ABOUT THE WOODBERRY POETRY ROOM

WELCOME


Welcome to the Woodberry Poetry Room, a special collections reading room and audio-visual archive at Harvard University. Located in Lamont Library (in a room designed by renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto), and overseen by Houghton Library, the Poetry Room features a circulating collection of 20th and 21st century English-language poetry, an encyclopedic array of poetry serials, the Blue Star collection of rare books, broadsides, chapbooks, and typescripts, and a landmark collection of audio recordings (1933 to the present). With over 6,000 recordings on a range of media that span the 20th and 21st centuries--- including phonodiscs, magnetic tape (reel to reel and cassette), CDs, DATs, and born digital---the collection is one of the largest and earliest poetry-specific sound archives in the United States.

Founded in honor of poet, scholar, and Harvard alumnus George Edward Woodberry (1855-1930), the Poetry Room first opened its doors on the third floor of Widener Library in May 1931. Harvard faculty member Harry Levin later reflected: "As I look back, I can now see how significantly the opening [of the Poetry Room] was timed: Harvard was officially recognizing modern poetry. And it was Theodore Spencer and F. O. Matthiesen (both fated to die quite young) who really brought it into the English curriculum, and their efforts were crowned by T. S. Eliot's year as Norton Professor."

The early Poetry Room featured open shelves, with books that "ranged from such immediate forerunners of modern verse as Hardy and Hopkins to the contemporary stretch between Aiken and Zaturenska" (Harvard Library Bulletin, Winter 1954). The warm, welcoming room offered access to a wide range of "poetry magazines little and big" and, along one wall, an eclectic collection of books from Amy Lowell's personal library (later transferred to Houghton Library, when it opened in 1947). In addition to the presence of Modernist monographs and experimental magazines, the Morris Gray lecture series added an audible dimension to the room. Among the early luminaries of the Morris Gray lectures and readings were Martha Dickinson Bianchi, I. A. Richards, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. In 1938, a Victrola was purchased for the room, and phonograph records soon became the centrepiece of undergraduate excitement.

The mere presence of phonograph records does not explain how the Poetry Room became a landmark audio-visual collection. For that, we need to turn to the pioneering work of Harvard Professor of Public Speaking and Director of the Speech Clinic Frederick C. Packard, Jr.. As early as 1929, Packard began to clamor for the creation of the first-ever “library of voices” (a vocarium, as he dubbed it), which would be “a place where voices can be kept and studied” and which would stand in equal stature to a library of books. He found a home for his vision in the nascent Poetry Room. In a 1975 interview, he states: “my Vocarium was in there.”

In 1933, Packard succeeded in his first overt step toward his “library of voices” when he launched the Harvard Vocarium, one of the first poetry/literature recording labels in the world. The preliminary batch featured several Latin and Greek recordings and T. S. Eliot's first poetry recording. The recording of "Gerontion" and "The Hollow Men" was made by Packard during the poet's year-long residence in Cambridge as the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer.

Until the university withdrew its financial support and discontinued its affiliation in 1955, the Harvard Vocarium made and, in many cases commercially released, the first or (in certain cases, earliest extant) recordings by Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robinson Jeffers, Weldon Kees, Robert Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Marianne Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Anais Nin, Ezra Pound, Muriel Rukeyser, May Sarton, Robert Penn Warren, and Tennessee Williams. For many of these poets, the recording experience (after which Packard would provide immediate playback) constituted the first time they had ever heard their own voices.

In addition to his commercial venture, Packard actively recorded, commissioned, collected, and created “a repository of all the voices he could get a hold of, a kind of audio time capsule, for posterity,” according to his granddaughter and Vocarium discographer Josephine Packard.

Packard found a practical depository and an organically evolving curatorial home for his “vocarium” in the recently opened Poetry Room, where master recordings were held and two phonograph players were subsequently installed for student use. While a 1938 Boston Sunday Post article boasted that “Harvard University, one of the most forward universities in the world, is breaking all precedent and founding a library for the voice—the Harvard Vocarium,” the physical library never wholly materialized. But his recordings did continue to be deposited and accessed at the Woodberry Poetry Room. As Packard later stated: “My Vocarium was in there.”

