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.
As we prepare to welcome this year’s WPR Creative Fellow Eileen Myles (who will be present on campus throughout the month of April), the Woodberry Poetry Room is pleased to announce that the recipient of next year’s WPR Creative Fellowship is Erín Moure for her proposed project,“RESONANCE: A Modernism.” Moure will receive a stipend of $4,000 (generously funded by the Dr. Michael and Teresa Anagnostopoulos Fund) and plans to be in residence in April 2017. During her fellowship, Moure will travel from Montreal to sit in the Woodberry Poetry Room and engage in a journey of listening in situ to the recorded voices of four American women modernist poets, seeking an auditory trace that will lead her into a new piece of writing, her own trilingual take — for her ear is attuned to French and Galician as well as English — on the grain of the American modernist voice in poetry and on what it provokes today. Moure says: “I would start by placing the cavity of my ribs, my ears, and the cells of my own cerebrum in the …
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.
It is a profound honor to introduce Ed Roberson and Joe Donahue, two poets who have enormously enabled my own writing and thinking, influencing me in ways I am still trying happily to discover. They are poets for me, and I trust for many here this evening, whose work is of such an astonishing, acute clarity and force that reading them is to learn how to inhabit the world, our world, more wholly; it is to learn, as Donahue’s most recent collection suggests, how to have our “ear turned to the earth / hearing the roots, / the rocks, the layers / of sediment, the residue / of oceans and heat / torn off from a star” (Dark Church, 151).
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.