Woodberry Poetry Room

A warm, welcoming poetry library and a vital hub of literary activity, the Woodberry Poetry Room features a circulating collection of 20th and 21st century poetry books and a landmark collection of audio-visual recordings.
Today: Closed
Reference Closed
Special Collections Closed

Features

Couches / arm chairs Couches / arm chairs
Cafe onsite Cafe onsite
Group tables Group tables
Charging stations Charging stations
Quiet study areas Quiet study areas
Special collections and archives Special collections and archives
Public programming Public programming

Address

Lamont Library, Room 330
11 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Connect with Woodberry Poetry Room

Visit

  • The Woodberry Poetry Room is open to the public.
  • Non-Harvard ID holders are required to present some form of photo ID.
  • Patrons wishing to access our A/V materials should contact us at least 24 hours in advance to schedule an appointment.
  • The Lamont building is wheelchair accessible by a ramp located to the left of the main entrance, near Quincy Street. There are two elevators in the building. Both service the third floor, where the Woodberry Poetry Room is located.

Welcome

Welcome to the Woodberry Poetry Room, a special collections reading room and audio-visual archive at Harvard University.

The Woodberry Poetry Room
The Woodberry Poetry Room

Located in Lamont Library — in a room designed by renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto — and overseen by Houghton Library, the Poetry Room features a circulating collection of 20th and 21st century English-language poetry, an encyclopedic array of poetry serials, the Blue Star collection of rare books, broadsides, chapbooks, and typescripts, and a landmark collection of audio recordings (1933 to the present).

With over 5,000 recordings on a range of media that span the 20th and 21st centuries — including phonodiscs, magnetic tape (reel to reel and cassette), CDs, DATs, and born digital — the collection is one of the largest and earliest poetry-specific sound archives in the United States.

The Woodberry at Widener: 1931—1949

Founded in honor of poet, scholar, and Harvard graduate George Edward Woodberry (1855-1930), the Poetry Room first opened its doors on the third floor of Widener Library in May 1931.

The Woodberry Poetry Room in Widener Library.
The Woodberry Poetry Room first opened in the Widener Library in 1931.

Prof. Harry Levin later reflected that its opening was a kind of declaration that "Harvard was officially recognizing modern poetry." The early Poetry Room featured books and manuscripts from the Amy Lowell collection, "which ranged from such immediate forerunners of modern verse as Hardy and Hopkins to the contemporary stretch between Aiken and Zaturenska" (Harvard Library Bulletin, Winter 1954).

In addition to the presence of Modernist monographs and experimental magazines, the Morris Gray lecture series added an audible dimension to the room. Among the early luminaries of the Morris Gray readings were Martha Dickinson Bianchi, I. A. Richards, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Informal readings were also held at the Poetry Room: according to Karin Roffman, John Ashbery gave his first reading there during his undergraduate years. In 1938, a Victrola was purchased for the room, and phonograph records soon became the centerpiece of undergraduate excitement.

The Harvard Vocarium: 1933—1955

The mere presence of phonograph records does not explain how the Poetry Room became a landmark audio collection. For that, we need to turn to the pioneering work of Harvard Professor of Public Speaking and Director of the Speech Clinic Frederick C. Packard, Jr.. As early as 1929, Packard began to clamor for the creation of the first-ever library of voices (a "vocarium," as he and Prof. E. K. Rand dubbed it), which would be “a place where voices can be kept and studied” and which would stand in equal stature to a library of books. He found a home for his vision in the nascent Poetry Room. In a 1975 interview, he states: “My Vocarium was in there.”

In 1933, Packard launched the Harvard Vocarium, one of the first poetry and spoken-literature recording labels in the world. The preliminary batch featured several Latin and Greek recordings and T. S. Eliot's first poetry recording. Eliot's recording of "Gerontion" and "The Hollow Men" was made by Packard during the poet's year-long Charles Eliot Norton lecturership.

Until the university withdrew its financial support and discontinued its affiliation in 1955, the Harvard Vocarium made and, in many cases commercially released, the first or (in certain cases, earliest extant) recordings by Elizabeth Bishop, 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. For many of those writers, the recording experience constituted the first time they had ever heard their own voices.

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 his granddaughter and Vocarium discographer Josephine Packard.

While a 1938 Boston Sunday Post article boasted that “Harvard University, one of the most forward universities in the world, is breaking all precedent and founding a library for the voice” the Harvard Vocarium,” the physical library never wholly materialized. But his recordings did continue to be deposited, preserved, and accessed at the Woodberry Poetry Room, where an active effort to preserve them continues to this day.

The Poetry Room & Lamont Library: 1949—2000

In 1942, after the position of curator was offered to (and turned down by) Robert Frost, John Lincoln Sweeney accepted the position---a position he held until 1969.

The Woodberry Poetry room in Lamont Library.
In 1949, the Woodberry Poetry Room moved to Lamont Library.

By the late 40s, the venue had become so popular that plans were made to move it to the new Lamont Library. When the Poetry Room opened in Lamont in February 1949, it was in a new suite of Alvar Aalto-designed rooms created specifically as "a place for poetry" and poetry listening. Four Thorens turntables, equipped with outlets for eight sets of earphones, helped to accommodate the growing visitorship. Over 4,000 listening requests were made during its first four months alone.

(The downside of this move was that it excluded women from the Poetry Room: Radcliffe students had previously had access to its Widener venue. With the exception of summer sessions, Lamont Library did not admit women undergraduates until 1967.)

