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National Poetry Month Continues: Historic Audio Recordings Now Streaming

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Composite image of Audre Lorde, Kurt Vonnegut, Adrienne Rich and Robert Hayden

As National Poetry Month celebrations carry on, we have another treat to share: We’ve just launched 10 newly digitized audio recordings to the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature online collection!

Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

If this historic treasure trove is new to you, here’s a little background (and welcome!): The Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature contains nearly 2,000 audio recordings of poets and writers reading and discussing their work—mostly as part of literary events at the Library of Congress, along with sessions recorded in the Recording Laboratory in the Library’s Jefferson Building. The archive also comprises recordings donated by or acquired from other literary institutions, radio stations, and private benefactors (including a few on this month’s launch list, in fact).

The origins of the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature are tied closely to the creation of the Poetry Office (now part of the Library’s Literary Initiatives office) and the Chair in Poetry position, to which Joseph Auslander was first appointed in 1937. This position was known publicly as Consultant in Poetry until 1985, when it was established by an act of Congress as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed American poet Archibald MacLeish to serve as Librarian of Congress. MacLeish believed that libraries and librarians should play an essential role in preserving national and international culture, and put a spotlight on poetry as a cultural necessity. As such, MacLeish and Joseph Auslander inaugurated a poetry series at the Library in 1941, bringing poets to give public readings and to record them reading their work.

Eudora Welty photo
Eudora Welty. Photo by Bernard Gotfryd, 1980. Prints & Photographs Division.

The idea to record poets began in part as a cultural response to World War II—specifically, as a way to expand access to contemporary American voices in poetry by creating purchasable record albums, with the view that American literature could spread more effectively than European fascist rhetoric. The first recorded literary event at the Library was a reading and lecture by Robinson Jeffers in 1941 titled “The Poet in a Democracy.” During this event, Jeffers asserted that “it may be the destiny of America to carry culture and freedom across the twilight of another dark age. … Our business is to … keep alive, through everything, our ideal values, freedom, courage, mercy and tolerance.”

Allen Tate’s appointment as Consultant in Poetry in 1943 brought about the official establishment of the recording project, which continued until the early aughts. Until 2015, when the Library began digitizing the collection, most of these recordings were only accessible to those who visited the Library of Congress and requested the analog copies in person.

Photo of Sterling Allen Brown
Sterling Allen Brown, Courtesy of the Sterling A. Brown Papers, Williams College Archives & Special Collections.

With this month’s digital release, there are now 375 recordings from the archive streaming online. For your listening pleasure, here are the additions for 2022:

  1. Babette Deutsch reading her poems with comment in the Recording Laboratory, June 9, 1969
  2. Barbara Guest reading her poems in the Mumford Room, Dec. 5, 1996
  3. Denise Levertov reading her poems with comment in New York City, June 15, 1958
  4. Eudora Welty reading three of her short stories in the Coolidge Auditorium, Nov. 3, 1958
  5. Rod Jellema and Dolores Kendrick reading their poems in the Coolidge Auditorium, Feb. 23, 1981
  6. Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds reading their poems in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, Mar. 28, 1996
  7. Ishmael Reed and Garrett Hongo reading their poems in the Mumford Room, Feb. 1, 1996
  8. Jean Valentine and Cornelius Eady reading their poems with comment in the Montpelier Room, Library of Congress, March 22, 2001
  9. Michael S. Harper and Quincy Troupe reading their poems in the Montpelier Room, Feb. 3, 1994
  10. Sterling Allen Brown reading his poems in the Coolidge Auditorium, Mar. 18, 1980

Please enjoy, explore, and tell us about your favorite recordings in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature! Once again, we wish you a very happy National Poetry Month.

Learn more about the archive’s history, and the Library’s efforts to digitize literary audio: