MEGAPHONE: News & Events
Leave a comment

NUMBER NINE: The Woodberry Poetry Room at Ninety

Ninetieth Anniversary

Ninety years ago, in May 1931, the Woodberry Poetry Room first opened its doors. When the library was founded, it represented the convergence of many technological, cultural, and socio-political movements, which we will explore (in articles and oral histories) throughout the coming year.

Just as the Poetry Room did not come into being in an historical vacuum, this anniversary be considered apart from the time in which we find ourselves—in the midst of a global pandemic and of a renewed outcry for social justice (what Harvard professor Vincent Brown has called “America’s everlasting not-yet”).

During this unusual anniversary year, the Poetry Room is committed to finding ways to engage and uplift our audiences, through a range of virtual events that continue our mission to “live the questions now…..”

Our 90th anniversary season of events will begin in March-April 2021 with online readings by Sonia Sanchez, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Anne Boyer, Lyn Hejinian, and Claudia Rankine (with an introduction by Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) and will culminate in 2022—pending permission to host large in-person events again—with an on-campus performance by our 90th Anniversary reader Patti Smith.

In addition to these events, the anniversary celebrations will include the temporary installation of one of John Ashbery’s typewriters, which visitors to the Poetry Room will be encouraged to actively use when the room reopens next Fall, thanks to the immense generosity of Ashbery’s husband David Kermani. 

We are also proud to announce that, in conjunction with these festivities, the T. S. Eliot Estate has generously granted us permission to make some of our earliest recordings of T. S. Eliot widely available to the general public for the first time in almost a half century.

(One year after the founding of the Poetry Room, the Harvard-based recording pioneer Frederick C. Packard, Jr., made Eliot’s first known poetry recording during the poet’s visits to campus as a part of his Charles Eliot Norton lectureship. The two poems that Eliot recorded—“The Hollow Men” and “Gerontion”—were first released in 1933 under Packard’s Harvard Vocarium label, one of the first poetry recording labels in the world, and later compiled into a long-playing disc, T. S. Eliot: Reading His Own Poetry in 1951).

Selections from the 1951 Vocarium compilation, as well as a complete live reading that Eliot gave at Sanders Theatre on May 13, 1947, will be released during World Poetry Week via IN FOCUS, part of Harvard University’s recently-redesigned website. (These Eliot recordings will ultimately be made available via the HOLLIS online catalog and the Poetry Room’s listening booth). Scholars and poetry-lovers interested in comparing the produced Vocarium discs to Eliot’s outtakes can access additional rare clips via the Frederick C. Packard, Jr. Sound Recordings finding aid.

In addition, the Poetry: In Focus segment will highlight recent Poetry Room performances by M. NourbeSe Philip, Cecilia Vicuña, Ocean Vuong, Cathy Park Hong, Amanda Gorman, and Natalie Diaz, and outstanding recordings from the archives by such poets as Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and William Carlos Williams.

During this anniversary year, we also look forward to using our Blog to explore some of the latest additions to the Poetry Room’s collections— including the collected recordings of the band “Anne Sexton and Her Kind,” raw footage of Allen Ginsberg circa the 1980s, the Telephone magazine collection, and the John Ashbery Reading Library (the final shipment of which has just arrived at the Harvard Depository, and which will begin to be catalogued in 2021-22). We are also working behind the scenes to digitize and transcribe the recordings from our ambitious mid-century collaboration with the British Council, featuring readings and interviews with Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Kamau Brathwaite.

Nine decades ago, Prof. Frederick C. Packard, Jr. saw the Poetry Room as a home for his vocarium (his vision for the nation’s first library of voices) and in our on-going pilots of new technologies for AV delivery, digital annotation, and transcription, and in our bold and imaginative public programming, we look forward to continuing this legacy of creativity, collaboration, and innovation into the 21st century.

We thought we’d close this press release with a brief time-capsule of the first 10 years of the Poetry Room’s history, and with a renewed sense of what is possible in the years ahead…. Thank you, as ever, for accompanying us on our journey.