By the 1940s, the Poetry Room (at Widener) had become so popular and the "record collection['s] attraction increased" to such a degree that the record players "never quite satisfied the demand for a hearing" (Harvard Library Bulletin, 1954). When the Poetry Room moved to the nation's first undergraduate library, Lamont Library, in February 1949, it was to a new suite of rooms designed specifically as "a place for poetry" (in the words of Alvar Aalto) and poetry listening. Four players, equipped with outlets for eight sets of earphones, helped to accomodate the growing visitorship. Over 4,000 listeners visited the new Poetry Room in its first four months in Lamont Library. (The downside of this move was that it excluded women from the Poetry Room---Radcliffe students had previously had access to its Widener venue---until 1967 when Lamont Library began to admit women.)

In 1940, John ("Jack") Lincoln Sweeney came to Harvard to work with Prof. I. A. Richards on the Committee on Communications. According to the Harvard Crimson, Sweeney was interested in "using Richard's 'Basic English' to prepare simplifications of the Bill of Rights and immigration documents." In 1942, after the position of curator was offered to (and turned down by) Robert Frost, Sweeney accepted the position---a position he held until 1969. During his mid-century curatorship, the Poetry Room fluorished and became a nexus for poets who were (or would later be) associated with the New York School of Poets, the Poets' Theatre, the Boston Renaissance, and Confessional poetry. The Poetry Room also forged a significant collaboration with the British Council, which jointly funded recordings by Kamau Braithwaite, David Jones, W. S. Graham, Philip Larkin, Hugh MacDiarmid, Herbert Read, Stevie Smith, among others.

Live readings and studio recordings from the mid-century include the circuit tours of E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas and the performances of emerging poets John Ashbery, John Berryman, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens, Jean Valentine, John Wieners, and the first recording of Sylvia Plath. We have also recently discovered one of the earliest recordings of Ralph Ellison, made during the Conference on the Novel that met in the Lamont Forum Room in August 1953. The Poetry Room was also responsible for making one of the earliest U.S.-based recordings of Polish emigre (and later Nobel laureate) Czeslaw Milosz and Russian poet Yvegeny Yevtushenko (in 1961).

In 1974, Stratis Haviaras was named curator of the Poetry and Farnsworth Rooms, a position he held until 2000. During this lively period, Haviaras recorded a wide array of poets representing a broad range of late 20th century poetics: among them, Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Rita Dove, Robert Duncan, Jorie Graham, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Gary Snyder, and Derek Walcott. Haviaras was also responsible for creating a substantive archive of contemporary Greek-language recordings, featuring such authors as George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. In addition, he recorded over 40 readings, seminars, and lectures by Seamus Heaney, during Heaney's pivotal period of affiliation with the university. In 1986, Haviaras founded the literary journal Errato, which later became the Harvard Review---contributors to which have included Jhumpa Lahiri, J. M. Coetzee, Yusef Komunyakaa, David Foster Wallace, and the over 200 poets who have participated in the recent Renga for Obama.

With his retirement in 2000, the Poetry Room was transferred to management under Houghton Library: its recording collection having been deemed a special collection. In 2002, during the curatorship of Don Share, the Harvard Vocarium was chosen as a part of the first annual selection of the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Share was also crucial in recognizing the precarity of such recording formats as reels and discs, and with his help the Poetry Room became a part of the pilot Library Digitization Initiative, establishing new standards for audio preservation at Harvard and beyond.

The Woodberry Poetry Room's audio collection is, according to Seamus Heaney, "indispensable: it contains not only the voices—from different times of their lives—of the greatest poets, but constitutes a living history of modern poetry." (Heaney held the Poetry Room in such high regarded that when he accepted a new appointment as Ralph Waldo Emerson Visiting Poet, he added to that title "and Consultant to the Curator of the Poetry Room."

