When President James B. Conant '14 sought to appoint a curator for the new college poetry room in 1932, he personally offered the post to Robert Frost, then at the height of his fame. Frost, who had won the Pulitzer prize the year before for his new Selected Poems, wished the room well but politely said that he preferred to remain at his home in Amherst, Mass.
When the room opened in 1939 with Jack Sweeney at the helm, it quickly became a center of literary life in Cambridge. Regular literary salons-- part poetry reading, part workshop--were held for an elite circle invited to the third-floor room in Widener. The collection moved to the room's present quarters in Lamont Library in the '50's, but the wooden sign saying "Poetry Room" remains on the door of the old Widener quarters to this day.
In 1974 the leadership went to a most unusual candidate: Stratis Haviaras, an administrative worker at Widener Library, who had quit school at age 12 during the Greek Civil War to work in construction.
But Haviaras wasn't a typical manual laborer, publishing three volumes of poetry during the twenty years he worked in the construction business. And he was as familiar with the Harvard poetry collections as anyone, having spent much time in the room while working at Widener--a qualification he cited when he applied for the post.
On June 30, after 26 years as curator of the Poetry and Farnsworth Rooms in the Harvard College Library, Haviaras retired to devote more time to his writing.
But as no replacement has been chosen, Haviaras has been working in the poetry room--without pay--almost every weekday since.
He says that if he were to leave, the room would miss out on acquiring an entire season of new work. And there is the business of accepting donations of new manuscripts, editing the room's poetry journal and arranging its fall lecture series. Haviaras feels an intense sense of duty to the room, he says, which keeps him coming back each day.
The appointment of a new poetry curator has run into some politics, though some are loath to use the word.
"Politics may be too intense," says English Department Chair Lawrence Buell. "Procedural complications, maybe?"
When the poetry room was established in 1939, it had the status of a special department of the University library. But since that time, it has been transferred between different departments of the library system several times. During Haviaras' tenure it was first an independent department, then a part of the collections development department, and then an independent department again.
Now with Haviaras' retirement, the room has been transferred once again, this time to Houghton Library, a move that has raised the eyebrows of some Cambridge literati.
Biographer and essayist Justin Kaplan, who is a long-time associate of Haviaras, said that Houghton needs to respect the poetry room as more than a book nook.
"It's a very important institution and not just a bunch of books in the Harvard library," he says. "It acts as a community for the whole poetry establishment."
Library officials, however, say the Houghton transfer will only enrich the room as an institution, enabling the poetry curator to be a part of the team of people working with contemporary writing.
"It was thought that this new curator of poetry...might be able to join people in Houghton who are thinking about contemporary writing," says Bill P. Stoneman, Librarian of Houghton. "[The new curator] could help us develop an awareness of what people are doing."
Next in Line
At Haviaras's request, his position has been split into two part-time jobs to allow the new appointees time to work on their literary pursuits. The two will share the same office, one working mornings as coordinating editor of The Harvard Review, the room's literary journal, while the other works afternoons as curator.
While he is willing to fill in for the summer, Haviaras is disappointed that a curator has not been chosen sooner. He is going to Greece in August and will not be available to train his successors.
"I hoped that there would be some overlapping time," Haviaras says. "There millions of things they must know."
Haviaris's colleagues in the English Department are worried about the post as well. Buell says he does not know when the library intends to appoint a successor, if ever.
"I am concerned that to appearances there isn't any provision for succession next year," he says.
But the problem seems to be more of an issue of communication between the English Department and library administration, rather than neglect of the position.
Stoneman, the Houghton librarian, said that though the search process is well underway, it's "understandable" that people outside the library are worried since they haven't been kept abreast of the progress that has been made.
About 50 people applied for the position, according to Jeffrey L. Horrell, Associate Librarian of Harvard College for Collections.
"By tomorrow I will have interviewed a goodly number of people who looked, on the basis of a preliminary perusal of the applications, [like they] deserve a closer look by the College library," Stoneman says. "What I will then do is set up a series of more extensive interviews with a smaller group of these people."
He said an appointment is expected by late summer or early fall.
Love in the Library
When he describes the qualities that a successor needs-"loving poetry and having passion for it"--Haviaras reveals the love for the written word that has defined his life as a poet and curator.
He has published two novels, a collection of poems, four books of poetry in Greek and, most recently, a book of prose poems.
Bruce Bennett, who published Haviaras's prose poem collection for the Wells College Press, said that though he is a diligent curator, Haviaras is primarily an outstanding writer.
"These poems are very distinct from other prose poems," Bennett says. "I think these are extraordinarily wide-ranging and suggestive, and fascinating and effective as poems."
But his work in the library has drawn Haviaras into a number of other ventures, including editing, librarianship and even marriage--he met his wife Heather Cole, who is now librarian of the Lamont and Hilles libraries, in the Widener staff room in 1970.
In 1992, Haviaras founded The Harvard Review with a volunteer staff and preliminary funding from the Harvard Extension School. He personally supervises all aspects of the Review, editing all of the contributions, doing the layout, coordinating the international distribution and even drawing the small sketches that appear every few pages.
He will continue his role as editor of the journal in his retirement, though the coordinating editor will take care of all administrative matters.
The Review has always been a Haviaras production, said Dean of Continuing Education Michael Shinagel, who is the journal's publisher.
"It is a very elegant and eloquent extension of Harvard University in the field of letters," Shinagel says. "The quality of the work, the people who are invited to participate, in particular in the issues that are dedicated to a major poet: that's very much Stratis' work."
Haviaras's tenure also brought poetry readings--which had been suspended since World War II--back to the poetry room. He personally raised an endowment of over $100,000 that allows for writers like Bennett, Donald Hall and Seamus Heaney to visit for lectures.
On the occasion of Haviaras' retirement, an anonymous donor gave $25,000 to establish an annual Stratis Haviaras Lecture in poetry; Heaney gave the first address in April.
Remembering the Basics
With so many projects, it's easy to forget the bread and butter of Stratis' job: selecting each volume of poetry that is purchased for the entire library system.
The library is only able to purchase 10 to 15 percent of new poetry volumes written each year, so the curator must be abreast of publishing trends and new poets, while keeping the perspective of what the library will want to have in its collection for posterity.
It takes a unique individual to combine the duties of a curator and a practitioner of poetry, Haviaras' colleagues say.
"He's a perfect example of a scholar-librarian," says Director of the Harvard University Library and Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba '53. "He's both a curator and a distinguished author, both in poetry and as a novelist. That's a wonderful combination."