Friday, November 7th, 2014...11:46 am

Re-Sounding Wallace Stevens

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Recording of Wallace Stevens reading "Auroras of Autumn"“It is/ A sound like any other. It will end,” writes Wallace Stevens in “It Must Change,” a sequence whose audible existence (at least as rendered in the poet’s voice) had until this Fall to a certain extent ceased.

The lacquer microgroove disc of “It Must Change,” recorded 60 years ago this month, on October 8, 1954, at Transradio Studio on Boylston Street in Boston—under the auspices of the Woodberry Poetry Room (and its then curator Jack Sweeney)—appears to have been accidentally left out of the HOLLIS catalog entry for this series of studio recordings, along with its Side B, which features a complete and subtly re-sequenced reading of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” *

The Poetry Room, which has focused its preservation efforts primarily on the fragile format of reels—and had digitized what it thought were the sum total of Stevens’ recordings that day—recently refocused its efforts on its collection of over 2,000 uncataloged lacquer discs. Our phonodisc preservation work happened to overlap with the emergence of a new technology being tested by the NEDCC (Northeast Document Conservation Center), which invited us to participate in a pilot study of its remarkable optical digitization technology known as IRENE. IRENE is a touchless technology that permits archives (and individuals) to preserve broken, fragile, even gauged discs and cylinders without the risky intervention of a stylus.

Recording of Wallace Stevens reading “It Must Change"


After being invited to digitize 15 phonodiscs using IRENE, my remarkable colleague Mary Walker Graham and I began an extensive survey of our early discs to find good candidates for the digitization. As a result of this, we proceeded to discover and preserve what we believe to be the only extant recording of Stevens’ “It Must Change” and to digitize a much higher-quality recording of “The Auroras of Autumn” than was extractable from the remastered reels.

Wallace Stevens was born in 1879, two years after Edison’s invention of the phonograph caused the Scientific American to proclaim: “Speech, as it were, is immortal.” Stevens died on August 2, 1955, ten months after making the recordings that were recently recovered. At the time of his death, we’re now discovering, he had recorded two sections of his sequence Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction—”It Must Give Pleasure,” which was recorded at the 92nd St. Y on November 6, 1954, and “It Must Change,” made for us the month prior. One wonders if he would ultimately have recorded the entire sequence if he had survived.

Like Sylvia Plath, Stevens’ recording history is condensed into about 4 years at the end of his life. He was (it’s fair to say) a recording-averse versifier: According to a Harvard Crimson article from the same period, “Jack Sweeney is the sort of man for whom Stevens would overcome his reluctance to record. With his charm and intelligence, he is a person Stevens could trust.”

A poem is written as a text over time, but in this case recorded on a single day: a day in which the author had a nagging cough. That cough (and his evident vocal fatigue) changes the particular iteration and sonic contours of the poem. In the mid-century, recordings (by labels like Caedmon and Argo) were still by and large mimicking the criterion of published poetry collections, in that they strove for perfection and definitiveness. In many cases, producers and editors removed the kind of procedural elements and vocal marginalia that we (in our postmodernity) often revel in. “The imperfect,” to quote Stevens, “is our paradise.”

Here at Houghton Library, through our manuscript, rare books, and audio collections, you can experience Stevens’ poetry as a living and ongoing entity and the act of publication as just one point in its progression. You can encounter his writing as it changes from typescript with gaps left to permit the passage of the growing poem; to a fair copy made in pencil in his hand; to the published first editions and association copies of his books; to highly-produced and polished commercial recordings of his work; to these draft-like Transradio Studio recordings in which the audible slippages he makes resemble some of the ways in which his textual drafts change “piece” to “pierce” and “reason” to “season,” and reveal a man for whom the idiosyncratic pronunciation of words—and reinvestment in them of the fullest inflation and vocalization of their dipthongs and phonemes—“tries by a peculiar speech to speak.”

* * *

On reflection, it is interesting, perhaps even ironic, that change—technological change—should have been one of the reasons “It Must Change” was rendered (at least for a time) hidden. It’s a very useful cautionary tale about massive migrations of data (in this case, from one cataloging system to another) and a reminder about the potential for omissions in the constant transfer (albeit for essential preservation reasons) of audio recordings over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries—from phonodiscs of lacquer to vinyl to reels to cassettes to CDs, even DATs, and now to MP3 and Wav files.

But it’s also a wonderful incitement to researchers to always ask if there are card-catalog listings for a particular collection and to inquire which format was the original/master for a particular recording. Migrations of data, while very helpful in the long run, always risk certain information loss. We’re at a point where we can begin to recognize these gaps and to learn from them.

[Christina Davis, Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, contributed this post. Special thanks to Mary Walker Graham for her instrumental work on our audio survey.]

*The original index card had been tucked into the sleeve of Disc One and was therefore separated from the card catalog itself. In addition, Disc One of the Transradio recordings appears to have been left off of the reel-to-reel preservation copies that were subsequently cataloged in HOLLIS. To further complicate matters, we’ve just discovered a series of uncataloged reels that seem to pre-date these discs and are marked “Master.” This would suggest that during this transitional mid-century moment our recordings had begun to be made on reels (the discs were therefore likely the listening copies and the subsequent, edited cataloged reels the preservation copies). These reels feature a distinctly different reading order: with the long sequences “It Must Change” and “The Auroras of Autumn” thoughtfully interspersed amongst the shorter lyrics. We look forward to making these Master reels available for scholarly use online within the next few months.

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