By Jenny Jarvie
Poetry Media Service
The more librarians catalog and curate Raymond Danowski’s vast collection of 20th-century poetry books, manuscripts, and periodicals, the more inscrutable it becomes to him.
“I don’t really know how to lay my hands on stuff anymore,” the heavy-set 65-year-old art dealer and book collector whispers, ruffling his hands through his gray hair. He’s trailing a graduate student through the quiet, orderly corridors of a library at Atlanta’s Emory University.
“Everything gets mixed up when you put it in order,” he sighs.
Over the course of 25 years, Danowski amassed the largest-known private collection of 20th-century poetry in the English language, one that includes more than 70,000 books, periodicals and artifacts.
In addition to a rare, highly-coveted first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library includes more than 1,000 volumes by W.H. Auden, the most complete collection of his work, and almost all the published work of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Ted Hughes. There is also a first edition of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, inscribed to the poet’s first love, “Miss Emily Hale”; Anne Sexton’s heavily-annotated review copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath; and thousands of other fascinating scraps and documents of the last 100 years or so.
Danowski did not confine himself to rare editions of celebrated poets. His obsessive, idiosyncratic collection includes a staggering array of minutiae and counterculture ephemera—everything from English punk rock fanzines to psychedelic posters that were nailed to telephone poles in Haight-Ashbury.
“The key to the collection is that I wanted it to be comprehensive,” he explains as he settles into a chair in Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library. “I liken it to a snowflake, a symmetrical structure relating to issues of the 20th century. I wanted it to be more than just a catalog of first editions. I wanted to provide everything.”
When he was growing up in a Bronx housing project, books were off-limits to Danowski. His father, a warehouse worker with a violent temper, would not allow his son to touch his night-school textbooks, so the 4-year-old Danowski would sit on the floor, gazing up at his father’s books and straining to read the lettering on the spines.
He developed an early appreciation for Edgar Allan Poe after his young uncle, an aspiring actor, performed highly-dramatic presentations of “The Raven.” Later, he was introduced to the work of W.H. Auden, thanks to a British man who placed bets in the soccer pools for another uncle, a Manhattan bartender, and sent him carefully typed-out copies of Auden’s poems. To this day, Auden remains Danowski’s major love.
After studying for two years at Fordham University, Danowski began to deal in etchings and lithographs, and went on to roam around Europe, campaigning as a political activist, marrying three women, and fathering six children.
Danowski, who now splits his time between Britain and South Africa, did not begin his poetry collection until the mid-1970s, when he tried to help a London bookseller who had lost the lease on his store. After buying his friend’s entire poetry inventory for a sum of less than 3,000 pounds, he set about building what he calls his bibliothèque imaginaire—a library of all 20th-century poetry in English, not just from the United States, but also from countries such as India, South Africa and Barbados. He says much of his collection was acquired thanks to the generosity of his third wife, Mary, the daughter of the sculptor Henry Moore. They are now separated.
“The whole collection was luck,” he admits. “I was the only person collecting this kind of stuff back then. If you’re willing to buy something, even if it’s only for $10, word gets around.”
Eventually, he accumulated so much that he had to ship the collection to a warehouse. Having spent more than a decade considering what institution might make a proper repository for his collection, he decided on Emory after enjoying a “meeting of minds” with Ronald Schuchard, an Emory professor who specializes in British and Irish literature. Danowski was impressed that the university had recently acquired sizable collections of the work of poets such as Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, and he was reassured by Schuchard’s commitment to the idea of allowing students to hold, as well as see, rare first editions. (Anyone, not only Emory students, can come to the Woodruff Library to explore Danowski’s collection.)
In acquiring such a deep and extensive collection in one fell swoop, Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) pulled off the daunting feat of becoming one of the world’s most renowned destinations for the study of contemporary English poetry. Dana Gioia, poet, essayist, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, says MARBL now rivals any of the nation’s major 20th-century poetry research libraries, including those at Harvard, Yale and Austin, particularly when it comes to showing the actual shape of a poet’s life.
“We’ve got it all here,” he says, struggling to contain his glee. “Look anywhere, and you’ll find wonderful things.”
Jenny Jarvie is a free-lance writer. She has worked as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the Sunday Telegraph in London. She is a past winner of the Catherine Pakenham Award for the most promising young female writer in Britain. This article was originally published at www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation.
From the Jan. 13-19, 2010 issue.