Nina Powles on Katherine Mansfield’s newly-discovered poems

This from Nina Powles:


“Up and up beat her wings”

Lecture by Dr Gerri Kimber on her discovery of new poems by Katherine Mansfield, 5/8/15 at the City Gallery, Wellington


In 1999, a folder of papers was bequeathed to the Newberry Library in Chicago. It contained two letters to publishers sent in 1910 and 1911, typescripts of 35 poems, and a calling card embossed with a Chelsea address and the name KATHARINA MANSFIELD printed in a striking modern font.

The folder, labelled The Earth’s Child and other poems, had always been there. But no one had ever opened it; or if they had, no one realised what they’d seen.

Renowned Mansfield scholar and editor of the new Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield published by Edinburgh University Press, Dr Gerri Kimber, made this discovery in June this year. Currently in Wellington undertaking research at the Alexander Turnbull Library, she flicked through pictures of the folder’s contents at a lecture at the City Gallery.

Kimber believes Mansfield must have written the poems during or soon after Mansfield’s time in Bavaria, where she was sent by her mother, in 1909-1910. Almost all the poems are untitled except for a number, clearly intended to be read as a sequence. As a poet, this detail leaps out at me; it seems to show careful consideration for how the poems are meant to operate not just on their own but together, and the specific effect of this on the reader.

Mansfield is not best known for her poetry. The poems we knew of up until now are often more interesting from a biographical perspective, or read in relation to her fiction. Kimber doesn’t pretend otherwise: “I make no claims for the quality of her poetry.” But she does believe that throughout the published poems there are “flashes of brilliance.” However, throughout this sequence of poems all written in 1910, “these flashes of brilliance are everywhere—almost in every poem.”

The new poems aren’t yet available anywhere until next year, when they will be included in Volume 4 of the Collected Works. So we can only take Kimber’s word for it.

But as she flicks rapidly through photos of the typescripts, I read them as fast as I can. Words and phrases flare up at me, and I scribble them down at hectic speed: “the leaves smother closely” (poem 1), “trembling and burning ghosts” (poem 3), “her body was fashioned out of moonlight” (poem 7), “the foam that breaks over the world’s edge” (poem 23). The final poem Kimber shows us is strangely titled “To KM”. It describes herself in the third person—“she is a bird”—and although I could only read it once very fast, it seemed like an eerie premonition of Mansfield’s looming illness and death. It ends:


“A moment – a moment … I die.”

Up and up beat her wings.


These poems are from a period in her life from which Mansfield destroyed every scrap of written evidence that she could get her hands on. These were the years 1909-1911, when she just convinced her father Harold Beauchamp to let her return to London to try and establish herself as a writer. These years of her early twenties, the same age I am now, were her years of drugs, sex and (it seems) poetry. Her health never fully recovered.

So how and why did this folder of poems survive? Maybe it survived by accident, and if she knew we had it now, she’d be furious and burn it. Or maybe a more likely explanation is that she kept them not for their sentimental value but their literary value. Although they never got published, maybe she wasn’t disheartened. Maybe she still saw life in them.

What’s more interesting than the quality of the poems is the revelation that at this time, when she was just 22, Mansfield clearly saw herself as a poet. To some degree she always did; she continued writing poetry throughout her life. She’s not remembered as an exceptionally brilliant poet, but as I watch the typescripts flicker past on the screen in front of me, I can’t help but wonder whether maybe, if she hadn’t died so young, she might have become one.

Nina Powles, August 2015

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