A warm, welcoming reading room and celebrated architectural landmark that houses one of the largest collection of literary recordings in the world.
- Designed by Alvar Aalto
- 8,000 collections of poetry
- 7,500 literary recordings
- 100 open-shelf poetry journals
The Woodberry Poetry Room houses a landmark collection of literary recordings (1933 to the present), a circulating collection of contemporary English-language poetry, a curated selection of international lit mags and journals, and a special collection of rare books, broadsides, chapbooks, and typescripts.
Literary Recording Collection: As the first "library of voices" in the United States (established in the 1930s), the Poetry Room's collection has grown to include over 6,000 recordings that document readings, lectures, interviews, and performances by a range of 20th and 21st century poets and writers. Many of our audio-visual recordings can be accessed digitally via HOLLIS and HOLLIS for Archival Discovery. We also encourage you to explore our YouTube Channel and The Listening Booth. If the recording you are seeking is not currently accessible, please contact us to request a scholarly-use listening copy.
Blue Star Collection: Named after the "blue star" that early curators used to denote an item's rarity, this special collection (housed at Houghton Library) includes unique or limited-edition monographs, chapbooks, journals, typescripts, broadsides, photographs, and correspondence. The Blue Star collection serves to augment scholars' understanding of authors whose works we have recorded; to document the work of Boston-area poets and small presses; and to illuminate aspects of the Poetry Room's literary, social, and architectural history
Circulating Collection: Our small in-room collection of 20th and 21st century English-language poetry (and poetry in translation) primarily focuses on books by poets whom we have recorded, course-related texts, and a range of Modernist collections that established the library in 1931. The collection, which is available to all visitors for in-room use (and to HUID holders for loan), is in no way intended to represent the breadth and depth of the genre: for that, we recommend Widener Library's poetry collection. We always welcome suggestions about books to add: if our limited space and scope prevent us from adopting the materials, we will gladly share your ideas with our peer libraries at Harvard.
LUNCH POEMS: Ashbery's Typewriter
During the academic year, the Poetry Room invites students, faculty, and members of the public to celebrate the generous and generative spirit of John Ashbery (1927-2017) by creating their own poems on his Royal KMM typewriter.
Our typewriter sessions will resume in Fall 2022. Check back in early September for registration details.
Classes & Tours
The Woodberry Poetry Room offers a range of innovative educational opportunities, including staff-led audio seminars & close-listening sessions and public tours.
In addition to our standard seminar, which gives a broad overview of our A/V collection highlights and history, we are happy to tailor seminars to individual classroom needs.
Harvard faculty members are also welcome to host one of their class sessions in the room.
Faculty members, graduate students, and local educators wishing to schedule classes or seminars in the room are encouraged to use the Special Collections Class Request Tool. The Woodberry Poetry Room curatorial staff will follow-up to discuss your specific needs and interests.
Members of the public are always welcome to visit the Poetry Room and invited to read & write here (and explore our collections) throughout the day.
If, however, you would like to schedule a group tour or discuss a more formal use of the venue, we ask that you contact us in advance to make arrangements.
WPR Creative Fellowships
Each year the Woodberry Poetry Room offers poets, writers, visual and multimedia artists, composers, and scholars of contemporary poetry the opportunity to apply for the WPR Creative Fellowship.
Applicants are encouraged 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.
The next deadline for applications is Feb. 15, 2023. Recipients will be notified by May 15, 2023.
The recipients of the 2022-2023 WPR Creative Fellowship is Jonah Mixon-Webster for his project "Promise/Threat." Each year, the committee is also given the option to name a WPR Creative Grant recipient: the 2022-2023 recipient is Will Dowd for his project "Dreamfall."
Previous fellowship recipients include Dan Beachy-Quick, Kate Colby, Fanny Howe, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Tracie Morris, Erin Moure, Eileen Myles, Sawako Nakayasu, Jared Stanley, Sameer Farooq, Brian Teare, and Jane Wong. Past grant recipients have included: Jonathan C. Creasy, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Tess Gallagher, and Lindsay Turner.
WPR Creative Fellowships and Grants are generously funded by the Anagnostopoulos fund.
About the Poetry Room
Welcome to the Woodberry Poetry Room, a special collections reading room and audio-visual archive at Harvard University.
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 poetry, over 150 lit mags, and a landmark audio-visual collection (1933-present).
With over 6,000 recordings on a range of media that span the 20th and 21st centuries — including discs, 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.
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 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, now a part of Houghton Library, as well as Modernist monographs and experimental magazines. The Morris Gray lecture series---which hosted such luminaries as Martha Dickinson Bianchi, I. A. Richards, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams---added an audible dimension to the room. In 1938, a Victrola was purchased for the room, and phonograph records swiftly became the fulcrum of the room and its collection.
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 Frederick C. Packard, Jr.. As early as 1929, Packard began to clamor for the creation of the world's 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 its discontinuation in 1955, the Harvard Vocarium made and, in many cases commercially released, the first (or 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. 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 utopic 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 catalog and preserve them continues to this day.
The Poetry Room & Lamont Library: 1949—2000
By the late 1940s, 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 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, during which time such poets as Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath were able to visit, Lamont Library did not admit women until 1967.)
During John Lincoln 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 Boston Renaissance, and the so-called Confessional Poetry movement. 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, Philip Larkin, Hugh MacDiarmid, Stevie Smith, Ted Hughes, among others.
Working in collaboration with Packard and with the expertise of sound engineer Stephen B. Fassett, Sweeney was responsible for documenting the circuit tours of E. E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas, for making Wallace Stevens' last recordings, and for chronicling the performances of such emerging mid-century poets as John Ashbery, John Berryman, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Jonas, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and John Wieners.
Sweeney also facilitated and recorded literary 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.
Fassett continued to assist interim curators after Sweeney's tenure: in addition to his early work recording everyone from Baez to Plath, Fassett was instrumental in making Poetry Room 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.
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 at Harvard, establishing new standards for audio preservation at the university and beyond. In 2006, Share joined the staff of Poetry Magazine, and Christina Davis was hired.
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. Kenseth, Philip Horton, John Lincoln Sweeney, Robert Fitzgerald, Jeanne Broburg, Stratis Haviaras, Don Share, and Christina Davis.
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 readings and performances, as well as significant efforts to preserve and digitize the Poetry Room’s pivotal recordings for generations to come.