Charles D. Abbott began the Poetry Collection in 1937, shortly after he was appointed Director of University Libraries at the University of Buffalo. A Rhodes Scholar and book collector, Abbott intended his "Poetry Project" to be poetry's library of record and to serve scholarship in poetry. To achieve his vision, Abbott designed a narrow but exceedingly liberal book collecting policy: to collect all first editions of books of poetry published in English after 1900. First editions were gathered from across the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the entire English-speaking world. This policy remains in place and the first edition collection now numbers more than 100,000 volumes. To study the evolution of poetry, Abbott also initiated the collecting of the little entrepreneurial literary magazine. This premier collection now numbers more than 5,000 titles.
Shortly after two collecting junkets to England and adding Mary Barnard as the Poetry Collection's first curator, Abbott embarked upon collecting the manuscripts and literary letters of living poets. In the late 1930s, this was a bold move. Abbott wrote hundreds of letters literally asking poets for the contents of their wastepaper baskets. Poets from across the English-speaking world responded by donating manuscripts and letters. Contemporary genetic scholarship locates its origins in Abbott's fascination with the creative process.
To add to the manuscript collection, in 1949 the Wickser family purchased a collection of James Joyce manuscripts, books, and portraits. This Joyce collection was augmented in 1958 by the Stafford family who purchased Sylvia Beach's Joyce archive. These archives combined to make the Poetry Collection home to the world's largest James Joyce archive. In 1960, Mildred Lockwood Lacey purchased the poetry manuscripts of Robert Graves for the collection. The collection also holds the papers of William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas, Wyndham Lewis, and Ezra Pound. Today the collection boasts more than 100 unique archives. Among these significant holdings are the papers of the Jargon Society and the Wormwood Review and the manuscripts of Robert Kelly, Theodore Enslin, Kenneth Rexroth, Basil Bunting, and Helen Adam.
Today, as poetry's library of record, the collection has expanded its parameters to include an authoritative collection of poem cards and broadsides. The collection also acquires cheaply made poetry zines and fine press books of poetry. It has one of the largest collections of concrete and visual poetry in any institution. As an extension of visual poetry, the collection boasts a healthy mail art archive.
Charles Abbott believed that a research library's purpose was to mesh with and serve evolving scholarship. To this end, the Poetry Collection regularly hosts international researchers, graduate students, and faculty from all points in North America and each year supports dozens of books and dissertations. The collection's books and manuscripts travel the world as parts of exhibitions. To better serve the world's scholars, an ambitious conservation project has begun, and detailed finding aids to the manuscript collection are being prepared.
Collection Profile and Overview: Michael Basinski
Illustrations: James Ulrich