Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Poetry in motion

long read

Harvard’s practitioners pass craft from generation to generation

It was a very poetic thing to do, departing Harvard to live in a tent.

Robert Lowell — of the aristocratic Boston Lowells, an illustrious family that even included one of Harvard’s past presidents, A. Lawrence Lowell — propped his pup tent on the Tennessee lawn of poet Allen Tate, who would become one of the young writer’s great mentors.

Lowell finished his schooling at Kenyon College in 1940, but returned to Harvard for readings and to teach, which he did off and on until his death from a heart attack in 1977. Along the way, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Poet Nicholas Christopher ’73 remembers Lowell’s 1969 workshop, which Lowell let him into even though he was a freshman. Writing in the publication Critical Mass, Christopher recalled that “unlike any other class I ever took, the auditors who attended each week far outnumbered the students. Lowell was not just the best-known poet in America at that time, but also a celebrity. It was still possible, somehow, for a poet to be a celebrity in 1969 America.”

Something about Harvard, despite its being one of the world’s most rigorous universities, also helps poets to blossom. It has a poetic legacy that spans hundreds of years and helped to shape the world’s literary canon.

T.S. Eliot began writing his great modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” while a student at Harvard. Poets E.E. Cummings, John Ashbery, and Wallace Stevens are among the University’s most famous alumni, and dozens of others have fashioned the University’s rich poetic inheritance.

From 1946 Radcliffe graduate Maxine Kumin to the inimitable John Berryman, who taught from 1941 to 1942, and from the recently deceased activist poet Adrienne Rich, a 1943 Radcliffe alumna, to poet Donald Hall ’51 (the two actually had a date once), poetry in the 20th century belonged especially to Harvard.

Poetic beginnings

This year, Jorie Graham, the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, helped to compile a master list of Harvard’s poets, collecting not just alumni, but special students, dropouts, and teachers, such as Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

“We ended up with this truly surprising list of poets — a list so all-encompassing and extraordinary in its scope, excellence, range, it made us realize that Harvard, sometimes anxious about its role as a leader in American art, truly got it right when it came to poetry. From its early days to the present moment — but most astonishingly throughout the whole 20th century — Harvard has made a truly unequaled contribution to American poetry,” said Graham, herself a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

The University’s poetic ancestry can be traced back to the 17th century with its first documented poet, a Puritan minister named Michael Wigglesworth. Wigglesworth was a fragile gentleman who at one point even declined the Harvard presidency because, he admitted, he simply lacked the necessary self-confidence.

The great Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson graduated in 1821, returning to Harvard to give speeches that called for a poetically minded America. James Russell Lowell, Class of 1838, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Class of 1829, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a professor at Harvard, have been grouped under the name of “the Fireside Poets,” who remained in the British tradition.

George Edward Woodberry, a poet and critic for whom Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room is named, graduated in 1877. Wallace Stevens studied at Harvard from 1887 to 1900, prevented by family finances from graduating, but becoming president of the Harvard Advocate in his third year. Robert Frost, ever restless, attended for two years, from 1897 to 1899.

The first documented female poet, Josephine Preston Peabody, surfaced at Radcliffe in 1894, when Harvard’s sister school was in its infancy. But it’s that other alumna, Gertrude Stein — a bold writer, art collector, and expat — who personified the experimentalism and change occurring at Harvard and in the country at the turn of the century.

Like Everest, it’s there

But why has Harvard been such a mecca for poetry?

“For a long time, a very long time, if you wanted to get a real education, Harvard was the place, the sure place, to go — and poets tend to be people who are voracious, who want to read, know, feel, imagine as much as possible. And what libraries! Also they grow in community, thrive on, and in, relatively unstructured time, and are inspired by piercing knowledge. So, for many decades, where else?” said Graham.

“There are, of course, many intangibles that go into this mystery — which we found hiding in plain sight — but as our list of poets unfolded, it became clear a major wellspring of this essential art form, in America, was somehow right here, at Harvard.”

Why did literary students flock to Harvard? “Mallory aimed at Everest because it was there; in the same way, Harvard was here,” explained Helen Vendler, the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor, and a well-known writer on poetry.

