Author: Matthew Battles

Of Poems, Sound & the Sutures of the World

In the 1930s, two projects at Harvard brought the rapidly-advancing technology of sound recording to bear on poetry. In 1933 and again in ‘35, classicist Milman Parry traveled to Yugoslavia to make phonographic recordings of Balkan epic poets, documenting the performers’ use of formulaic expressions to structure and link long passages of epic recitation. Showing the capacity of oral poetry to match the length and complexity of the Homeric oeuvre, Parry’s recordings lent strength to his theory that the Iliad and the Odyssey began in Mycenaean oral tradition. In the very same years Parry trekked to the Balkans, Professor Frederick C. Packard, Jr., established the Harvard Vocarium as a recording label devoted to the expressive possibilities of the human voice. Beginning with the recording of Norton lecturer T. S. Eliot in 1933, Packard inaugurated a pioneering campaign of poetry readings and attendant audio recordings, which continues today in the program of the Woodberry Poetry Room in Lamont Library. Both Parry and Packard’s efforts also produced archives, the holdings of which embrace the media archaeology of the …