From the Classroom to the Recording Studio


Sabrina Taveras ’16 reads “On the Men of Maine” for our audiobook project.

In fall of 2012, I experimented with my standard American poetry class, adding a component in which students would learn to do formal analysis of poetry primarily though performing poetry out loud. For about half of the semester we recited poems, memorized sonnets, and learned to offer suggestions for delivery to each other. By the end of the semester, the class had recorded all the main poems in Herman Melville’s collection of Civil War poems entitled Battle-Pieces.

The structure worked well enough that I subsequently developed a course entitled “Voicing the Verse: Poetry in Performance.” This class fulfills not only the poetry requirement for English majors and minors but also the “Aesthetic Perspective,” a core distribution requirement in Clark’s Program in Liberal Studies. In addition to regular class time, weekly studio sessions introduce students to rehearsal and performance processes in small groups. These rehearsal sessions lead not only to better performance of poems but to more productive means of critiquing both formal and artistic aspects of those performances.


Who knows? Perhaps students actually do [heart] scanning poems in class.

The studio sessions also helped to enliven the rather technical material in the first half of the semester — metrical scansion and other formal analysis of aural effects in poetry. The rehearsal process in particular helps students to bridge the gap between theory and practice, analysis and experience. Scansion is often the toughest component of a traditional poetry class, but by linking the technical skills to oral interpretation, I find that students have a distinct advantage when it comes to metrical analysis.

This week, with our prosody midterm behind us, we went into the recording studio for the first time. This year we are trying a partnership with Professor Matt Malsky‘s “Recording Practice and Audio Art” course. Students from the Music class take turns working as engineers for individual recording sessions with the Poetry student and afterward work to perfect the recording tracks in post production.

Madi Carleton ’17 stays on book while Caitlin Indermaur ’15 runs the board.

This spring’s poetry class is taking on the supplementary verse at the end of Battle-Pieces in order to finish up our long, first LibriVox project. Though fans of poets as disparate as Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, and Mickle Maher (we read Maher’s verse play There Is  a Happiness That Morning Is as part of our study of  rhyming), the students took to Melville very quickly, immediately capturing the introspective mourning of his “Verses Inscriptive and Memorial.” The audio files won’t be ready for sampling for a little while, so in the meantime, enjoy reading a few selections from our first recording sessions below. In the meantime, we’ll keep working on how to approach the longest poem in the collection: the 114-stanza narrative poem “The Scout toward Aldie.” Wish us luck!


On the Men of Maine
killed in the Victory of Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Afar they fell. It was the zone
.   Of fig and orange, cane and lime
(A land how all unlike their own,
With the cold pine-grove overgrown),
.  But still their Country’s clime.
And there in youth they died for her–
.            The Volunteers,
For her went up their dying prayers:
 So vast the Nation, yet so strong the tie.
What doubt shall come, then, to deter
.  The Republic’s earnest faith and courage high.

Commemorative Of A Naval Victory

Sailors there are of the gentlest breed,
.  Yet strong, like every goodly thing;
The discipline of arms refines,
.  And the wave gives tempering.
.  The damasked blade its beam can fling;
It lends the last grave grace:
The hawk, the hound, and sworded nobleman
.  In Titian’s picture for a king,
Are of hunter or warrior race.

In social halls a favored guest
 In years that follow victory won,
How sweet to feel your festal fame
 In woman’s glance instinctive thrown:
 Repose is yours–your deed is known,
It musks the amber wine;
It lives, and sheds a light from storied days
.  Rich as October sunsets brown,
Which make the barren place to shine.

But seldom the laurel wreath is seen
 Unmixed with pensive pansies dark;
There’s a light and a shadow on every man
.  Who at last attains his lifted mark–
.  Nursing through night the ethereal spark.
Elate he never can be;
He feels that spirit which glad had hailed his worth,
.  Sleep in oblivion.–The shark
Glides white through the phosphorus sea.

Come to our Rare Book Open House 2013!

Rare Book Open House 2013 small

Invitation designed by Rose Gallogly ’16

Last year the Introduction to Archival Research Seminar made quite a hit with our first ever Rare Books Open House, where students each presented material from the Jonas Clark collection in the Goddard Library Special Collections. You can read more about out last year’s open house here:


Click image to read about last year’s Open House.

This year we have even more hands-on stations and, of course, all new exhibits based on each student’s final research project. Hope to see you there!

And stay tuned for a series of postings about the class itself, from what it’s like to face down a laboratory component in a literature class to in-depth profiles of some of the more curious books in the Jonas Clark collection.

Click here for Directions and Campus Maps for Clark University.


A Poem for the 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg

I’ve posted before about last fall’s LibriVox project, in which students in my poetry class recorded an audiobook of Herman Melville’s Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces.


Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, so it seems timely to offer another sneak peak (or sneak eavesdrop, I guess) of the poem “Gettysburg” read by Daniel Padilla.


Click here to hear “Gettysburg.”


