Articles, Ideas & Discoveries
comment 1

GETTING WISE TO THE B SIDES: Recent Discoveries in the Packard Collection

This July, HOLLIS for Archival Discovery went live, and with it a range of our recently cataloged collections became available in an agile and user-friendly search format: among them, the Frederick C. Packard, Jr., sound recordings (described in this article); the Paul Kahn Collection of Bezoar Materials; the Stephen B. Fassett correspondence (featuring letters to and from Ted Hughes, Dido Merwin, W. S. Merwin, and John Lincoln Sweeney); the Woodberry Poetry Room collection of visual materials (including mid-century photographs of the Alvar Aalto-designed Poetry Room); and much more.

In this post, I will focus on the Packard Collection, which was consummately arranged, catalogued, and described by Mary Walker Graham, and is now open for your research and exploration. The digital audio material featured in this post will ultimately be attached to the Archival Discovery database, but for now, this blog post will have to suffice. (For newcomers to the Poetry Room, you can also access hundreds of our archival and contemporary recordings via our Listening Booth).


Audio Archivist: Mary Walker Graham

Consultants: Christina Davis (supervisor), Vicki Denby, Adrien Hilton, Laura Larkin, Carie McGinnis, Josephine Packard, Susan Pyzynski, Elizabeth Walters & Melanie Wisner

Overview: Frederick C. Packard, Jr. (1899-1985), H ’20, served as Professor of Public Speaking in the Harvard Department of English and as Director of the Speech Clinic, in conjunction with the Department of Hygiene. The eclecticism of his resume was matched by the breadth of his interests and commitments. As early as 1928-29, Packard began to clamor for the creation of what would have been the nation’s first library of voices. With the help of his colleague E. K. Rand, he coined the term “vocarium” to describe his vision for a place where “voices can be kept and studied,” where orality would be given the same attention and respect as textuality. He found a home for his vision in the nascent Woodberry Poetry Room, where the records he collected and gradually created were stored and made accessible. Though his comprehensive library never came to total fruition, in a 1975 interview, he states: “my Vocarium was in there.”

In 1933, his early efforts led to the publication (by Harvard University Phonograph Records) of the first discs in what came to be called the Harvard Vocarium, one of the first poetry/literature recordings labels in the world. Through Harvard University Press, these were sold to individuals and libraries across the country and around the world—creating a kind of analog athenaeum to educate and encourage listeners from a broad spectrum of the public.

Mary Graham and Josephine Packard.

From the mid-1930s, until the university discontinued its affiliation in 1955, the Harvard Vocarium made and, in many cases commercially released, the first (or earliest extant) recordings by Elizabeth Bishop, T. S. Eliot, 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.

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 Vocarium discographer Josephine Packard.

Transporting the Packard cases.

These recordings ranged from surgeries to Shakespeare, Haitian-Creole ritual performances to Japanese-language lessons, experimental radio plays to Scottish border-ballads.

The breadth of languages he recorded in is equally remarkable—among them, Afrikaans, Catalan, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Danish, French, German, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, and Yiddish.

Exciting Finds: After a great deal of comparative listening, we began to acquire a knack for gleaning differences between even the most similar of recordings. While the greatest discoveries await you (our listeners and researchers), some of our favorite in-house finds thus far have included a series of 1947/48 outtakes by T. S. Eliot, experimenting with how to give voice to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

On these separate unpublished discs, you can hear Eliot reading the (consciously) hypnotic opening line with distinctly different pacing and emphasis.

MSAm 3605, 668:

MSAm 3605, 1009:

To compare those outtakes with the “final” published version, visit our blog post, “Prufrockian Grooves.”

We were also overjoyed (even downright giddy) to encounter the ever-meticulous and humorous Marianne Moore, interrupting herself during her first-ever recording session in 1941, when she realized she was read too slowly:

“What is it?! How many minutes? Oh, I need to speed up a little…. I believe…when I take it slowly….. [cut off]”

Here’s an excerpt:

Moore can also be heard testing out the delivery of her now famous three-word title, “What Are Years,” a reading which reminds me of (previous Poetry Room curator) Don Share’s wry reference to the erroneous persistence of a question mark in subsequent printings of Moore’s poem. (Share titles his own poem, emphatically, “What Are Years [period]”).

Moore was not alone in being both intimidated and intrigued by this new auditory technology: her mysterious peer Weldon Kees (who vanished 6 years after this recording took place) comes about as close to cursing as the Packard G-rating would let him.

After he slips up, he shouts vociferously: “Sorry! Kill it!”

One of the most unexpectedly haunting recordings is by the young Randall Jarrell, circa 1946. Made in the same year that he was discharged from the army, the disc features one of the earliest surviving recordings of his seminal World War II poem, “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” and several poems that were never subsequently recorded. Here, he reads—urgently, painstakingly— “The State” and “The Losses”:

Additional outtakes by Ezra Pound and Weldon Kees are available via the Stylus blog post, “Poetry’s Noble Pause.”

High-res scan with “extra word” note by Packard

Digital Sleeves: Because we are as yet unable to digitize all of the recordings in the collection (funders please give us a call on our Poetry Preservation Hotline…) and were therefore unable to play the discs to confirm their contents, Mary Graham relied heavily on the liner notes on the original sleeves. She also prepped the sleeves to be digitized. Due to her instrumental efforts, high-resolution scans of Packard’s sleeves are available via HOLLIS for Archival Discovery.

Before shot of Packard sleeves:

Before shot: Packard sleeves prior to rehousing, 2008.


After shot: Packard Collection rehoused by Mary Walker Graham.


Detective Work: Whereas our previous Finding Aids only allowed you to do keyword searching in a vertical-scrolling text document, with the database-style HOLLIS for Archival Discovery you can combine multiple searches, refining them by such fields as author, title, genre, language, year, format (distinguishing between lacquer on metal and lacquer on glass), recording label, and the list goes on.

Rehousing Sound:
One of the great challenges of the Packard Collection project was (and remains) the at-risk nature of the format, and the special needs these large (sometimes 16″) discs require— especially ones that are delaminated and/or broken.

Throughout the process, Graham worked with a dedicated and innovative team of preservation specialists based at Weissman Preservation Center to design and construct custom housing for these fragile materials. Fragments of the lacquer are “shored against” their ruin, by being kept in close proximity to the originals, so that future phono-textual historians and preservation specialists will have the material readily available should the technology become possible to re-piece the scattered analog data.

Custom housing for broken and delaminated discs.


Broken disc of a Paul Engle recording, with lacquer fragments stored in secure envelopes.

Packard would have been immensely moved to have witnessed Graham and our Houghton/Weissman colleagues devoting themselves to this project with the same passion, ingenuity, diligence, and gusto that he himself bestowed upon the Vocarium. I, for one, congratulate them!

Photographs by Christina Davis

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

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