Poetry Room Collection is Mother Lode for NPR

For a documentary marking the 50th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel Lolita, NPR called upon the Woodberry Poetry Room for audio of Nabokov's voice.

October 21, 2005 - When NPR needed audio to spice up a recent documentary piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel Lolita, producers called upon the Woodberry Poetry Room for a clip of Nabokov's voice. The Poetry Room, a division of Houghton Library, was happy to oblige, offering up a 41-year-old recording of the author himself reading the novel's central poem.

In contributing this clip, Poetry Room Curator Don Share had simply to draw on an extensive collection of Nabokov recordings the poet/novelist/ lepidopterist made specifically for the Poetry Room during the years he worked at Harvard, most notably at the Museum of Comparative Zoology as curator of butterfiles. The Nabokov audio, currently archived on the NPR site, only hints at the depth of the Poetry Room's audio holdings. A better indicator might be that whenever NPR does a feature on a famous poet, says Share, they call on the collection.

"The Poetry Room is one of the largest and oldest repositories of recorded poetry in the world," explains Share. "NPR is one of many organizations that rely on us to hear the voices of poets." He regularly fields requests from documentary filmmakers, radio and TV producers (especially NPR and PBS), and commercial publishers for its rare audio materials.

Boasting literally tens of thousands of recordings of poets reading their own work, the Poetry Room's audio holdings include famous poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Nabokov, as well as the not-so-famous. Other poets - Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden among them - recorded for the collection at different stages of their careers, particularly interesting for the change evidenced in their older voices.

The vast majority of the Poetry Room's recordings were made on-site at Harvard with the collection cultivated in two ways. For one, the Poetry Room makes it a point to record as many Harvard poetry events as possible, its own included. A current favorite is Seamus Heaney, Harvard's own Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence. "We have probably more hours of Seamus Heaney than anyone else," says Share. "Whatever he does, we happily record."

But the Poetry Room is also known for bringing in poets simply to read, sans audience, into a microphone. The practice multiplies exponentially the recording possibilities and goes back nearly to the founding of the Woodberry Poetry Room, which marks its 75th anniversary this year.

"The Poetry Room pioneered the systematic recording of poets," says Share. "Our Harvard Vocarium series, which includes the likes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, was named by the Librarian of Congress to the National Recording Registry in 2003."

And speaking of Ezra Pound... It's not all documentaries and research-related fare for the Poetry Room. A British TV quiz show recently asked contestants to identify a 30-second clip of Pound reciting "The Seafarer." The clip came from a CD titled "The Spoken Word: Poets" released by the British Library, which in turn had acquired it from none other than the Woodberry Poetry Room.


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