Emory Report
April 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 26

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April 9, 2007
Rare editions give clues to poets' lives and minds

by Carol Clark

When you enter Woodruff Library’s Harris reading room, you travel back to a slower-paced, pre-digital era, when printed words weren’t something taken for granted. The wood-paneled enclave is furnished with a library table, leather chairs and glass-fronted shelves filled with rare volumes of poetry. The smell of old books suffuses the air.

An oil painting of orange poppies hangs on one wall, signed by the artist and poet Frieda Hughes — the daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. A battered traveler’s trunk rests in a corner, stenciled with the name “James W. Johnson.” It belonged to the African American poet and diplomat who penned what is known as the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in 1900.

“We also have James Johnson’s tea set,” says Kevin Young, curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, as he wheels in a cart laden with choice tomes that he has pulled from the stacks. The Danowski library, considered the largest library of 20th-century English poetry ever built by a private collector, was donated to Emory in 2004, and librarians are still cataloging its myriad contents. The collection includes more than 74,000 volumes, along with thousands of journals, broadsides, correspondence and other artifacts. This treasure trove resides in the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library of Woodruff Library, establishing Emory as one of the major centers of poetry in the world.

Young is the ideal guide to the Danowski collection’s many charms. An award-winning poet himself, he is also Emory’s Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing. Readings from Young’s latest book, “For the Confederate Dead,” were recently featured on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

He pulls a dark-green volume from the cart and gently places it in the “V” of two large foam wedges that rest on the table like an altar. Leafy tendrils embossed on the book’s cover curl around the gilt title: “Leaves of Grass.”

“In a way, the collection starts here,” says Young, as he opens the 1855 first edition of Walt Whitman’s masterwork. “And it’s not a coincidence that this book is also the beginning of modern poetry. It’s an amazing document. It’s like a living being that’s been handled by other hands and helps us make a connection to a great artist.”

The frontispiece shows an engraving of a cocky young Whitman wearing a hat and the clothes of a workman, one hand defiantly on his hip. But the author’s name does not appear beneath the portrait or on the title page.
“He wanted the book to seem anonymous,” says Young, “as though it came from one of the roughs,” as Whitman called the everyday working man.

A trained printer, Whitman set some of the type himself for the book and designed the cover before talking a neighbor in Brooklyn, N.Y., into striking off 800 copies on a hand press.

“It’s 152 years old and in great shape,” says Young. “Books are hardy. They last longer than CDs.”

He carefully turns the gilt-edged pages, showing that the 12 poems in this first edition lack titles, such as “Song of Myself,” that would come later. “The effect is that the poems appear to run together, like leaves of grass – one long poem, one unified thought,” says Young. “It was Whitman’s first book and, in a way, his only book of poems. He just kept revising it and that became his life’s work.”

Last year, at an auction, Young picked up an 1893 first edition of “Oak and Ivy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar to add to the Danowski collection. The son of ex-slaves, Dunbar was one of the first modern African American poets, Young explains, as he turns the pages to reveal poems with bluesy names like “A Drowsy Day,” “Poor Withered Rose” and “Sympathy,” which contains the famous line “I know why the caged bird sings.”

Young pulls another item from the cart. “This is one of my favorite books in the collection, if I can say I have a favorite. I just think it’s beautiful,” he says.

The slim volume is a 1930 first edition of “The Bridge” by Hart Crane, encased in its original, glassine dust jacket. The text is hand-set Dorique type, in the black-and-red style of classic Bibles, printed on Japanese vellum. Three striking photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge illustrate the book. They are the first published pictures of Walker Evans, a friend of Crane’s who tried becoming a writer before switching to photography.

While “The Bridge” launched Evans’ career, it proved to be the swan song of the alcoholic Crane, who killed himself not long after it was published.

Another book Young especially likes is little more than a small, orange pamphlet titled “Poems.” Dated 1929, it is W. H. Auden’s first book, printed by his friend and fellow poet Stephen Spender while they were both still at Oxford.

“It was done on a crummy printing press – the print is light in places, very uneven, but I think that’s what’s special about it,” says Young. “It’s really a rare book, with only a couple of dozen copies, and it has notations by Spender in it.”

Auden went on to become the leader of his generation of poets, producing an immense amount of work before his death in 1973, at the age of 66.

“That’s our ‘wall of Auden,’” says Young, indicating the bookshelves that take up one side of the room. “We have everything of his, basically, even all the books he wrote introductions for and edited.”

He turns back to the cart and pulls out a 1962 edition of “Pictures from Brueghel” by William Carlos Williams, which is signed by the poet. “It’s his post-stroke signature, you can see how shaky it is,” says Young. “He died months after this, so it’s a very special signature to me.”

He brings out a 1965 first edition of “Ariel” by Plath, which has notations in the margins by Anne Sexton. “Sexton and Plath were both students of Robert Lowell and they were friends,” says Young. “Sexton would attract huge crowds when she gave readings. She lived with her fame, and Plath died before she achieved hers.”

Toward the end of her life, Sexton penciled comments throughout her copy of “Ariel,” including the words “To death” next to Plath’s poem “The Rival.” “That’s what the poem is to Sexton,” says Young. “Notations like this give you a sense of a mind at work, really.”

Young brings students from his creative writing classes into the Danowski collection because he believes the books themselves teach lessons. The texture, the weight and the grace of the books, the rough deckled edges of pages, the exquisite engravings, as well as the imperfections and scribbled marginalia all hold meaning for Young.

“I think these books tell the story not just of the collection, but of poetry itself,” he says.