The Check
(July, 1863)

O pride of the days in prime of the months
  Now trebled in great renown,
When before the ark of our holy cause
    Fell Dagon down—
Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,
Never his impious heart enlarged
Beyond that hour; god walled his power,
And there the last invader charged.
He charged, and in that charge condensed
  His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
    And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells—
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
  Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
  And Right is a strong-hold yet.
Before our lines it seemed a beach
  Which wild September gales have strown
With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith
    Pale crews unknown—
Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun
Died on the face of each lifeless one,
And died along the winding marge of fight
    And searching-parties lone.
Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,
  Our center held that place of graves,
And some still hold it in their swoon,
  And over these a glory waves.
The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,
Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,
    A meaning ampler bear;
Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer
Have laid the stone, and every bone
    Shall rest in honor there.

Read the rest of Melville’s Battle-Pieces at Project Gutenberg.


“Voracious Auditor,” Grieving Sermon, 19 September 1689, (Joshua Moodey, minister; Jer 5:3-4)

“Voracious Auditor,” Grieving Sermon, 9 pages.
Joshua Moodey (minister) on Jer 5:3-4
[Anonymous,“Voracious auditor”]. Sermons: manuscript, 1689. MS Am 974. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Primary transcription complete. Needs review.

Side-by-side thumbnail.

Click here to view side-by-side transcription:

Side-by-side transcription – Voracious Auditor, Grieving Sermon


Click thumbnails below for a closer look at individual pages:














This anonymous auditor uses an oblong notebook to record sermons. The amount of specific phrasing with irregularities of syntax and incompleteness suggests a primarily aural recorder who likely is taking notes in the meetinghouse. In my book, I nicknamed this auditor “Voracious” for his ability to capture a verbatim account of the words of the minister, Joshua Moodey. Even though Voracious falls short of a full verbatim record, the notes are highly suggestive of the possible cadence of delivery. Especially toward the end of the sermon, Voracious seems to capture the accelerating urgency of Moodey’s words. See Jeremiah’s Scribes pp 93-97 for my reading of this sermon.

I am still trying to decipher a few words in this sermon.( Notice the question marks in certain places where I am unsure or yellow highlighted areas where I refrain from guessing.) My larger question, however, has to do with the startling turn at the very end of the sermon when Moodey instructs his auditory to “Kill Sin” as they would “Kill Indians.” As I’ve noted before, the very real sense of violence here is not lessened because of the figurative analogy. More than a decade after King Philip’s War, this disturbing martial imagery remains. The figure of the native enemy has become a full trope. The final turn in this sermon is even more disconcerting, I think, because it follows such a sympathetic and heartfelt invocation to consider the grief (felt by God, not felt by the sinner) in intimate, familial terms.

Henry Wolcott, shorthand sermon notebook (Connecticut Historical Society)


No, I can’t read it either.

This is a page from Henry Wolcott’s shorthand sermon notebook at the Connecticut Historical Society. Thanks to the amazing work of Douglas H. Shepard, we have a full transcription of the sermon notes he took in this adapted shorthand system:

  • Shepard, Douglas H. “The [Henry] Wolcott Shorthand Notebook Transcribed.” Ph.D. diss., State University of Iowa, 1957.

This dissertation is well worth getting your hands on. In addition to the transcription, Shepard provides invaluable insight into the use of shorthand int he seventeenth century and plenty of context for Wolcott’s sermon attendance. Shepard also has what may be my favorite quote about deciphering manuscripts ever:

I can only suggest that colleges and universities set up courses that should have been in the curriculum for years–seminars in skepticism and lingering doubt: fallibility and the printed page. (13)

Wolcott’s notes are an excellent example of structural auditing. He rarely records full phrasing by the minister. Rather, his notes display such a complex, compacted form of structural auditing that he shows how the sermon structure can itself be an expressive form of spiritual experience.

Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.

John Chickering, sermon notebook index (Houghton Library)


Harvard college student John Chickering did not only keep meticulous notes on individual sermons; he also kept a detailed index of his own notebook. Chickering mastered not only structural and aural auditing but also content auditing, as just a glance at the index would allow him to recall discrete units of his sermon experience.

It would be easy for him to locate a sermon preached on a particular verse, for example, or by a particular minister. But the index seem almost excessively detailed. (The column containing the clerical title “Mr.” is not strictly necessary, for example.) I suggest in Jeremiah’s Scribes that Chicerking’s notebook offers us a good example of how individual notetakers created a sense of ownership of their own sermon experience through little choices when recording in their books. (Compare, for example, the sense of creative ownership in Michael Metcalfe’s sermon notebook.)

Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Chickering, John. Notes: on sermons: manuscript, 1651-52. MS Am 804. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Chickering, sermon notebook page (Houghton Library)


John Chickering kept this meticulous notebook while a student at Harvard College. His training meant that he could paid attention both to structure and to content. Chickering goes beyond most notetakers, however, for the sheer precision of his notes. (We don’t know whether these notes are copied over from another, messier source, but the evenness of the lines and the small, precise handwriting make this possibility quite likely.) He is quite skilled, incorporating shorthand and abbreviation and making careful note of sermon structure in the margins.

Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Chickering, John. Notes: on sermons: manuscript, 1651-52. MS Am 804. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

John Pynchon, teenage sermon notaker (American Antiquarian Society)


When I sent the my book off for publication, there was some uncertainty about who exactly this notetaker was. The catalog record at the American Antiquarian Society reads “[Pinch/Pyncheon?, John]. sermon notes; possibly those of John Pinch (1625-??).” Only after the book was in press did I hear from David Powers, who has done the remarkable work of cracking John Pynchon’s shorthand for his work on the minister Georege Moxon. When I send him this image, he was able to confirm that the notetaker was indeed the same John Pynchon and that he was about 14 years old when he made these notes. (More on David Powers work in another post!)

Even if you forgive yourself the shorthand notebooks, learning to read early modern handwriting requires knowledge of common symbols and abbreviations. The character that looks like a circle with a vertical line through it stands for “pro” or “pre,” two very common prefixes (especially in heavily Latinate religious language, I suspect). In this case, you can tell from context that the word reads “promise” because the big X (or, more precisely, the Greek letter chi) stands for “Christ,” and “there is a promise of Christ” makes a lot more sense than “there is a premise of Christ.”

Deciphering sermon notes is difficult, not only because the letter forms are unfamiliar and there are many such shorthand, symbols, and abbreviations to learn, but because the writing is often done in haste, phrasing may be truncated, and the physical condition of the page may deteriorate.

Want to try your own hand at some transcriptions? Click on the the “Get Involved” link.

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

John Pynchon, sermon notebook with shorthand (American Antiquarian Society)


This is not the cover but the outermost remaining page of John Pynchon’s sermon notebook. If it looks familiar, that might be because this is the image that ended up on my book cover.

Jeremiah's Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

(The cover gets many compliments, by the way, but I can’t take any credit. The designer, John Hubbard, did a wonderful job of transforming my lousy little snapshot into this intriguing close-up image. I never noticed until the design was completed that the page is filled with the word “complain,” a feature of the cover that continually amuses me.)

You’ll notice also that there are many symbols interspersed in the notes. It was fairly common practice to use some kinds of symbols (and abbreviations) in transcription. Some were made up, and some were adapted from existing shorthand systems. Here, the young John Pynchon (probably about 14 when he kept these notes) probably uses symbols for common words. Even without knowing the full system, it’s sometimes possible to figure out from context what a specific symbol means when the notetaker creates a hybrid text like this.

I’m always struck when I look at this notebook that a fourteen-year-old boy already finds need to incorporate shorthand into his writing. Elsewhere, Pynchon flips the notebook upside down and records Greek vocabulary in the opposite direction, filling in the blank spaces at the ends of sermons. Apparently some knowledge of shorthand systems was a great tool for students.

When I sent the my book off for publication, there was some uncertainty about who exactly this notetaker was. The catalog record at the American Antiquarian Society reads “[Pinch/Pyncheon?, John]. sermon notes; possibly those of John Pinch (1625-??).” Only after the book was in press did I hear from David Powers, who has done the remarkable work of cracking John Pynchon’s shorthand for his work on the minister Georege Moxon. When I send him this image, he was able to confirm that the notetaker was indeed the same John Pynchon and that he was about 14 years old when he made these notes. (More on David Powers work in another post!)

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Battle-Pieces audiobook project


Hugo Ball, Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, 1916. He has nothing to do with Melville’s Civil War poetry. He just kind of became the class mascot after we spent an entire session on the recitation of “Gadji Beri Bimba.”

In fall 2012, students in my American Poetry class recorded an audio book of Herman Melville’s civil war poems for, a wonderful organization that provides free audio books of works in the public domain. Here is just a little information about our project.

The class divided into three recording teams, and each student had at least one designated role in the process. Roles included directors, primary readers, historical dramaturgs, and sound technicians. A single project manager helped to coordinate the work of all three teams.

Each team read through Battle-Pieces and decided which poems they would like to record. Sometimes an individual reader would feel a strong connection and want to read a particular poem. Jon Brien, for example, was eager to kick off the the whole collection with his reading of “The Portent.”

In some cases, an entire team would have a concept for the poem, as in this interpretation of “Donelson,” the only poem in the collection to make use of multiple voices. Their choice works well to convey the many points of view which make up this poem.

In quite a few cases, more than one team wanted a particular poem. We decided to audition competing claimants, and the class as a whole decided which interpretations and which voices best suited some of the most popular poems. Jason DeMartini eventually won the most hotly contested poem in the collection, “The House-top,” but the competition was fierce from Laura Mathew and My Bui (who was kicking it old school, reciting from memory!). We even recorded the “The Battle for Battle-Pieces,” our very own competition reality show:


you gotta fight
for your right
to recite

Back to main LibriVox page.