About This Collection
Poetry Center Digital Archive makes available newly recorded and historic video recordings documenting the Poetry Center Reading Series, together with significant portions of the early audio recordings from the Poetry Center's American Poetry Archives collection, 1954–1969. New programs are added incrementally as recordings are prepared for online access. Optional downloads are provided for audio mp3s and video stills.
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The Poetry Center, founded at San Francisco State College (now University) in 1954 by English professor Ruth Witt-Diamant, has been recording and archiving tapes of its public events for seven decades, one of the most significant public collections in the USA of original recorded performances by poets and related artists performing their work. In 1974, with poet Kathleen Fraser as director and with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Poetry Archives was established within The Poetry Center, to maintain the collection and provide public distribution. This collection, housed within the College of Liberal and Creative Arts, today holds over 4,000 hours of unique original audio and video master-recordings, 1954 to the present, an inestimable cultural asset.
Please note that individual requests cannot be honored at this time.
SFSU faculty who plan to offer courses involving Archives recordings not presently posted are asked to please contact the Poetry Center four to six months in advance.
Contact the Poetry Center.
The Poetry Center's unparalleled 1950s collection documents at close hand the world-renowned "San Francisco Renaissance" movement, centered on new poetry. This collection features many of the earliest recordings of the voices and works of outstanding poets engaged in the San Francisco scene, along with other poets from across the USA, and beyond. Of special note are recordings from landmark Poetry Center-organized West Coast appearances by celebrated literary giants William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Langston Hughes.
About the Poetry Center, behind the scenes
The Poetry Center's 1954–59 reading series is marked throughout by the vision of founding director Ruth Witt-Diamant. Poet Robert Duncan would act as assistant director, and his close friend Ida Hodes served as secretary. Professor of English and friend of the poets, Ruth Witt-Diamant was adamantly devoted to establishing a permanent place within the California State College system for public poetry readings and workshops, in response to San Francisco's vital overlapping cultural communities of poets, scholars, students, and readers.
Early influences on the creation of the Poetry Center and its reading series include San Francisco poet Madeline Gleason's Poetry Guild and Festival, begun in 1947, and the 92nd Street YMHA Poetry Center in Manhattan. As the one such previously existing poetry institution in the country, the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center was an early model, from designs for printed programs to some of the East Coast poets invited west. Encouragements and support of diverse kinds came from Kenneth Rexroth, San Francisco advocate for the "alternative society" from the 1930s forward; Dylan Thomas, who Ruth Witt-Diamant had befriended; and W.H. Auden, who donated the honoraria from his Fall 1953 West Coast reading tour, organized by Witt-Diamant, to the fledgling Poetry Center. (Neither Thomas nor Auden were recorded on their San Francisco visits.)
About the scope of the 1950s collection
The Poetry Center opened its doors early in 1954, hosting poet Theodore Roethke on February 21 as its premier event (included in the collection). Most of what transpired in 1954 was unfortunately not recorded, though by early 1955 the practice of making and archiving recordings of these live events was established. Aesthetically, the collection ranges from decided conservative formalists (e.g., Allen Tate, Yvor Winters) to Popular Front-affiliated or Pacifist leftists (e.g., Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen); from established East Coast icons (e.g., Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell) to experimentalists sprung from international modernism (e.g., William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Louis Zukofsky, who taught at SF State in 1958, and was recorded by the Poetry Center); from Britain, Donald Davie appears with recent emigrant Thom Gunn, as do Denise Levertov (already a decade in the US), and Dylan Thomas's contemporary George Barker.
Proportionately far more women, thanks to Witt-Diamant and Duncan, are present in the 1950s collection than would be the case a few years later: Josephine Miles, Madeline Gleason, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Eve Triem, Helen Adam, Denise Levertov, and Carolyn Kizer, among others. It's a commentary on the post-war era (and San Francisco wouldn't be alone in this distinction) that the only writers "of color" who appear during these five years are Chao Tze-Chiang, chanting classic Chinese poems, and Langston Hughes.
About the San Francisco Renaissance and The New American Poetry
Strongly evident in the scope of this 1950s collection is Robert Duncan's involved awareness of the dynamics of what would come to be called, after Donald M. Allen's landmark 1960 Grove Press anthology, The New American Poetry. Thus, the collection is richly representative of poets associated with the late-1940s Berkeley Renaissance and mid-1950s San Francisco Renaissance, with Black Mountain College (the North Carolina alternative school, directed after 1951 by Charles Olson, closed its doors in summer 1956), and with the mostly bi-coastal Beat Movement.
Charles Olson's February 1957 visit is a high point, as are early readings by Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and John Wieners. Jack Spicer reads, as do his students in his 1957 "Poetry as Magic" Workshop sponsored by the Poetry Center. "The San Francisco Scene" is also illuminated by readings from William Everson (a.k.a. Brother Antoninus), Madeline Gleason, Helen Adam, Robert Duncan, Jess, and James Broughton (two plays performed at Six Gallery), among others. Allen Ginsberg's resounding debut of "Howl" at the Six Gallery in October 1955 was famously not recorded, though a "re-creation" reading in Berkeley the following March was taped. Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen are included here from that "Six Gallery Re-creation Reading." Ginsberg"s reading that night is widely available elsewhere, though he also recorded "Howl" for the Poetry Center later that year on a double bill with Gregory Corso, and returned in 1959 to read his new long poem "Kaddish." (Ginsberg in a telegram wants Frank O'Hara to join him in April 1959, to "HAVE REAL RENAISSANCE"; Ruth Witt-Diamant writes back that the Poetry Center can't come up with the funds for both of them.) City Lights Books publisher-poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti reads on a 1956 double-bill with Whalen, whose longtime friend Lew Welch reads in 1959. Stuart Z. Perkoff from the Venice "Beat" scene appears with two compatriots. Conspicuous in his absence here (as in the Donald Allen anthology) is "the Beatest of the Beats," African-American Surrealist and North Beach bohemian Bob Kaufman.
About these recordings, a technical note
The digital transfers of these early audio recordings are from open-reel magnetic tape masters. "Live" one-shot takes, the sound quality from these analog master recordings is in fact often superior to that found in some of the later methods of recording (e.g., early video formats) included in the Archives. Frequently, the master-recordings made at these early readings failed to include the introductions to the readings, which were for the most part delivered by Witt-Diamant and Duncan.
Further recordings from the 1950s will be added as they are prepared for online publication, together with recordings from later decades, out of the 4,000-plus hours of original recordings from the Poetry Center's American Poetry Archives. The audio files are being supplemented by the inclusion of facsimiles made of select print ephemera from Poetry Center files.
The Poetry Center's 1960s collection represents the transition with the new decade from the era of founding director Ruth Witt-Diamant, with poet Robert Duncan working as her assistant, to the emergence of many younger poets destined to become prominent, with striking highlight events throughout the decade. Of special note are several symposia that feature, e.g., James Baldwin talking on the role of the writer; memorial pograms for Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, and Robinson Jeffers; LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and friends addressing his groundbreaking work Blues People; a raucous panel on "Poetry and Censorship" focused on Lenore Kandel's The Love Book and Michael McClure’s The Beard; and, on the eve of the historic 1968 Student Strike at San Francisco State, Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party holding forth from the SF State campus "Speaker's Platform," resulting from the early Free Speech activism that preceded UC Berkeley’s more famed events.