This week the George Edward Woodberry Poetry Room reopened after a summerlong renovation, reuniting scholars, poets, and poetry lovers with an unprecedented collection of books, pamphlets, magazines, broadsides, manuscripts, video recordings of poets, rare author photographs, and paintings and sculptures created by poets – in fact anything related to 20th and 21st century poetry.
Most significant in the collection are the audio recordings. “Hearing a poem in the poet’s own voice, with its intended tone, emphasis, and rhythm can elicit a whole new understanding of that poem,” said Don Share, curator of poetry in the poetry room, speaking of the tens of thousands of audio recordings, which include some of the past century’s most distinguished poets: John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, ee cummings, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Donald Hall, Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Pinsky, Ezra Pound, and Adrienne Rich, among many others.
Recognized in the first annual selection of the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, the audio archive of the Woodberry Poetry Room began in 1931 with the recording of T.S. Eliot reading “Gerontion” and “The Hollow Men.” In the years since, virtually every major poet has been recorded reading or lecturing at Harvard, providing the University with recordings held by no other institution.
Nobel laureate and faculty member Seamus Heaney, often recorded for the collection, has written, “The Harvard collection is indispensable: It contains not only the voices – from different times of their lives – of the greatest poets, but constitutes a living history of modern poetry.”
A division of the Harvard College Library, the Woodberry Poetry Room was established in 1931 in memory of Professor George E. Woodberry, Class of 1877, for the purpose of bringing alive the poet’s voice and creating a place at Harvard for the enduring delight and significance of poetry. A succession of renowned curators dedicated to that mission has served the scholarly community. Present curator Share is a published poet, instructor, and editor with a Ph.D. in editorial studies from Boston University as well as a master of library science degree from Simmons College. He is an invited lecturer at Oxford and has recently been named editor of Literary Imagination, the journal of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, a post he will assume in January. January is also when his second book of poems, “Squandermania” (Salt Publishing), is due to be released.
Long before being appointed curator in 2000, Share would drop by the poetry room to study the collection. “To me it’s very connected with my own work,” he says, “and I think I couldn’t really write the same way if I were not so lucky to be surrounded by the voices of poets and their pictures and their artwork.” So surrounded, he’s spent the past three years composing “Squandermania.” His first book of poems, “Union” (2002), was written under the same influence, and another book on English poet Basil Bunting is on the way. In this book, Share is working to piece together how Bunting wrote his poems, compiling the story from his poems, drafts, comments, recordings, and letters.
This piecing together of a poem’s writing or a poet’s history is also what Share does for the poetry room’s users. “We have so many different kinds of evidence of how poems came into being: recordings, manuscripts, rare books, small press editions, and of course all the books and journals,” says Share. “Who were these writers? How do we understand what they’re doing? How did they understand what they were doing? Figuring this out is intriguing.”
While the poetry room collection’s primary constituency is Harvard students and its primary purpose is serving the curriculum, the room is also open to the general public. Although visitors from outside the University community cannot borrow materials, they do have access to everything available on-site. Recently the poetry room began to digitize some of the older audio recordings, and nearly 80 hours of digitized recordings are now available online. (Copyright restrictions limit some to Harvard use only.) Visit http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/houghton/collections/poetry_room.html for more information.
The poetry room also hosts an active events program that brings contemporary poets to Harvard. In October, poets Pura López Colomé, Tess Gallagher, and Linda Gregg will visit the poetry room to give readings of their works.
The Woodberry Poetry Room was housed in Widener Library until 1949 when it moved to a space originally designed by Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto in Lamont Library. The room is open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday.