Teaching Active Listening with the Woodberry Poetry Room

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This post originally appeared on April 23, 2014.

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a freelance editor and adjunct instructor in the Boston area, piecing together paychecks from one job to the next. As any freelancer knows, there’s always a point in the late afternoon when you lose your steam and wonder what to do with yourself in the hours before everyone else gets home from their office jobs. One place where I spent some of those lonely afternoon hours was the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) at Harvard University. I would show my reader’s pass to the security guard (anyone, even someone without any connection to the university, could apply for a reader’s card to access this special room), slip on some old chunky headphones, and listen to cassette tapes of my favorite poets reading their best lines.

Now, thanks to the WRP’s online “Listening Booth,” anyone can listen to a selection of these poems from anywhere on the planet. This digitized collection includes over 5,000 audio recordings of great American poets from the past one hundred years, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, as well as newer voices such as Terrance Hayes, Julianna Spahr, Jeffrey Yang, and Jen Bervin. The WPR offers these recordings as part of a huge initiative to preserve their entire collection, which is a kind of scrapbook of all the great poets who have read their poems at Harvard over the years.

Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve emphasized the importance of recitation to students as they learn to appreciate poetry’s provocations. The Woodberry Poetry Room’s Listening Booth can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. In a literature course, the students might discuss how to read Ezra Pound’s wonderfully Anglo-Saxon inflected lines in “The Seafarer.” Once students have considered Pound’s cues—his lineation, the stresses in his lines, his diction, the dramatic situation of the speaker, and so on—you might share his reading of the poem from the WPR, which is full of the song-like inflections of many poets from the early twenty-first century. Students will be surprised by Pound’s gradual crescendo, and even the way he raises the pitch of his voice, which might spur an interesting discussion.
  2. In a poetry workshop, have students listen to a more contemporary poet read his or her work. Students might be surprised to hear Sharon Olds read “The Woman: First Night” in a low-key, matter-of-fact tone. Students might discuss the juxtaposition between Olds’s visceral imagery and this quiet delivery of the lines, and why she uses that strategy.

These conversations reinforce poetry’s value as a spoken as well as written art, and they energize students to listen more actively to the hills and dales of any given poetic line. Who knows? Maybe they’ll enjoy the WPR enough to wile away a few afternoons of their own on this wonderful site.

You can follow the WPR on Twitter at @WPRHarvard to get updates on additions to the Listening Booth and related news.

About the Author
Joanne Diaz is the author of two poetry collections, *My Favorite Tyrants* and *The Lessons,* and with Ian Morris, she is the co-editor of *The Little Magazine in Contemporary America.* She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She teaches in the English Department at Illinois Wesleyan University.