A native Bostonian, Vendler remembers making the short leap to Harvard as early as age 15 for lectures and concerts. “I saw everybody: Eliot, Cummings, Frost, Randall Jarrell. … Noticing so many people at poetry readings and lectures, I thought, ‘These must be the people I belong with,’ ” she recalled.

Harvard wasn’t just hosting the brightest visiting lecturers and readers, but in the early 20th century, budding writers such as Ogden Nash ’24, Stanley Kunitz ’26, Theodore Roethke, Robert Fitzgerald ’33, Delmore Schwartz, William Burroughs ’36, and Howard Nemerov ’41, passed through the University before embarking on their own successful writing careers.

In 1944, a young Robert Creeley and cohorts were arrested for carting away one of Lowell House’s front doors. Creeley, whose grades had dipped below standards, was advised not to return.  But the poet did go on to write more than 60 books.

“Harvard had the best library in the region, and that draws literary people very strongly,’’ said Vendler. “It also had the Woodberry Poetry Room, which was open to the public, and people could come and listen to all these terrific readings housed there. People are attracted to places that are centers for the arts in general. There’s always been wonderful music at Harvard, wonderful museums. I still find it an immensely congenial environment because there’s a fundamental respect for the arts here.”

The grounds for a new wave of American poetry began brewing at Harvard in the mid-20th century. It was Ashbery ’49 who influenced his classmate, Worcester-born musician Frank O’Hara, to explore poetry; both were soon publishing in the Harvard Advocate. Together Ashbery, O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch ’48 would become central figures in the New York school of poetry, an avant-garde movement that rebelled against the confessionalist style of poets, such as Lowell and Sylvia Plath.

A poem for the makers

Now in the midst of National Poetry Month, Graham, armed with her master list of poets and a cadre of dedicated students, is leading a celebration of Harvard’s lyrical nursery by presenting a communal recitation of poetry titled “Over the Centuries: Poetry at Harvard (A Love Story)” during Arts First weekend. The April 29 event will feature a medley that interweaves historic Woodberry Room recordings with dramatic student recitations of important Harvard voices.

The event was triggered by a suggestion from Diana Sorensen, professor of Romance languages and literatures, who wondered if Graham could envisage a performance to honor the University’s 375th anniversary. Graham was encouraged by Office for the Arts Director Jack Megan to stage something magical, akin to her ethereal tribute to Ashbery in 2009, when he received the Harvard Arts Medal. Graham’s students appeared on stage swathed in spotlight, completely still, and recited from his oeuvre, including 1975’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”

During the performance, Graham remembers looking over at Ashbery, who appeared to be in tears.

She asked Matt Aucoin ’12, “a brilliant composer, conductor, and poet,” said Graham, “if he could ‘see’ the whole of the performance. … After all, he writes operas.”

Once Aucoin was on board, he and Graham brought together 14 more poets, both undergraduate and graduate students, and gave them the master list of poets with explicit instructions: Come back with 10 selections apiece, by different poets. “This began as a deep-reading project,” she pointed out.

“Once everyone had selections, which we winnowed, we had one initial unforgettable improv session, where Matt and all the others, many of whom are also musicians, called out lines of verse and stanzas rapid-fire across the room. Anthologies were rapidly sped from hand to hand, computers flew open searching for other lines,” recalled Graham. “That session produced an initial ‘score,’ as we called it.”

The students spent much of the semester meeting and working on what Graham calls “a poem made of poems.” “We’ve tried to represent many voices, but the need to make a coherent work in its own right, not a sampler, has dictated the process. The 15 young poets — some of the most vividly talented students we have here today — were selected by virtue of their own ‘voices,’ ” she said.

“It’s like a small orchestra: You want many kinds of timbre and pitch. Matt being a composer and a conductor was essential to keeping the work balanced. But what amazed us all was how much the inner lives of the whole group came into manifestation in the piece. It is completely collaborative work. These young poets are not only talented, they have critical minds of such power it’s marvelous to watch them come together in this convocation.”

