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.
Danowski can no longer just open a box and rummage. Instead, more than five years after handing over his library to Emory, he finds himself relying on the university’s staff to navigate his way around his collection, where books he once stacked in random, anarchic heaps are making their way onto shelves organized by subject matter.
“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 hundred 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.”
And so Danowski collected everything—pamphlets, magazines, chapbooks, broadsides, posters, journals, playbills, and audio recordings—anything, in fact, that he believed could shed light on the seminal issues of the 20th century, from the struggle for Irish freedom and the Spanish Civil War to women’s liberation and the Black Panther movement.
“It is a library of the mind, which is to say that Raymond had it all in his head,” says the poet Kevin Young, the curator of the collection, which—until it came to Emory—was not cataloged on a computer or in any kind of database.
“This was a glorious madman who would not let reason stop him from acquiring books,” says Dana Gioia, poet, essayist, and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Danowski’s collecting was so thorough that Gioia was able to find examples of his own early, obscure poems that he himself had forgotten. “That’s a sign of a pretty good collection, if it includes stuff the author himself didn’t remember publishing.”
Danowski describes his quest as an “obsession, but not in the sense of going mad. I understood it in the sense of trying to be complete. I wasn’t a gentleman collector of Auden or imagist poetry. I just wanted completeness.”
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 four-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.
It was not until some years later, when his aunt secured him a job shelving books at Columbia University’s Burgess-Carpenter Library, that he came to realize books could be a sanctuary. It was there that the teenager found refuge from his bleak home life, learning about books from doctoral students and sneaking off into quiet corners to read.
“I was just always interested in books,” he says. “For me, I really love holding them and seeing what they feel like. I can get lost in them.”
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 bibliotheque imaginaire—a library of all 20th-century poetry in English, not just from the United States but 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.”
As book after book came to his farm in Hertfordshire, England, he shelved his growing collection in a barn, and before long he found himself obsessing over how much was missing: “It was all links and gaps,” he explains. “I realized I had nothing, just a drop in a bucket.”
Eventually, he accumulated so much that he had to ship the collection to a warehouse. After spending 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 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 Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library to explore Danowski’s collection.)
When Schuchard first traveled to Geneva to get a sense of the scope of Danowski’s material, he was led to a warehouse the size of a basketball court. It was crammed with boxes stacked 10 feet high, and the first box Schuchard happened to open contained the first edition of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock.
“Right then, I knew we were in the right place,” he recalls. “The scholarly world didn’t even know this book existed, and here was the copy the poet presented to the woman he loved for many years.”
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. Gioia says it 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.
“One of the dangers of research is you live among dusty volumes, but this is not an abstract, lifeless collection,” he says. “It is one that is fragrant with humanity. It is full of books by people who loved poetry.”
The collection offers all kinds of insights into the milieu of the poetry world at a particular time. Among the more than 1,000 volumes by W.H. Auden is a copy of a book of early poems published privately when he was a student at Oxford University. Inside he scrawled a playful inscription to his friend and fellow poet Stephen Spender:
Stephen Spender does worse
Than loving boys and verse
He writes prose
And bleeds at the nose.
Other books, like Anne Sexton’s review copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, illuminate how one poet reads another. Sexton underlined what would become some of Plath’s most-quoted lines (“Your body / Hurts me as the world hurts God,” from “Fever 103°”), and wrote all over the margins in pencil and red and blue ink. At the end of the poem “Ariel,” she noted: “Suicidal cauldron of morning is both an image of rebirth and a place where one is cooked; and the red solar eye in Freudian terms serves is the eye of the father, the patriarchal superego which destroys and devours with a single glance.”
So huge is the collection that it took four sea-freight containers, containing more than 1,000 boxes and tea crates, to bring it to Atlanta. Librarians, graduate students, and volunteers spent more than a year unpacking all the volumes.
“With each box, we never knew what we were going to find,” marvels David Faulds, the rare book librarian at MARBL. “It was kind of like a triage system, weeding out the key pieces.”
And so there was joy when a graduate student actually picked out a green leather book with a title in gold lettering. It was the rare first edition of Leaves of Grass, which Whitman issued anonymously in 1855, with a frontispiece depicting himself, dressed as a laborer, with one hand on his hip. The librarians knew this book was somewhere among the treasures, but it had been a total mystery where to look.
For all the excitement about the rare volumes, Danowski said he often had to field questions about why his poetry library contained so many items that were not in fact poetry, or why it contained so many volumes with so little poetic worth.
“If you’re studying Whitman,” Danowski explains, “it seems obvious that a fanzine from an English punk is not relevant—but it could be. That’s the whole point of studying—to see these associations and influences and reflections. For me, the strength of my collection was that I collected everything.”
As the boxes were opened, perhaps the most frequent question was “What is this?” Schuchard, for example, recalls opening a book of tatty, disheveled books, wondering what possessed Danowski to keep them. They turned out to be much of the contents of W.H. Auden’s personal library.
That process continues even though all the boxes are now unpacked: more than half of the collection is still uncataloged and librarians are continuing to discover important pieces, such as surrealist art periodicals from the 1930s and a near-complete run of the Irish newspaper Poblacht na h-Eirann War News, printed during the Irish Civil War.
The sign-in sheet on the 10th floor of the Woodruff Library offers a glimpse of visitors’ range of interests and obsessions: W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, the Black Panther movement, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes. One person has written “Everything”—a sentiment the library’s creator would no doubt approve.
After following a graduate student around his collection on his recent visit, Danowski plucks a random book—The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse—from a shelf and falls silent as he cradles the spine and casts his eye over a Maori poem. And then he moves on, past Negro Poets and Their Poems and An Anthology of Orkney Verse. Suddenly he hones in on a thin volume, “Black Book,” a pamphlet published by the South Vietnam Committee for the Denunciation of the Crimes of the U.S. Imperialists and Their Henchmen, with a preface by Mrs. Isabell Blume.
“We’ve got it all here,” he says, struggling to contain his glee. “Look anywhere and you’ll find wonderful things.”