Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Do you hear what I hear?

Woodberry Poetry Room to preserve rare recordings; additional funds to assist projects across FAS disciplines


Ezra Pound’s 1939 original recording of his “bloody”
Sestina: Altaforte was made in Harvard’s Woodberry
Poetry Room. A note on the disc reflects Pound’s
later worry that his performance would incite violence.


By Beth Giudicessi, HCL Communications

November 13, 2013 – The Woodberry Poetry Room’s rich collection contains rare and one-of-a-kind recordings of some of the 20th century’s most important poets. But because many of these rare recordings exist on fragile cassettes or on transcription discs made of lacquered metal or glass prone to separation and decay, these voices have essentially been silenced – until now.

Thanks to an additional $1.1 million the Harvard College Library (HCL) has injected into collection development, ongoing efforts to preserve some of the Woodberry Poetry Room’s most fragile and important recordings are about to get a boost. The funds will also enhance a number of other projects and acquisitions across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ disciplines.

“Continuing scrutiny of our budget allowed us to repurpose some restricted funds in support of the collections,” said Dan Hazen, Associate Librarian of Harvard College for Collection Development. “We then invited all HCL units and selectors to submit projects and purchases for review. The proposals were made available for community comment, with funding recommendations determined through a competitive evaluation process.  The Woodberry Poetry Room’s successful proposal will ensure that even more of its unique and fragile recordings are widely available to scholars and enthusiasts around the world.”

“We very much appreciate the broad input and participation by members of our libraries community, even those who did not benefit directly from funding,” continued Hazen. The additional $1.1 million is also being used across FAS libraries to purchase digital and print publications in the humanities, sciences and social sciences. A portion of the funding will expand access to research resources across the astronomy, mathematics, physics and statistics departments and related fields. It will also bolster print acquisitions from the major English language publishing countries with an emphasis on global issues and interdisciplinary studies as well as acquisitions from smaller presses and academic institutes. A number of items already in the libraries’ collections will also be digitized, making them more widely available for research.

Heretofore unheard readings and variant recordings by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Weldon Kees, Louis MacNeice, Muriel Rukeyser, and Wallace Stevens are among the recordings that will be digitized. In addition, original cassette master recordings made at Harvard by Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Jorie Graham, Michael Ondaatje, Grace Paley, Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney will also be conserved with the goal to make them publicly available online for the first time.

For Christina Davis, Curator of Poetry in the Woodberry Room, and for scholars across Harvard and beyond, preserving these recordings is imperative.

“When we say ‘master’, it means there’s no duplicate copy,” said Davis, “they exist in no other format and these are the only ones.”

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“The holdings in the Woodberry Poetry Room are among Harvard’s many hidden treasures. They aren’t completely hidden away – you can find them on HOLLIS, and the curators are extremely helpful when you show up to request something -- but digitizing these recordings will make them much more readily available, and it will preserve as well the many tapes that are in fragile condition,” added Stephanie Sandler, Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures.

The additional funding will help create a comprehensive survey of the Poetry Room’s un-cataloged discs as part of a pilot of a new technology developed by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The technology uses optics to read grooved media without a needle.

“A laser basically takes a digital image of a disc and then a computer program can convert that image to sound,” said Davis. “It can do this with discs that are too fragile to be played with a needle. It can even play broken discs.” 

The digital reformatting service never skips a beat.  “If you were to listen to a record with a needle it would have the snaps and pops and crackles but the digitizations are crystal clear because it essentially gets underneath the surface,” according to Poetry Room Research Assistant Mary Graham.

Preserving these recordings of the poets reading their own works is so important, Davis said, as there is a big difference between reading poetry and hearing poetry.

“I have brought students to the WPR to listen to tapes -- for example, the 1988 recording of Vladimir Nabokov’s Harvard reading. It is a shock for students to hear his slightly-accented English voice reading passages that the students had not found to be nearly so lyrical as Nabokov obviously did,” says Sandler, “the students easily hear the ironic, sardonic tones of Nabokov’s writings, but this recording makes them visibly aware of the tremendous pathos of his writings as well.”

Masters of fine arts students who recently visited to Poetry Room noticed another divergence of voice: the one between the written and spoken word. Their audio seminar led to a discussion about the distinction between their writing, their conversational voices and their performing ones.

As Davis concluded, “questions of voice extend far into culture. What voice do we trust in news? Which voices do we allow to speak for us and our time?  It’s not simply a question of poetry.”