Emory Report
September 7, 2004
Volume 57, Number 03


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September 7, 2004
World-class poetry collection finds a home

BY Michael Terrazas

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. Eliot’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 possible.”

“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.”