This vital tradition continues today with a rich assortment of poetry readings, seminars and workshops, as well as significant efforts to preserve and digitize the Woodberry's pivotal recordings for generations to come. The Woodberry Poetry Room celebrates poetry as an intellectual pursuit and sensory experience; as a textual encounter and an auditory phenomenon, as a solitary meditation and as a source of solidarity and social life. In the many roles that the Woodberry Poetry Room plays and the countless communities it serves, the room could be said to be an "enormous room" (to quote Harvard alumnus E. E. Cummings). We welcome you to visit the Poetry Room in person or to encounter it virtually through our online Listening Booth (of individual readings) and Vocarium (of oral histories, panel discussions, and seminars).

--Written and researched by Christina Davis

 


EXPLORE THE COLLECTIONS


AUDIO-VISUAL COLLECTION

The Woodberry Poetry Room's audio collection comprises over 6,000 recordings, including unique recordings produced by the Poetry Room and the Harvard Department of English, early collaborative recordings made in conjunction with the British Council, as well as the audio archives of the Academy of American Poets and the Aspen Writers' Conference. In addition to these recordings, the Poetry Room provides access to an extensive number of recordings by early recording pioneers, independent studios and commercial recording companies from around the world. Our recordings include readings, lectures, informal conversations, oral histories, interviews, radio broadcasts and, more recently, answering-machine poems. The Poetry Room also houses a growing collection of poetry-related films and documentaries in DVD and VHS formats.

Thanks to a generous donation from Bob Hildreth and a pilot study by the NEDCC, the Poetry Room has undertaken to preserve these invaluable recordings for generations to come. For highlights from our digitization initiative and our current public programs, we invite you to peruse our online Listening Booth. To search for our recordings via HOLLIS, type the name of the author(s) you are interested in and press "search." You can then use the sidebar to filter your search by Format (e.g., "Sound Recording") and Location (e.g. "Poetry Room (Lamont)"). To browse the entire archive of sound recordings unique to the Poetry Room, type "poetry" in the search box, then filter by Format (Sound Recording) and Author (Woodberry Poetry Room).

The audio-visual collection is accessible by arrangement with the curator at (617) 495-2454 or via email at poetryrm@fas.harvard.edu. Recordings must be listened to in the Poetry Room, unless digital access is provided through HOLLIS.


BLUE STAR COLLECTION

The Blue Star collection is a non-circulating collection of rare or limited-edition monographs, chapbooks and broadsides. Highlights from the Blue Star collection include typescripts of poems by Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke's annotated edition of Rilke's Duino Elegies, a cigar smoked by Amy Lowell, broadsides signed by Elizabeth Bishop and Allen Ginsberg, archival photographs of Robert Frost, Marianne Moore and Ted Hughes and portraits by Larry Rivers, as well as first (or signed) editions of works ranging from John Ashbery to Louis Zukofsky. Click here, for an overview list of Blue Star materials (pdf).

The Blue Star collection is serviced by the Houghton Reading Room. Photocopies of materials that are not fragile (or whose duplication is not prohibited) can be made on request for a fee and as staff time permits.


BOOK AND SERIAL COLLECTION

The Woodberry Poetry Room circulating collection presents highlights from 20th and 21st century English-language poetry and poetry in translation. To search our circulating collection via HOLLIS, type the name of the respective author or text and narrow down your search by selecting "Location: Poetry Room (Lamont)" in the sidebar. In addition, the room features a non-circulating collection of current poetry journals from across the country and around the world, which are free to be perused by all visitors.

 


LISTENING COPIES, TRANSCRIPTS & PERMISSIONS

If you are interested in requesting a scholarly-use copy or a transcript of a Woodberry Poetry Room recording or video, please contact the WPR curatorial staff. If no digital access copy or transcript currently exists, the curatorial staff will research the requested item, confirm its playability and suitability for transfer/transcription, and provide you with an estimate for the creation of a listening copy.

While we make every effort to provide scholarly-use copies, we do reserve the right to refuse requests that cannot be filled due to the fragility of master recordings or legal/copyright obligations. Please note that we do not make copies of commercially-produced recordings. In addition, for all Academy of American Poets recordings (on deposit at the Poetry Room) additional permission must be obtained from the Academy in advance of your request.

