969
Letter to Merle Brown from Jon Silkin, 19 July 1969

Tracing literary correspondence can be a frustrating experience for researchers. An archive does not usually include letters written its creator, which can be scattered across many collections or held in private hands. A good example of this phenomenon is the Jon Silkin archive in Special Collections. The archive contains a large series of letters written to and kept by Silkin, but little of his own correspondence.

Having held the Silkin Archive since 1995, Special Collections was very lucky to be offered, in 2015, a series of letters written by Jon Silkin and Lorna Tracey to Merle Brown. Brown was an academic, critic, and founder of the Iowa Review. The letters were kindly donated by Brown’s widow, Carolyn. Some of Brown’s letters to Silkin are in BC MS 20c Silkin/8/BRO-3.

Silkin’s letters to Brown were written between 1965 and 1978, and offer an insight into the personal and professional relationship between the two men. 

Brown, who described Silkin’s The Peaceable Kingdom (1954) as ‘the finest first volume of poetry written by a living English poet’ contributed critical essays to Stand magazine during Silkin’s editorship. He regularly critiqued Silkin’s poetry, writing an essay on Silkin’s ‘Amana Grass’ in the inaugural issue of the Iowa Review.

The letters show Silkin’s rigorous responses to Brown’s writing, and include detailed discussion of his own poetry. At one point, he writes ‘in my mid-thirties I’ve hardly evolved a ‘style’ of my own’ [12th Nov 65].

Much of the correspondence focuses on the work of creating and maintaining Stand. Silkin and Tracey regularly mention the pressure of maintaining the magazine. The letters give real insight into the business of publishing literary magazines in this period. They describe frequent ‘sales’ tours whilst staying on friends floors and sofas and also adapting to new technology.  Tracey discusses the potential purchase of an IBM  Selectric Composer, and an addressograph machine.

It is rare and fortunate to be able to reunite both sides of a correspondence which had been continents apart.