At the Woodberry Poetry Room, I wondered if there were ways of hearing the poetry reading as porous, social and historical. I wanted to listen for waits, silences, halts, pauses, fire drills, missteps, mistakes, animals, altercations, brawls, technical difficulties, weather, interruptions, intrusions, etc.
This was supposed to be a story about one of the nation’s first “library of voices” and its phonographic instigator Frederick C. Packard, Jr. And, in many ways it remains so. But, as poet Lyn Hejinian has observed, people are collecting-experiences, and if one genuinely follows a single human being one inevitably happens on someone else who forms the fulcrum of a very different set of phenomena and occurrences.
In this story that person is a quiet, self-taught Boston audio engineer Stephen B. Fassett (1914-1980), and this article is a preliminary attempt to honor his generative, facilitating and unsung role in the early careers of countless mid-century poets, jazz & blues musicians, and folk music revivalists as they converged on the burgeoning epicenter of 1950s and 60s Cambridge/Boston.
As we enter a new era of civic discourse—one governed by 140-character-limits, “air quotes,” and alt facts—and as we encounter an administration intent on destroying the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, it is helpful to reflect on a time that faced similar social and economical struggles (accompanied by rapid technological advances) and met them with a combination of artistic, scientific, and imaginative might.
On October 18, 1950, Socialist troubadour, Abraham Lincoln biographer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg read at Harvard University under the auspices of the Morris Gray Reading series. He was likely invited by Department of English faculty member Archibald MacLeish. Long-time friends Sandburg and MacLeish shared in being “critical of writers who [had] remained detached from the national emergency of World War Two.” True to his convictions, Sandburg states (in his opening remarks) that “a writer’s silence on living issues can in itself constitute a propaganda of conduct leading toward the deterioration or death of freedom” and—in a palpable hit at Harvard—he urged the students to remember that “men of ideas vanish first, when freedom vanishes….”
The primary questions I asked her related to the mid-century history of the Poetry Room and its then curator John Lincoln Sweeney. The stories that emerged included a much wider sphere of intersecting lives and poetries than I had heretofore imagined, among them: Adrienne Rich, Marianne Moore, Edith Sitwell, Fanny and Susan Howe, Edwin Honig, Robert Lowell, Dudley Fitts, Robert Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and many more.
Poet and singer-songwriter Patti Smith’s recent magisterial performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony—in which she interrupts her own rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and takes a moment to apologize for her nerves—offers us a chance to reflect upon and celebrate poetry’s role in an increasingly mechanistic society.
On October 19th, 1938, a year and a half after the Columbia Workshop debut of his first (and what is largely considered the first) verse play for radio, The Fall of the City, Archibald MacLeish sat down at a microphone in Holden Chapel at Harvard University to record (and more importantly to inform the reading of) his most ambitious verse drama to date: Air Raid.
I hear the “noise” and “skips”—products of a one-off experiment in digital playback and recording—as felicitous deformations of both the text and Stevens’ reading. They open up a way of listening to the poem’s own difficult re-reading of the substance of experience. In other words, in this recording I hear IRENE practicing a kind of unconscious deformative criticism.
When William Carlos Williams first agreed to speak at Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises in 1951, he did not realize that the delivery of the poem would truly require exercise. He could not have foreseen at the time of commission the stroke he would suffer the following month, and the toll it would take on his capacity to perform it.
Poetry is Melissa Green’s landbridge, her strongest connection to the wider world—though it would be more accurate to say that, through poetry, the rest of the world gains access to Green’s “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence,” as Joseph Brodsky put it. Marie Howe has written that “Melissa Green might well be a 21st century version of Emily Dickinson, poet of ecstatic states and extremity.” Like Dickinson, a careful repose allows Green to sustain the sensitivity that the machinery of modern life erodes.