Byron Vazakas Papers, MS-020, 1905-1987
By Brittni Ehrhart and Sidney Dreese
Byron Vazakas (1905-1987) was an American poet whose career reached the heights of not only celebrity in his loveable Reading, Pennsylvania, but also across the entire United States. Most notable are the accomplishments he made in regards to poetry; he published four books between the years, 1946 and 1970 along with another two hundred and fifty poems in various magazines and anthologies. Vazakas was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1947. His work stemmed primarily from much of the interaction he encountered in daily life, he often described himself as a wondering poet; saying “my poetry is my biography”. His work was established over a lifetime and riddled with little riches, but rather filled with words that formed hundreds of poems, books, articles and plays.
Vazakas was born on September 24, 1905 in New York City to Alfred Vazakas, a professor at Columbia University and Margaret Keffer Vazakas, a descendant of Henry Clay. Vazakas also had two brothers, Alexander and Donald. While Vazakas’ family lived in New York, their life was seemingly comfortable. However, after their father, Alfred, died in 1912, the family was forced to relocate to Chicago and suffered from a meager existence. In Chicago, Byron attended formal schooling, however, after grade eight, he choose to stop his schooling. He instead, immersed himself in texts and read constantly. The family eventually moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then in 1922, the Vazakas family moved to Reading, Pennsylvania. Reading had been home to Byron’s mother, Margaret’s family, and her mother still lived in the area. Byron remained living with his mother until the time of her death in 1940.
While in Reading, Vazakas started to write almost exclusively. He tried his hand at other occupations, but later would admit that he was strictly a poet. “I have avoided…occupations…because a poet desires leisure…my existence consists of the three R’s, Riting, Reading and Roaming.” While establishing himself as a poet in Reading, Byron reached out to other literary figures, who would later become his close friends. Such were William Carlos Williams, Robert Eberhart, Karl Shapiro, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden and many others. Williams helped Byron publish his first book, Transfigured Night, which went on to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1946; Vazakas lost to Robert Lowell. Transfigured Night is also housed in present day in Boston’s Library’s Rare Book Collection.
In 1947, Byron became an unofficial lecturer at Harvard University and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He resided in Massachusetts for 17 years. During his time in Massachusetts, he gave poetry readings at Harvard, Brown (with Tennessee Williams), and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center in New York City. In 1962, he received the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship in Poetry and traveled throughout Europe primarily England, however he visited France as well and worked on his poetry while on his scholarship. He received the scholarship again in 1963-1964. In 1966, he published two more books of poetry, The Equal Tribunals and the Marble Manifesto.
Byron worked on many other projects throughout his life while he remained in Reading, Pennsylvania under the modest living of his brother, Alexander Vazakas. He was engaged in the "Poetry in the Schools" project for high schools; a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Pennsylvania State Department of Education. He traveled to high schools throughout the Reading region and read poetry to high school students. In 1970, he published his last book, Nostalgias for a House of Cards. In a 1976 book by Louis Simpson, entitled Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams Carlos credited him with inventing a new poetic rhythm saying, “he completely did away with the poetic line as we know it, a measure based not upon convention, but, upon music, auditory measure.” In 1981, he received an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Letters from Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania. Vazakas spent much of his time corresponding with his literary friends from around the world and writing poetry. Although his published work appeared in over fifty six magazines, ten anthologies and four books, Vazakas wrote countless numbers of unpublished poems, short stories and plays.
He spent much of his time walking through the streets of Reading and writing at a desk in the Reading Public Library. He never married nor did he bear any children, instead he focused on relationships formed with literary friends and his brothers. Vazakas life was devoted exclusively to poetry and even until his death on September 30, 1987, he breathed it. Upon his tombstone, his brother Alex engraved “Transfigured Night” to remind not only Reading of their beloved poet, but the entire world.
Scope and Content
Items pertaining to Byron’s life, that spans from his Greek ancestry to his death; including the after effects of his death. A large selection of this collection consists of a wide range of Byron Vazakas' personal library; housing many different works of fiction and non-fiction. Included are copies of Byron’s four published novels as well. Included, as well, are original and photocopies of Byron’s 250 published poems with original notes by Byron on the texts. Manuscripts of all four of his published works are included as well, with various copies, and, additionally, manuscripts of unpublished plays, poetry and articles. Correspondence with various publishers pertaining to Byron’s works, letters of interest in regards to various grants, fellowships and scholarships, and receipt of winning such awards or letters of denial as well. The Amy Lowell Scholarship papers, including correspondence from Byron’s time in Europe. A large amount of correspondence with friends, relatives, publishers, congressmen, professors, literary magazines, and a vast amount with Bruno Palmer-Paroner can be found in the collection. Materials relating to efforts by Byron to receive a National Endowment for the Arts grant, between 1969-1977 are in the collection. Byron’s personal newspaper clippings of particular interest to him as well as newspaper articles about his work, life and impact on Reading, Pennsylvania. Photos of various moments in Byron’s life as well as past relatives are included along with the honorary Doctorate degree he obtained from Albright College. Included is correspondence that Manfred Zitzman, the man responsible for the larger part of the organization and preservation of the Byron Vazakas Papers.
Materials are organized into ten series with one containing four subseries and one containing one subseries: (1) Family Materials, (2) Family Photographs, (3) Published and Unpublished Works, (4) State University of New York (SUNY) Materials, (5) Correspondence, (6) Writers and Artists Materials, (7) Grants and Fellowships, (8) Public Readings, (9) Clippings saved by Byron Vazakas, (10) Manfred Ziztman, (11) Books from Byron Vazakas' library, and (12) Oversized Materials.
Series 1 is primarily material collected about Byron’s life, newspaper articles and personal notes about his family. Series 2 are family photographs. Series 3 contains originals and copies of all of Byron’s published and unpublished works; ranging from poems, plays, novels and articles. Series 4 contains copies of works by Byron collected by State University of New York. Series 5 contains correspondence between Byron and various people over the span of his lifetime. Series 6 contains materials that cover Writers and Artists and their personal thoughts about Byron as well as his thoughts on them. Included are Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Series 7 includes materials pertaining to Byron’s quest for grants and fellowships funds, and acceptance and rejection letters. Series 8 includes Byron’s speeches given at Albright College as well as his honorary degree and items pertaining to his award. Also included are other public readings. Series 9 is clippings saved by Vazakas. Series 10 are the files Manfred Ziztman compiled pertaining to Vazakas, and the correspondence with various people about Byron. Series 11 are books from his personal library. Series 12 is oversized materials.
Series 1 is primarily material collected about Byron’s life, newspaper articles and personal notes about his family. Series 2 include photographs of Byron and of various friends and family members. Series 3 is split up into four sub series. (2-1) is the poems subseries and is arranged, first by the published poems, numbered 1-209 in numerical order. The numbering was arranged by Manfred Ziztman. Copies of the published poems are included as well within the numbering category. The unpublished poems are arranged alphabetically. (2-2) is the plays subseries and is arranged by the title of the play alphabetically. Originals with notes by Byron, manuscripts and copies of the play are arranged alphabetically. (2-3) is the novels subseries and contains originals with Byron’s notes, manuscripts, copies and cover artwork for the four novels he published. They are arranged alphabetically in the following order, originals, manuscripts, copies and cover artwork with each corresponding title. The unpublished novels are contained in this series as well and are arranged alphabetically. (2-4) is the article subseries and contains unpublished articles or essays written by Byron on a variety of subjects. These are arranged alphabetically. Series 4 is arranged by the title of the work alphabetically. Series 5 (5-1) is arranged alphabetically by the correspondent of Byron, and by the correspondence of publishers (5-2). The publishers are grouped together by the literary magazine or publishing house that which Byron corresponded. In that, they are arranged alphabetically and grouped together by the first letter of the name of their magazine or publishing house. Series 6 is arranged alphabetically. Series 7 is arranged alphabetically by the grant or fellowship name. Series 8 begins with Albright College followed by other places he performed public readings. Series 9 is arranged chronologically by decade. Series 10 is arranged by indexes compiled by Ziztman, including indexes on Byron’s poems and his personal collection of books, articles and recollections of Byron by Ziztman including tape recordings, correspondence between Ziztman and various others pertaining to Byron and lastly legal paper work associated with Albright College receiving Byron’s papers, and legal right for use. Series 11 are books from his personal library. Series 12 is oversized items.