The Poetry Room

by Simon de Carvalho '14

Can you name 10 famous poets who attended Harvard? Christina Davis can (and does at the end of this post). Two of those famous poets will be the focus of the Woodberry Poetry Room's Oral History Initiative program, a series of conversations about New England poets and poetry communities, 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 5 at the Graduate School of Education's Askwith Lecture Hall. The coming discussion, co-sponsored by OFA's Learning from Performers and Lamont's Woodberry Poetry Room, honors poet Frank O’Hara ’50. (Here's "Why I Am Not a Painter" -- my favorite O'Hara poem.) The conversation will feature fellow poet and classmate John Ashbery ’49 and author Ron Padgett. Facts about the event are here. More insightful information about the event, poetry rooms and poetry -- as well as the promised list of Harvard poets -- follow in my interview with Davis, curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room. And don't forget: April is National Poetry Month. The Academy of American Poets offers 30 ways to celebrate poetry this month. We suggest you start by going to Tuesday's event.

What exactly is a poetry room? What makes the Woodberry Poetry Room so special?

Poetry is an essentially structural (in some cases, formal) enterprise, so it makes sense that it should inspire the creation of rooms (the very word "stanza" means "standing place" or "room") dedicated to the genre. I came to Harvard from a place called "Poets House." So I’ve moved from a house to a room, a very poetic promotion!

The Woodberry Poetry Room—which is both a reading room and an audio archive—celebrates poetry’s double life as both a textual (book-bound, quietly read, academically analyzed) and oral (vocalized, recited, slammed, chanted, communally encountered) phenomenon. The Room celebrates poetry as an intellectual pursuit and poetry as a sensory experience; poetry as a textual encounter and poetry as an auditory performance, poetry as a solitary meditation and poetry as the source of solidarity and social life.

What does your job as director entail?

As the curator, my job is rather multifaceted and always evolving. My primary responsibilities are to oversee all acquisitions, preservation and digitization for the collection; to assist students, faculty and scholars with scholarly needs; to conduct audio seminars for faculty and visiting groups; and to continue the audio-visual archive through public programming that records the 21st century literary zeitgeist.

Who are some famous poets that have attended Harvard?

Too many to name, and not all graduated, but some that come to mind are: Conrad Aiken, John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, Frank Bidart, Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley, Countee Cullen, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, Allen Grossman, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Lowell, Heather McHugh, Charles Olson, Adrienne Rich, Wallace Stevens, Jean Valentine and Kevin Young.

What are you hoping the audience will get out of Tuesday’s event?

The Poetry Room’s Oral History Initiative is a series of informal conversations and recording sessions featuring friends, family members and colleagues of a particular poet. It is the hope that these stories will form an intimate and cumulative mosaic of New England’s poetic history and ultimately grow into a choral contribution to the national poetic narrative. It is also my hope that this undertaking can be integrated into the curriculum (as independent studies or freshman seminars), so that undergraduate and graduate students can contribute to the creation of their own oral history projects, in conjunction with the Poetry Room.

Why do you love poetry?

In a world that seems intent on divisions, poetry is the site of integration and synthesis: In it can be brought together information and truth, nonsensical soundings and the heights of intellectual insight, silence and outcry, the hyper-individualized "I" and the Whitmanically-embracing "we." The list is endless. Above all, in serving this genre, I feel aligned with a great ethic: It is a genre that (at its best) is headed toward a truth. Susan Sontag once said something like: I feel a vocational relationship to the life of the truth. I second that motion.

[Caption: O'Hara & Ashbery]