By Raymond Danowski
The Raymond Danowski Poetry Library is not a personal library in the sense the poet Dana Gioia once spoke of here at Emory when referring to his large personal collection of poetry which he read, loved and kept. Nor is it the disparate rarities of a Bradley Martin whose collecting was a widely cast net.
In the early 70’s I had an idea, “une bibliotheque imaginaire” taking shape in my mind. Was it possible to build a library collecting all 20th century poetry in English first editions and too, the little mags, the small presses, the minutiae, the ephemera avoiding manuscripts and correspondence just print and sound?
I intended to set a contextual collection, envisioning a snowflake, a symmetrical structure relating to issues in the 20th century which impacted upon or influenced poets such as the Spanish civil war, Vietnam, Provo, Black Panther… Strong author collections would be crucial and be as complete as luck would have.
Edward Mendelson in the September 2006 W.H. Auden Society Newsletter writes of his finds here amongst our Auden holdings. What joy to surprise the poet’s literary executor.
The Dutch artist Karel Appel had a house at Yonne, France, Le Chateau Molesmes, the interior detail of which he painted the same bold colours of his palette. Parts of rooms you normally would not pause to examine were now interesting. Similarly I set out to cover every corner, every tread and door knob of the library’s subject so that students using the library had background to the published texts.
It struck me that as much of the material was still in copyright rather than digital transfer the books would be handled in situ and condition and the beauty of the book should be stressed.
Louise Bourgeois asked me while chatting in her New York home how I had been spending my time. “Collecting books”, I said. She exclaimed, “Oh no, I am visual not literary!” “Louise, books as objects!” I rejoined. With a “touché” she crossed to her massive book shelves (yes!) and selected a large book on surrealism, “For you with my apologies”.
Why “books as objects” and the handling of rare books in special collections lead to this library being given to Emory has much to do with Emory professor Ron Schuchard’s vision and my childhood.
I was four years old. My father who had a violent temper warned me not to touch his night school textbooks. I’d sit on the floor in front of his small book case trying to read the gilt lettering on the spines. Avoiding my father occupied my childhood but I had the radio as a first refuge, Saturday, “teddy bear’s picnic” to stories and even opera but especially the fine tuning of short wave.
Born in Manhattan, now living in the Bronx my first book Horton Hatches the Egg I borrowed from the mobile library. Oddly other than comics and school work I didn’t read again a proper book until I was ten years old. I don’t know why.
Burke Avenue was my Bronx elevated train stop returning from school. I did my homework in the Norwegian ice cream parlour there and diagonally across the street my new refuge a candy store where I was allowed to read everyday, stacks of comic books. Then by chance at a class visit to the local branch library of the New York Public Library, one of the pearls of the city, I discovered finally the book: The Count of Monte Cristo. During the next four years I read on average five or six books a week even under blankets with a flashlight at night, The Hardy Boys, Don Camillo, all of Poe, The Sun Also Rises, Jane Eyre, The Naked and the Dead and hundreds more.
I loved reading Poe’s poetry out loud. My uncle, James Malcolm, an aspiring actor gave me a dramatic reading of The Raven, then my favorite. Another uncle, Paul Danowski who was a bartender in Manhattan played the British soccer pools. Whomever placed his bets in England sent him carefully typed out poetry by Auden and MacNeice. From then the 20th century for me was a world defined by Auden.
The Sunday edition of the New York Times had a magazine whose architecture and design pages formed my visual aesthetic along with art exhibitions in Manhattan prompted by my uncle Paul. The 1956 Franz Kline show at Sidney Janis Gallery where the sheer size of the paintings and seeing for the first time white as well as black as a colour was a pivotal experience. My grandfather, William Malcolm had taught me to paint, first with colour pencils then brushes. He took me to Manhattan junk shops searching out pewter. A large gentle man of Scottish descent he did not haggle but I observed how he put pieces back into the dust quietly until the shopkeeper eventually made an acceptable price. His demeanour stayed in my mind, that it was not necessary to behave in an undignified haggling way with dealers. I prefer to see them as gentle men and women unless convinced otherwise.
