Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Raymond Danowski

More than four decades ago, when Raymond Danowski was an unhappy teenager in the Bronx, he worked after school shelving books in the Burgess-Carpenter Library at Columbia University.
"It was like an oasis for me," Mr. Danowski recalled.

He has traveled a long way since then; his picaresque life as a thrice-married art dealer and book collector has led him throughout the world, and he splits his time between Britain and South Africa.

Now in an astonishingly literal fashion he has donated a library he himself created--some 60,000 volumes and tens of thousands more of periodicals, posters, recordings and other items devoted to 20th-century poetry in the English language--to the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University here.

The Danowski collection includes rare and coveted volumes by T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams and James Merrill, among many others. There is even a first printing of an 1855 edition of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Mr. Danowski said, because of Whitman's influence on later poets.

Mr. Danowski's gift is "the largest English-language poetry collection ever put together by an individual,'' said Stephen Enniss, the director of special collections and archives at the Woodruff Library. With its many treasures, its overall condition (a remarkable number of volumes are pristine) and, most of all, its breadth, Mr. Enniss says, it ranks among the most important literature collections of the last century. The donation instantly transforms Emory into the nation's center for poetry research, said Ronald Schuchard, an English professor at Emory who was instrumental in persuading Mr. Danowski to bring his library here.

"This library contains outstanding copies of the most singular rarities,'' said Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a poet himself. "But beyond that, if there is any book of modern poetry that isn't in it, I'd like to know what it is. With this wildly omnivorous collection, Emory has become one of the major literary archives in North America.''

Amassed over 30 years, the collection was stored first in a barn in Hertfordshire, England, and later in warehouses in London and Geneva. It is uncatalogued in any computer file and the only record of its holdings have until now been in Mr. Danowski's mind. He said that he could envision the library, virtually volume by volume, though he had never seen it all assembled. It was shipped to Atlanta in about 1,500 cardboard boxes and tea crates that filled two 40-foot-long and two 20-foot-long cargo containers.

The library has yet to be completely appraised by Emory. "We place the value at $6 million to $7 million and counting," Earl Lewis, the university provost, said. The gift was made earlier this year, but Emory announced it only this month because it took months for the university to determine what it had.

"A teaching library, one that a grad student could use for doctoral research," Mr. Danowski said. "That's what I set out to make."

In his telling, the collection began with the bibliophilic interest of a reader of poetry in general with a fondness for W. H. Auden in particular. The turning point came in the mid-1970's when a book dealer he knew in London, Bernard Stone, became ill and lost the lease for his business, Turret Press, a popular gathering spot for poets and poetry lovers. To help him, Mr. Danowski said, "I sent him a check for all I could afford, to buy whatever he would match to the check."

He remembers the amount as just £2,000 to £3,000 and the moment "as the start of a problem, more than a collection."

"When I sent Bernard this check," Mr. Danowski said, "he sent a truckload of books to the farm we were living on, and I had to shelve them in this barn. I got hooked on the gaps. "

From then on he spent much of his time on the telephone with book dealers around the world. One was Richard Emmet Aaron, a dealer and archivist who began his business in Switzerland and now lives in California. "In 1978 an English dealer contacted me and said he thought I could be of use to Raymond," Mr. Aaron recalled. "So I sent Raymond my catalog and he ordered practically the entire thing. That got my attention."


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