One of the most common questions I receive through the Library’s Ask a Librarian service is how to determine when a specific poem was first published. Often, the person asking the question is trying to establish whether the poem might be in the public domain; other times, the information is needed as part of a larger literary research project being undertaken by a literary scholar about a particular poet’s life or work. Whatever the reason for the inquiry, the problem is that there isn’t a single, surefire way to identify the original publication date of a particular poem.
That said, there are several strategies that often work well for locating poems’ original publication dates, though these often require consulting print poetry anthologies and collections that may not readily be available to you. Sometimes, though, you can find digital versions of these publications (or at least previews of them) through online databases such as Google Books, Amazon.com, the Internet Archive, and the HathiTrust Digital Library. If you don’t have access to a print book you think might reference the original publication date of a poem, you should try checking these database to see if you can access the book, or a preview of the book, through them.
What follows is list of four major options for locating the original publication date of a poem.
1) For any given poem, first try to determine if the poem was published in a standalone collection of poetry written by the author of the poem. Often, major online sources of poems such as the Poetry Foundation or Academy of American Poets will list the collection in which a particular poem appears. For instance, the Academy of American Poets page for Donald Hall’s poem ”The Things“ gives the following source:
“The Things” from The Back Chamber by Donald Hall. Copyright © 2011 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
If you are able to identify the collection in which a poem appears, you can then check the collection to see if it includes an acknowledgments or permissions section. Typically, this section will acknowledge the original source where a poem first appeared, which is frequently a periodical. Often, the acknowledgment will give the original source, but not a specific date. For example, here’s the section of The Back Chamber’s copyright page that lists the sources of the poems appearing in it:
It notes that “The Things” first appeared in The New Yorker, but doesn’t give a date of publication.
If a specific publication date is not given, you can check to see if the original source (e.g., a magazine issue) is indexed through a subscription database available to you, or see whether the original source maintains an online archive you can search to find a reference to the specific publication date. For instance, now that we know “The Things” appears in The New Yorker, I can search its online archive to find its entry for the poem. At the bottom of it appears the following note:
Published in the print edition of the January 4, 2010, issue.
We can now be certain that the poem was first published in the January 4, 2010, issue of The New Yorker.
Please note that if an acknowledgments or permissions section of a poetry collection lists the original sources of some poems but not others, this typically means that the poems not mentioned were first published in that collection. For instance, any of the poems not listed on the sources page of Hall’s The Back Chamber were probably first published in the book.
2) If you locate a poem in an anthology, rather than on a website, check the anthology’s acknowledgments or permissions section to see how it credits the poem. Often, an anthology will list the standalone collection or the “collected edition” of a poet’s work in which that poem appears. With that information, you can then locate the standalone collection or collected edition in which the poem appears, and then use the same strategy as #1 above—checking its acknowledgments or permissions section to see if it lists an earlier source—to track down the poem’s original publication source and date.
You can locate the anthologies in which many poems appear through subscription poetry and literature indexes such as the Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry and LitFinder, though these may not be available through your local public or school library. You can also use some of the earlier sources I mentioned, such as Google Books, to locate and search anthologies (or standalone collections) in which a poem may have appeared.
3) If a poet is particularly well-known, such as Robert Frost, there may exist a published bibliography, encyclopedia, or even biography that lists the original publication dates for poems. These types of works will usually be assigned a Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) you can search for in a library’s online catalog. The headings will usually be formatted similarly to the following:
Frost, Robert, 1874-1963–Encyclopedias.
Frost, Robert, 1874-1963–Bibliography.
For instance, original publication information for Frost’s poems is listed in The Robert Frost Encyclopedia, which you can locate by searching the Library of Congress online catalog under the LCSH Frost, Robert, 1874-1963–Encyclopedias. Again, if you don’t have access to a print copy, a database such as Google Books may provide limited access. For instance, on the Google Books “About” page for the encyclopedia you’ll notice that the page includes a “Search inside” box you can use to search within portions of the book. You can search on a poem title, such as “Bereft,” to review (or at least learn about) the pages of the book on which the word/title appears. Some pages may not be available, but if you’re lucky, you can find the page with the poem’s entry—in this case, page 24—and it will list the poem’s first publication date.
4) For other older and well-known poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, there may exist major websites that list the first printings of poems. For instance, the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore website includes printing information. Similarly, the Walt Whitman Archive can be used to source the original printings of many of Whitman’s poems.
While there are other ways to locate the original publication dates of poems, these four options are, in my view, the most common and most accessible to general researchers, teachers, and students.