During Sweeney’s mid-century curatorship, the Poetry Room flourished and became a nexus for poets who were (or would later be) associated with the New York School of Poets, the Poets' Theatre, the Boston Renaissance, and Confessional poetry. The Poetry Room also forged a significant collaboration with the British Council, called "The Poet Speaks," which jointly funded recordings by Kamau Braithwaite, David Jones, W. S. Graham, Philip Larkin, Hugh MacDiarmid, Herbert Read, Stevie Smith, among others.

Working in collaboration with Packard and with the newfound expertise of audio musicologist Stephen B. Fassett, Sweeney was responsible for documenting the circuit tours of E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas and the performances of such emerging mid-century poets as John Ashbery, John Berryman, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Jonas, Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens, Jean Valentine, and John Wieners. Sweeney also facilitated and recorded summer conferences and folk-music performances in Lamont Forum Room: among the highlights from this collection are one of the earliest live recordings of Ralph Ellison, made during the Conference on the Contemporary Novel, in August 1953.

The Woodberry Poetry Room in 1949.
The Woodberry Poetry Room in 1949.

With Fassett's assistance, Sweeney also initiated the transfer of original lacquer/shellac discs to the "new" postwar format: the reel to reel. And, according to the Harvard Crimson, the Poetry Room began to adopt the reel for its Master recordings in 1950. Fassett continued to assist interim curators beyond Sweeney's tenure: in addition to his early work recording everyone from Baez to Plath, he was instrumental in making recordings by Audre Lorde and Yvegeny Yevtushenko.

In 1974, Stratis Haviaras was named curator of the Poetry and Farnsworth Rooms, a position he held until 2000. During this lively period, Haviaras recorded a wide array of poets representing a broad range of late 20th century poetics: among them, Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Rita Dove, Robert Duncan, Jorie Graham, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Gary Snyder, and Derek Walcott. Haviaras was also responsible for creating a substantive archive of contemporary Greek-language recordings, featuring such authors as George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. In addition, he recorded over 40 readings, seminars, and lectures by Seamus Heaney, during Heaney's pivotal period of affiliation with the university. Like Sweeney before him, Haviaras also began to transfer the Poetry Room's recordings to the next iteration of sound recording: the compact cassette.

In 1986, Haviaras founded the literary journal Errato, which later became the Harvard Review--contributors to which have included Jhumpa Lahiri, J. M. Coetzee, Yusef Komunyakaa, David Foster Wallace, and the over 200 poets who participated in the recent Renga for Obama.

The Poetry Room & Houghton Library: 2000—today 

With Haviaras’ retirement in 2000, the Poetry Room was transferred to management under Houghton Library: its recording collection and Blue Star materials having been deemed special collections.

Dorothea Lasky visits the Poetry Room.
Dorothea Lasky visits the Poetry Room.

In 2002, during the dynamic curatorship of Don Share, the Harvard Vocarium was chosen as a part of the first annual selection of the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Share was also crucial in recognizing the precarity of early recording formats and with his help the Poetry Room became a part of the pilot Library Digitization Initiative, establishing new standards for audio preservation at Harvard and beyond. In 2006, Share joined the staff of Poetry Magazine, where he is currently editor.

The Poetry Room has a long history of hiring poets and writers, and the current staff is no exception to that legacy. Christina Davis (author of An Ethic and Forth A Raven) and Mary Walker Graham (recipient of an MFA in Poetry from New England College) are both actively publishing poets.

Past curatorial assistants and undergraduate/graduate students who have worked at the Poetry Room include: Chloe Garcia Roberts, Maureen McLane, Fred Moten, and Lindsay Turner.

WPR Curators from 1931 to the present have been: W. N. Bates, George M. Kahrl, Arthurt T. Hamlin, Arnold M. Keseth, Philip Horton, John Lincoln Sweeney, Robert Fitzgerald, Jeanne Broburg, Stratis Haviaras, and Don Share.

The Woodberry Poetry Room's A/V collection is, according to Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, "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."

This vital tradition continues today with a rich assortment of poetry readings, recording sessions, seminars and workshops, as well as significant efforts to preserve and digitize the Poetry Room’s pivotal recordings for generations to come.


Collections

The Poetry Room features a circulating collection of 20th and 21st century English-language poetry, a curated selection of international literary magazines and journals, the Blue Star collection of rare books, broadsides, chapbooks, and typescripts, and a landmark collection of audio-visual recordings (1933 to the present).


Events

Woodberry Poetry Room logo

The Poetry Room’s vital tradition of poetry readings, seminars and workshops continues to this day, with over 25 programs presented each year, free and open to the public.

Our Fall 2018 season will include readings, screenings, and performances by Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, Ann Lauterbach, Tracie Morris, Cecilia Vicuna, and Dara Wier. Detailed listings of our upcoming events will be posted shortly. 

To watch videos of our recent events, visit our YouTube channel.

To peruse our photo gallery of past programs, visit our Flickr site.


Fellowships

Eileen Myles works in the Poetry Room.

Each year, the Woodberry Poetry Room invites poets, writers, multimedia artists, and scholars of contemporary poetry to propose creative projects that would benefit from the resources available in the room and to generate new work that further actualizes the Poetry Room's collections—particularly the audio-video archive. 

Learn More
 


Classes & Seminars

Students listen in the Woodberry Poetry Room

The Woodberry Poetry Room offers a range of innovative educational opportunities.

In addition to a standard audio seminar, which gives a broad overview of our collection highlights and history, we are happy to tailor seminars to individual classroom needs.



Faculty members and educators wishing to schedule classes in the room are encouraged to use the Harvard Library Special Collection and Archives Class Request Tool. The Woodberry Poetry Room curatorial staff will follow-up to discuss your specific needs and interests.