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Tales from the Woodberry Poetry Room: Christina Davis on the Discovery of a Recording of Susan and Fanny Howe’s Mother, Mary Manning Howe, Reading Yeats

By Harriet Staff

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New at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University’s Vocarium, Christina Davis shares the details of her discovery of a rare, archival recording of Mary Manning Howe (mother of poets, Susan Howe and Fanny Howe) reading poetry by W.B. Yeats. Davis writes:

Once a year I permit myself to listen to the last recording I have of my father. I say permit because there are repercussions, and those repercussions are that he is remembered to me, not only intellectually but physically. The voice—always lower than I can conjure in my high-octave mind, and more soothingly Kentuckyian, and wide spread through his broad teeth—provokes a kind of mourning in the molecules. The voice has no body to go back to, nor is there any impediment to its reception: it is so singularly sent. So that at times, as Paul Celan writes, when only the void stands between us, we get “all the way to each other.”

I impart this story not to wax elegiac but because it is connected to the work I do in sound archives and to a specific occurrence—like none other I have ever had—that took place in the Woodberry Poetry Room this summer.

This June, I set myself the task of going through the entirety of our “Magic Closet,” a euphemistic moniker I have given to a closet in which the miscellany of the universe seem to have converged—including over 1,000 uncataloged test pressings and metal Mother discs, as well as overstock from the Harvard Vocarium series with LPs containing the voices of T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and (written in fountain pen in full four-named glory) “Robert Traill Spence Lowell.”

At the bottom of the closet surrounded by a stack of Harvard-sponsored Japanese-language recordings from 1944 and an unproduced 1938 rehearsal of MacLeish’s radio play about Guernica, I caught sight of five 13” discs tied together with a black ribbon. Penciled in cursive on the first sleeve, I could just make out the title: “Mrs. M.A. Howe, Jr. — Yeats’ Poetry” and the word in all caps: “Cracked.”

Now, in all honesty, we have many recordings of Yeats in the collection—ranging from duplicates of the few poems that Yeats himself recorded in his lifetime (including the infamous Proustian preamble to “Innisfree” and the precipitous “tinkle of water”) to those recorded by such actors as Sara Allgood and Robert Speight in the decade after his death. And, in a town of deep Irish lineage, the name Howe is not necessarily exotic. But it was the particular conjugation of “Howe” and “Yeats” that set off an alarm in me.

With the help of my remarkable researcher Mary Graham, we lifted the hefty discs from their resting-place and carried them into my office. As we began to separate the long-attached records, we noticed a further declension of the title: “Mrs. M. A. deW. Howe.” It was the “deW.” that clinched it for me.

I immediately picked up the phone and dialed Fanny Howe at her apartment in Cambridge, just a few blocks shy of where she and Susan Howe grew up with “Mrs. M. A. Howe, Jr.” otherwise known as their mother.

Read more from Christina Davis– and response from Susan and Fanny Howe–and listen to those recordings!– at WPR’s Vocarium.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, August 16th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.