In January 1930, beloved poet and pioneering comparative literature scholar George Edward Woodberry (Harvard Class of 1877) died in Beverly, Massachusetts. “Woodberry had the miraculous gift of making poetry alive and attractive,” recalls Prof. John Erskine, a past student of his at Columbia, “He constantly tried to open our minds and increase our sympathies for the world at large and … the possible America, which should be not New England, nor the South, nor exclusively Anglo-Saxon, but an amalgamation of energies and ideals…. He opened the universe to me.” (The New York Times)

In February 1931, visiting professor I. A. Richards suggested that “a room where one could read aloud would be of great benefit, especially as regards the enjoyment of modern poetry.” Richards also advocated for “the installation of apparatus to record poetry readings.”

Richards was a propounder of the mid-century emphasis on “close reading,” pioneered the use of mass communication in the classroom, and collaborated with C. K. Ogden on the “Basic English” curriculum, which by simplifying English acquisition, was intended to promote world peace.

The Woodberry Poetry Room opened on the third floor of Widener Library. The space featured the personal library of Amy Lowell (including original Dickinson and Keats materials), as well as Modernist “poetry magazines little and big.” Prof. Harry Levin later reflected that its opening was a kind of declaration that “Harvard was officially recognizing Modern poetry.”

Alumnus Harry Harkness Flagler, who provided the funds to establish the room, shared his classmate Woodberry’s belief that poetry, in addition to being a subject of academic study, was a source of pleasure and social life. The room was also a sign that the emerging ‘youth culture’ was beginning to redefine college campuses and the undergrad experience. The room ultimately became so popular that it was moved to the new Lamont Library, the nation’s first undergraduate library, in 1949.

In 1933, Prof. Frederick C. Packard, Jr., launched Harvard Vocarium Phonograph Records, one of the first poetry and spoken-literature recording labels in the world. The inaugural batch featured a fascinating hybrid of old and new: with a series of 19th-century style Latin and Greek recordings and the first poetry recording by modernist T. S. Eliot (who Packard recorded while Eliot was the Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer at Harvard in 1932-33). Vocarium was a neologism, which came to mean, among other things, “a library of voices.”

A 1935 letter to Prof. Packard suggests that he may have used the same exact recording device that Prof. Milman Parry used on his journeys to Yugoslavia. The recordings made by Parry formed the core of his pioneering argument regarding the oral formulaic structure of Homeric epic. His colleague Alfred Lord later published Parry’s findings in the groundbreaking work, The Singer of Tales (1960).

In 1938, the collaboration between Packard’s Vocarium and the Poetry Room was formalized into a vision for “a library of poetry records [that will be] comparable to a library of books.” The Boston Sunday Post puts it more exuberantly: Harvard Universities, one of the most forward universities in the world, is breaking all precedent and founding a library for the voice—the Harvard Vocarium.”

The popularity of the idea took off: a 1938-39 report reveals that 4,500 visited the Poetry Room in a mere four months and, of these, “1,071 individuals have listened to poetry recordings.”

On his last pre-War visit to the United States, in 1939, Ezra Pound made his earliest extant recording in Packard’s makeshift recording studio in Memorial Hall. The late 1930s saw a flurry of additional recording activity. Though many of the discs were never produced, due to wartime shortages, a 1939 letter from WPR Curator Arnold Kinseth reveals that the following recordings had been made: “Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Louis MacNeice, John Crowe Ransom, John Holmes, Robert P. Tristram Coffin, Robert Hillyer, Leonora Speyer, and Madeline Mason.” In the early 1940s, Packard and the Poetry Room would go on to make some of the earliest extant recordings of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and Muriel Rukeyser.

We look forward to exploring other pivotal moments in our history throughout the coming year.

Filed under: MEGAPHONE: News & Events


Christina Davis is the curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University. She is the author of two poetry collections, AN ETHIC and FORTH A RAVEN, a recent collaborative sound-art installation, DISCORD, MA, and the manuscript-in-progress, SMALL EVERS.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *