Rescued from Obscurity: Sarah Piatt and The Larry Michaels Poetry Collection

Books from The Larry Michaels Poetry Collection
Books from The Larry Michaels Poetry Collection

When it comes to 19th-century American poetry, women poets have often been overlooked in favor of their male counterparts. For Dr. Larry Michaels, this is simply unacceptable.

"Women poets of the 19th century provide a fertile field for research," says Michaels, who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Toledo. "So much poetry was published, but most of the poets, except for Emily Dickinson, have been largely forgotten."

Michaels, who describes poetry as a lifelong interest, discovered Sarah Piatt while reading Emerson Venable's Poets of Ohio.

"I was struck by [her work]," he says. "Poems such as 'No Help' or 'A Pique at Parting' amazed me with their outspoken, down-to-earth, engaging readability."

Cover of "That New World" by Sarah Piatt

Enamored with her poetry, Michaels began collecting Piatt's works, primarily through online auctions. Through these "bidding wars," Michaels met Dr. Elizabeth Renker, the driving force behind the Sarah Piatt Recovery Project at The Ohio State University. The project includes multiple initiatives designed to collect works by Piatt not currently available in modern editions and to provide records of the scholarly work accomplished to resurface her writing.

"Dr. Renker is an amazing professor," says Michaels. "She [was] incorporating Sarah's poetry into her classes. She invited me to talk with some of her classes. Students really liked Sarah's poems, a sure sign of her reputation growing into the future. Once I met Dr. Renker, I knew a Piatt collection belonged at Ohio State."

As his connection to Ohio State grew through his relationship with Renker, Michaels became more involved with the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (RBML).

"I first met Larry and his wife Suzi in 2018 when I gave them a tour of my exhibit Poets, Punks, and Pioneers: Self-Publishing in American Literature," says Jolie Braun, RBML's Curator of Modern Literature and Manuscripts. "We began discussing his poetry collection; much of it was by little-known women writers, and several were self-published."

"The more I became involved with Ohio State, the more I wanted RBML to have anything they were willing to take," says Michaels. "My first donations to RBML were several of Sarah's books. I realized how scarce they were, and they were becoming more expensive as Sarah began to appear in anthologies in the 1990s."

"Larry's materials related to Sarah Piatt are very exciting and important, as RBML is actively developing its Piatt holdings and digital projects and is on its way to becoming a hub for Sarah Piatt scholarship," says Braun.

Julie Beroukas Snyder, Chief Development Officer for University Libraries, underscores the importance of donations like Michaels'. "Before this recovery project, access to Piatt’s work was extremely limited," she says. "By donating materials to a place like Ohio State, people, programs and communities can connect with that material to teach with it, to learn from it and to use it for research."

"Ohio State is the model for how to connect students, particularly undergraduates, with rare books and manuscripts for their learning and research," says Snyder. "We don't just collect materials to have them sit there. We're the place where that spark, that learning happens."

"The enthusiasm and the future possibilities for the collections are very exciting," says Michaels. "The Piatt Collection is expanding rapidly to include anything connected with her life and work."

Books from The Larry Michaels Poetry Collection

While Piatt's work is a primary focus, Michaels' donations to RMBL encompass a vast array of 19th and 20th-century writers.

"The Larry Michaels Poetry Collection consists of more than 350 original volumes of poetry mostly by women; many of the writers are not well-known," says Braun. "Many of the titles are extremely rare."

"As much as RBML is interested, I want to donate more first editions or letters of 20th-century poets," says Michaels. His most recent donation includes more than 30 bibliographies of 19th-century American women poets.

"These bibliographies, which Larry began working on in the 1990s during his research on Sarah Piatt, are really a goldmine for students and researchers interested in 19th-century American women poets," says Braun. 

"My hope is that the bibliographies I compiled on 19th century American women poets, many of them forgotten, will help future scholars and students locate books and periodical publications that would otherwise be difficult to find," says Michaels. "Many important poets, like Piatt, did not find their true audience until after their own lifetimes. I've discovered many gems hidden away in the vast amount of poetry published in that interesting period in our history, the 19th century, and hope there will be more valuable discoveries to come."

"Donations of both materials and funds are essential to RBML's ability to continue developing our collections in meaningful, new and exciting ways that speak to the teaching and research needs of faculty, students and scholars," says Braun. "A donation such as [Michaels'] poetry collection isn't just about the monetary value of the items, although certainly, they are valuable. It takes expertise, dedication and years of work to create a collection like this. It is one of a kind."

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