I traveled by subway from the Bronx to high school in Manhattan at 87th street and West End Avenue. It had a beautiful high ceilinged library, a roof top basketball court and exceptionally good teachers. I wrestled with Virgil’s latin but learned to love The Aeneidwhich remains my favorite poem.
The freedom I felt leaving the Bronx each morning lifted my school days and evening sojourns about Manhattan, altar boy mornings at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, incredibly beautiful girls at Friday night dances, the Museum of Modern Art, galleries, conversations with Frank O’Hara, West 10th street, the Eight Street Book Shop, the poetry slanging match at the Living Theatre, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, watching Paul Klee’s Fish Magic drop a fine line of paint on the carpet of Knoedler Gallery, cheap theatre and music, jazz even if only listening outside the door. New York was then the intellectual center of the world. It was cutting edge art before the art market, poetry in spite of academia when street conversations with another kid or Leroi Jones were normal exchanges not networking.
As a youngster mostly ignored but at home in that world I was brave enough to speak up, to ask questions and laugh in the face of the pompous, but always too young to be taken seriously.
My aunt, Catherine Malcolm working at Columbia University promoted for me an after school and summer job at the Burgess Carpenter Library at Columbia. It was an opportunity to read voraciously and do enough book shelving to appease Mr. Palmer the librarian. Coworkers were two guys my age and a large contingent of laid back doctoral students in English Lit. The camaraderie continued well after work. Not a normal work place and unlike attending university these guys were the brightest minds doing the lowest work and even as a kid I was accepted as an equal.
Years later Ron Schuchard and I were sitting on the floor of his drinks party at the Senate House London University following a book launch. He spoke of undergraduates needing access to special collections, of creating a new special collections library at Emory with dedicated study rooms where supervised undergraduates could handle rare books, feel the magic and simultaneously be visually on line to other examples around the world. I thought immediately of those guys at Burgess-Carpenter trusting me in their intellectual world, of Louis Bourgeois’ fascination with “the book as object”, with the pleasure of finding an as new copy of a rare book, holding it in your hands. I voted for Emory right then.
I don’t own a computer and I created this library keeping every publication and its condition in my head like the conductor of a symphony orchestra working with the score in his head. Duplications were the downside of buying collections.
Leading the string section could only have been Bernard Stone of Turret Books, London and the woodwinds, Richard Aaron of Am Here Books, now of Illinois. Both men passionate about poets, about the poetry they liked, they further acted as conduits and staging posts for other dealers, as scouts, bidders at auction and devil’s advocates.
Rare things were acquired from: Ed Maggs, Andrew Sclanders, Ralph Sipper, Maurice Neville, a brilliant periodical dealer in The Netherlands whose name escapes me, Henrietta Dax, Dennis Hall, Louisa Riley-Smith, Paul Mills, absolutely Harold Landry, David Dawson, Miles, Arthur H. Cohen, John Martin, Peter Howard, Peter Rowan, William Hoffer, James Jaffe, Larry Wallrich, James Shoemaker, Rota, David Worship, Bob Wilson, Andreas Brown, Nick Kimberley, Jordan Davies and others.
To paraphrase Geoffrey B. Charlesworth an Englishman transplanted to the Berkshires in Massachusetts; although he wrote “gardening”, I want to say book collecting is fun; serious fun possibly but always an antidote to the idiocies of life and the pretensions of academia. Book collecting is an outlet for fanaticism, passion, love, and rationality without their drawbacks. Charlesworth writes, “One is at one’s most serious when engaged in fun because without optimism and joy we face an abyss”.
My first collected book was the Spiral Press edition of Poe with a copy of the periodical Merlin. My favorite short poem Winterbome by N P Van Wyk Louw. My favorite poem in English is Fragment Thirty-Six by H.D. Stones by O’Hara and Rivers my favorite object.
Steve Enniss asked which was the most expensive book. The William Carlos Williams first may have had a high price but it certainly was the most expensive in a different way. Buying it I remembered my rather strict protocol to collect only published works. I had strayed from this, delighting in owning a unique William Burroughs cutup. So in a spirit of righteous enthusiasm I sold it, a perfect example perhaps of perfection being the enemy of the good. If I was not being such a puritan I’d have taken it into my personal library of prose first editions. Now it remains my favorite lost item.
Joy and abundance. It was fun. Thank you.