Listening copies are provided under Title 17 of U.S. copyright law. In requesting a listening copy for one-time scholarly use, you are confirming that you have read the following copyright restriction:

The copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) governs the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material. Under certain conditions specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a photocopy or other reproduction. One of these specified conditions is that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be "used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research." If a user makes a request for, or later uses, a photocopy or reproduction for purposes in excess of "fair use", that user may be liable for copyright infringement. This institution reserves the right to refuse to accept a copying order if, in its judgment, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law.

Patrons wishing to use these materials as a part of a radio broadcast, online podcast, commercially produced CD, or other mode of publication should seek appropriate permissions from the pertinent Estate or copyright holder(s).

For additional information, please contact the curator Christina Davis at (617) 495-2454 or via email at davis2@fas.harvard.edu. Additional information on how to cite our materials is available via Houghton Library's Reproductions and Permissions page.

 


The WPR Creative FELLOWSHIP

The WPR Creative Fellowship invites poets, writers, multimedia artists, and scholars of contemporary poetry to propose creative projects that would benefit from the resources available in the room and to generate new work that further actualizes the Poetry Room's collections—particularly the audio-video archive.  In addition to conducting research and pursuing projects, the WPR fellow will be asked to present a works-in-progress event in conjunction with the Poetry Room’s public programming season and/or to contribute a work or drafts (produced during the fellowship) to the WPR archive. The recipient is expected to work on-site at the Woodberry Poetry Room for at least 10 days during the Harvard academic year. The WPR Creative Fellow will receive a stipend of $3,500.

Previous recipients of the fellowship have included Eileen Myles, Fanny Howe, and (most recently) Erin Moure. During certain years, additional WPR Creative Grants have been made available: recent recipients include Dan Beachy-Quick and Lindsay Turner.

The WPR Creative Fellowships and Grants are generously funded by the Dr. Michael & Teresa Anagnostopoulos Fund. The next deadline for application is in January 2018. The application guidelines will be updated and posted in Fall 2017.

 


Visit THE ROOM / SCHEDULE CLASSES

The Poetry Room is open to all Harvard students, faculty, staff, alumni, visiting scholars and members of the public (with a valid photo ID). Members of the public must sign in at the Lamont Library security desk and indicate that they are visiting the Woodberry Poetry Room.

Faculty members and teachers wishing to schedule classes in the room (that draw upon our A/V collection) are encouraged to use the Classroom Request Tool. The WPR curatorial staff will followup with you to discuss your specific needs and interests.

Scholars, researchers and readers interested in accessing specific recordings, should contact the WPR curatorial staff at least 24 hours prior to their visit. The curatorial staff will research your requested items and assess them for playability.

The Poetry Room is only open on weekdays. For our specific hours, please check our up-to-date schedule prior to your visit.

The Woodberry Poetry Room is wheelchair-accessible via a ramp at the front entrance to Lamont Library. In addition, the Edison Newman Room at Houghton Library (where some of our events are held each semester) is accessible via a short flight of steps up from the level of Quincy Street. For wheelchair access for public events at Houghton Library, please contact Public Services at 617-495-2440 in advance of the event, and we will arrange to meet you at Houghton's side entrance.

For additional questions or to schedule a time to access specific materials, please contact the curatorial staff at poetryrm@fas.harvard.edu.


Contact Us

Christina Davis, Curator
davis2@fas.harvard.edu

Mary Walker Graham, Assistant Curator
marywgraham@fas.harvard.edu

Woodberry Poetry Room
Lamont Library, Room 330
11 Quincy Street
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138

Phone: (617) 495-2454
Fax: (617) 495-1376
poetryrm@fas.harvard.edu

 

 


MEET THE STAFF

The Poetry Room has a long history of hiring poets and writers, and the current staff is no exception to that legacy. Christina Davis (author of An Ethic and Forth A Raven) and Mary Walker Graham (recipient of an MFA in Poetry from New England College) are both actively publishing poets. Past curatorial assistants and undergraduate/graduate students who have worked at the Poetry Room include: Chloe Garcia Roberts, Fred Moten, and Lindsay Turner. WPR Curators from 1931 to the present have been: W. N. Bates, George M. Kahrl, Arthurt T. Hamlin, Arnold M. Keseth, Philip Horton, John Lincoln Sweeney, Robert Fitzgerald, Jeanne Broburg, Stratis Haviaras, and Don Share.