September 7, 2004
Volume 57, Number 03
Report homepage > Current
issue front page
September 7, 2004
poetry collection finds a home
It took four tractor trailers to transport Raymond
Danowski’s collection of poetry—considered the largest
ever built by a private collector—to the Briarcliff Campus.
But even those four trailers may not be enough to encompass the impact
Danowski’s gift will have on Emory in the years to come.
The collection, which comprises some 50,000 books as well as scores of thousands
of periodicals, manuscripts, correspondence and other materials, makes the University
quite simply one of the world’s most renowned destinations for the study
of contemporary English-language poetry, according to the individuals who brokered
the transaction. Already nationally recognized for its Irish literature holdings,
the Woodruff Library’s Special Collections now takes its place among the
truly elite repositories and research centers for English verse.
“This gift identifies and establishes Emory as one of the major centers
of poetry in the world,” said Ron Schuchard, Goodrich C. White Professor
of English, one member of an Emory team that began conversations with Danowski
about the collection in the mid-1990s. “People are already saying that,
if you want to study 20th century poetry, you go to Emory. That’s it.”
To commemorate the formal announcement of Danowski’s gift on Thursday,
Sept. 9, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman and poet Dana Gioia will give
a reading at 6:30 p.m. in the Carlos Museum reception hall. Gioia is the author
of three collections of poetry (including Interrogations at Noon, winner of the
2002 American Book Award), as well as the book Can Poetry
Matter? Currently on
display in Special Collections are highlights from the Danowski collection, including
first editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and T.S.
Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)
Rare and near-invaluable books like these may sparkle—Christie’s
recently auctioned off a similar copy of Leaves of Grass for $160,000, Schuchard
said—but the real value of the Danowski collection is in the sheer breadth
of its gems.
“I call it ‘building a snowflake,’” Danowski said of
putting together the library, which reaches beyond poetry to writing on important
issues of the 20th century, such as the struggles in Ireland, the Vietnam and
Spanish civil wars, the punk movement in London. “There’s a certain
symmetrical quality to it. It’s more than just a catalog of first editions
of poetry, and that’s where it’s sort of like a snowflake. It has
a pattern to it.”
A former London art dealer who now resides in South Africa, Danowski began his
efforts in the 1970s. Soon he became a full-fledged bibliophile, and as years
passed and his collection grew, Danowski and his books began to attract interest
themselves. He formed Poets’ Trust, a foundation to manage the collection,
and soon his obsession with building the library became an obsession with finding
a proper home for it.
But there was one problem: By the early ’90s, Danowski’s collection
was so massive that selling it whole would be impossible; no single buyer could
pay what it was worth. He would either have to break it up or essentially give
it away. Once he learned the kind of home Emory would provide for the collection,
Danowski chose the second option.
“People were whispering in his ear, ‘You ought to see what they’re
doing at Emory,’” said Steve Enniss, director of Special Collections. “At
the same time, people were saying to us, ‘You need to talk to Raymond
Danowski said he and Schuchard got together in London, at an event to promote
Schuchard’s 1999 book Eliot’s Dark Angel, and the two discovered
they shared a vision of how a university—in this case, Emory—could
become a true center for poetry.
“We both were speaking the same language,” Danowski said. “Then
Steve came on board, with the fine work he was doing in Special Collec-tions,
and the commitment Emory had to what they were doing was very obvious. At that
point, it was just a question of crossing t’s and dotting i’s.”
In addition to Enniss and Schuchard, former President Bill Chace, former interim
Provost Woody Hunter, former Vice Provost for Libraries Joan Gotwals and current
libraries Vice Provost (and former Special Collections director) Linda Matthews
all played significant roles in convincing Danowski that his poetry would find
a safe home in Atlanta.
But the collector wanted more than just safety; Danowski didn’t want his
efforts of nearly three decades to languish inside a steel vault. Enniss said
Danowski wants these materials to be shared and celebrated within the world of
literary scholarship. And that’s exactly what Emory can deliver.
“This collection will draw scholars from around the world; it will enable
us to hold international conferences,” Schuchard said, adding that just
such a conference will be held next fall on British poet Ted Hughes. “It
will enable us to teach students on a level that would not otherwise have been
“Whole chapters of the literary history of our time will be written here
at Emory,” Enniss said. “This gift, to use President [Jim] Wagner’s
words, makes Emory a true destination for this kind of scholarship.”
In the meantime, while the pages of literary history are being written, there
remains the less-glamorous but just-as-rewarding task of cataloging the Danowski
collection. Enniss said it could be many years before everything is fully recorded
and described (“We don’t even know the full size of it now,” he
said), but every wooden crate is a treasure chest of verse.
“Some of the items take your breath away,” Enniss said, looking at
the copy of Leaves of Grass, displayed adjacent to other works of less renown
but similar scholarly value. “Many of them are so rare that
people had no idea they even existed.”