May 13, 2007

In Harvard Yard poetry's secret garden

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library," the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges famously said. And even in these times of immediate online gratification, readers and writers of poetry might feel they had landed in paradise when they walk into the Woodberry Poetry Room.

Although it is located in Harvard's Lamont Library, the Poetry Room is open to the public with just the flash of a photo ID and a signing of the register. I think of it as a secret garden of poetry: sunlight from Harvard Yard gleaming on mellow burnished wood, history settling around you as you walk in the door. A small display case beside the door contains a changing selection. On a day I visited the exhibited items included a Library Journal  article from 1950 on the Woodberry's audio collection and a notebook with, among other entries, a reminder to change three burned-out light bulbs in the overhead brass fixtures.

Don Share tells me the Poetry Room was named for George Edward Woodberry, an 1877 Harvard graduate and Columbia University professor who wanted to establish a "place for living poetry." Share has been Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room since 2000 ; he leaves at the end of July for Chicago and a new position as senior editor of the prestigious literary magazine Poetry. He is currently also the poetry editor of the Harvard Review and author, most recently, of the poetry collection Squandermania.

While the term Curator seems designed to emphasize the Room's importance as an archive, the original intent was the enjoyment, rather than the serious study, of poetry.

The rotating collection out on open shelves invites reading on the blue sofas or on chairs that slide noiselessly on cork floors. Two reading tables have centerpieces that lift open to record turntables that are surely state of the art circa mid-20th century. There are also outlets for plugging in to 21st-century listening. The room was originally designed by the legendary Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, though a renovation was recently completed to markedly mixed reviews.

One of the room's most treasures is its audio archive of poets reading their own work, including a series under the label Harvard Vocarium, that began in 1931 with T.S. Eliot's reading of "The Hollow Men" and "Gerontion." The collection now includes nearly every major poet from Yeats, Frost, and Elizabeth Bishop to contemporary additions like Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, and Jorie Graham. Several pieces from the archive were part of a four-disc set nominated for a 2006 Grammy award in the Best Historical Album category and a clip of Vladimir Nabokov reading from Lolita accompanied a 2005 National Public Radio feature on that novel.

When I went to the Poetry Room's web site, I heard , from March 20, 1946, a soft-spoken Robert Lowell reading "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket"; a sonorous Ezra Pound rolling his r's in a 1939 reading of "The Seafarer"; Wallace Stevens' deliberate reading of "The Auroras of Autumn" in 1954.

Share shows me some of the room's other gems--a silver tea service, not as highly polished as it probably was in the 1930s; a lithograph of a Ted Hughes poem; artwork by James Merrill; photographs of E. E., Cummings, Robert Frost. A large colorful portrait of Seamus Heaney watches mildly over the room. A framed letter from Frost politely declines the position of Curator ("the more I think of it the less I see myself as a possibility for your Poetry Room.")

"This is the weirdest thing we have," says Share, showing me a cigar that belonged to Amy Lowell. Another cigar, this one from Robert Lowell (to the Lowell clan a cigar was apparently not just a cigar), sports a pink band reading "It's a Girl" to celebrate the birth of his daughter Harriet.

Below a photograph of John Lincoln Sweeney, a former Curator, this quote from Yeats's poem "At Galway Races" speaks to the room's history and hopefully continuing appeal: "We, too, had good attendance once,/Hearers and hearteners of the work."
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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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