The performance seeks to discover and reveal the spirit Harvard has fostered, said Graham. “What is the intangible link over the centuries of voice to voice? Is there something that binds these people whose souls are so open to that knowledge which is poetry? Listening to them listen to each other, transmit to each other, and all the way to us now — where a new generation of very gifted and fierce young poets is at work making its own poems — listening to it speak forth to its forbears … well, it’s very moving. It’s a bit like placing your hands around a flame to ensure it be passed on,” she said.

“And, too, we thought of Orpheus, of going to the underworld and bringing up the great dead into the hearts and throats of the living. Wallace Stevens is dead, but his poems are not only alive but completely born anew in the voice of a young man or woman who is writing poems, who wants to be Wallace Stevens, or the new version in a postmodern era. So a poem doesn’t die. Its maker might, but the spirit that animated its maker lives. It’s a great mystery, and the foundational belief of a place such as this — as of course, such intimate transmission is true throughout this University, in every field.”

Digitizing poetry

Over months, Graham met with Christina Davis, curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room since 2008, to sift through the room’s archives of recordings and readings to be featured in the upcoming event.

Davis assumed the task of digitizing the archive from her predecessor, Don Share, who “had the foresight to realize that digital preservation was the next step for the audio archive to take,” she said.

The archive begins with a pivotal 1931 recording of Eliot made by Harvard Professor Frederick C. Packard for the Poetry Room. Eliot was that year’s Charles Eliot Norton lecturer in the English Department. “Eliot’s invitation to Harvard was a significant gesture, to my mind,” said Davis. “It suggests that Harvard was officially acknowledging that contemporary (in this case, modernist) poetry was just as significant as poetry of the past.”

Along with the digitization effort, Davis has overseen creation of the Woodberry’s first full-scale website, which launched in October, featuring some of its treasured audio, now available for anyone to stream.

She also founded a bevy of innovative initiatives and programs such as the Oral History Initiative, “which collects stories about famous poets from New England by bringing together friends, colleagues, and students of pivotal poets from this region,” she said.

“It’s really about preserving communities — distinct communities that congregate around poets — and trying to honor and revive the multiple dimensions of a specific human being’s personality. The Oral History Initiative follows in the convivial and chatty footsteps of Harvard alum Frank O’Hara and his notion that each of us is given to live ‘as variously as possible.’ ”

March’s oral history focus was on Bishop, and offered recollections by her friends and students Lloyd Schwartz, Frank Bidart, Megan Marshall, Gail Mazur, and Rosanna Warren. The event also included a staged reading of Joelle Biele’s one-act play about Bishop, “These Fine Mornings.”

“I’ve really sought to establish a wide range of programs, as playful as they are intellectual, that will have affinities to very different demographics,” Davis said. “Poetry can sometimes be pigeonholed: It’s very important to revive the other dimensions of its wisdom.”

The Woodberry hosts established contemporary poets, introduces new and foreign-born poets for readings, and lures back alumni, such as poet Kevin Young ’92, who studied as an undergraduate with former faculty members Lucie Brock-Broido and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney, and Dorothea Lasky, who earned a degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2006. The Woodberry’s programs are often supplemented by Harvard’s own poetic faculty — from Vendler, who in February led a presentation on Stevens, to poet, critic, and English Professor Stephen Burt.

“There’s a great convergence here,” Davis said. “Poetry is such a force for synthesis; it pleases me that the Poetry Room’s programs have honored the genre’s capacity to congregate radically different ideas, personalities, impulses, modes of inquiry.”

‘Poetry is thriving’

Poetry remains a force at the University. The Harvard Advocate’s editorial board still debates what to include in the next issue, and has since the Advocate’s founding in 1866. Newer campus publications like Wick, based out of the Harvard Divinity School, the Gamut, and Tuesday Magazine have sprung up too. The esteemed Harvard Review continues to publish the best in contemporary writing, with the poet Major Jackson serving as poetry editor.

“Poetry is thriving at Harvard,” said Davis. “I’m struck by the immense diversity of the kinds of poetry that’s being created here. There is no single aesthetic that dominates; and that’s a very rare plurality.”