The Guy Davenport Reader. Counterpoint. 400 pp. $30.00.
Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” To my mind there are three essential English-language poet-critics of the second half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first: William H. Gass, Hugh Kenner, and Guy Davenport, all born within five years of each other during the roaring ’20s. In addition to their other writings, the bounty of their work about key modernist writers, including Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, constitute some of their most sacred writings. Gass’s essays on Stein are renowned, and Kenner’s The Pound Era, plus six books or significant parts of books on Joyce, are required reading. Kenner and Davenport knew each other well and dedicated books to one another, with Davenport twice contributing drawings to Kenner’s books. Davenport wrote along the same lines, tracing the modernists back to the ancients in his work (he wrote study guides to The Iliad and The Odyssey), including an in-depth explication of Pound’s first thirty cantos.
A Rhodes Scholar who taught nearly thirty years in universities (mostly at the University of Kentucky), Davenport made his life his own, keeping away from the New York literary scene and rarely granting interviews—he did not even have a driver’s license. Nurturing a yen for solitariness, Davenport also wrote accomplished fiction and translated early texts, including Sappho, Heraclitus, and Diogenes. Now, Counterpoint, Davenport’s main press in his later years, has brought together all modes of his work, including those translations, into the Guy Davenport Reader.
Our poet-critic’s stories aren’t so much stories as essayistic, belletristic, epistolary, and fragmented like the Sappho he cherished, especially a masterwork like “The Concord Sonata.” An homage to the words of Henry David Thoreau, it takes as its starting point passages in two books Thoreau worked on at the same time. Davenport uses a sentence from A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers to describe three mysterious sentences in Walden (beginning, “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail”), calling them, “a paragraph which no intelligence can understand.” From there, the Chinese philosopher Meng Tze shows up, becoming a character with his own drama over two thousand years before. In another essential piece, “The Death of Picasso,” Davenport employs the French Republican Calendar, with such lilting month names as “Floreal” and “Prairial,” to serve as entry titles in this diary story. The narrator chronicles the lives of himself and another Dutchman living on a small island in 1973 as the radio reports Picasso has died. He is there to write a book of essays on art, and this death and art in general are on his mind as he strays into historical diversions. Sometimes, a meditative mood strikes:
The feeling again yesterday afternoon that the hour belonged to a previous, perhaps future, time, but was decidedly not now. I was looking out of the window, at afternoon light on bushes, in an elation of melancholy, savoring one truth and another without fear or anxiety, at peace with myself. Then this deliciously strange feeling that time is nothing, or is my friend rather than my enemy.
Such a delicate pace recalls the refractions of light, water, and words in Virginia Woolf, a stately preamble of image and emotion building to a final sentence standing as an almost Heraclitian kernel.
In the essays, Davenport puts forth a unique way of looking at and thinking about art, beginning with “The Geography of the Imagination,” which arrives as a clap of thunder, boldly delineating the most important word in his oeuvre: “imagination, like all things in time, is metamorphic. It is also rooted in a ground, a geography. The Latin word for the sacredness of a place is cultus, the dwelling of a god, the place where a rite is valid. Cultus becomes our word culture . . .” Yet Davenport’s anthropological approach doesn’t dominate—in fact, it’s eviscerated a page later when he favors a more fictive and earthy stance over anything resembling academic jargon: “The imagination is like the drunk man who lost his watch, and must get drunk again to find it.” This marvelously hewn sentence is the work of a scholar who can quote Homer’s Greek, but can also sit on a stoop with a beer and talk baseball. What follows is an exegesis of Edgar Allen Poe, mapping out the symbols he uses in the poem, “The Raven” and how they echo Graeco-Roman culture. From there, Davenport brings in Spengler, then plumbs the depths of an O. Henry story before writing that the geography of imagination extended from the shores of the Mediterranean to Iowa and Grant Wood’s landmark painting, American Gothic. Davenport’s genius is that he is able to cull the lineage of art, to dig into its anatomy, bring out the viscera and tell us what is going on, citing with certainty that “what is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic,” as so often in his work any examination of a modern figure will call on an ancient to define him or her better.
This practice is fine-tuned in the piece “Symbol of the Archaic,” where Davenport is a tracker, keeping his readers honest and on alert, at times throwing in fun facts with dexterity: “man, whose bulk is one twelve hundred and fiftieth of that of a whale, whose lifespan is a third of that of a goose, and whose advantages over his fellow creatures are all mechanical and therefore dependant on the education of each generation.” He also challenges one’s will to make art by reminding us that Picasso completed a painting every three days of his eighty years on earth. Of the famous caves in France that Picasso studied and incorporated into his own work, Davenport says:
the bisque-colored, black-maned prancing tarpan of Lascaux . . . is one of the most characteristic works of twentieth-century art, for quite literally ours are the first eyes to see it ever. . . . The best way to see it has always been as a color reproduction in a book; and now this is the only way to see it; twenty years of tourists’ breaths caused bacteria to grow in the paint, and Lascaux, the most beautiful of the prehistoric caves, has been closed forever.
Davenport is one of the best guides through the art world—a discriminating writer who speaks in a forthright manner about art that excels and the world as it is. He sets a tone by filling our minds with gradations of a distant picture—in ways unique to language, the sensations of his word choice and word order make the archaic apprehendable.
The piece “Finding” is a real treasure. Though Davenport is often shy to reveal himself, “Finding” is one of the few essays strictly dedicated to dramatizing the author’s life—in this case the search for Indian arrows with the rest of his family on Sunday afternoons in childhood. Besides the personal significance, what makes it such a benchmark is that it provides a catalyst for the type of critic/enthusiast Davenport would become—his early rituals morphing into his methods of searching texts for the Indian arrows they contain because of a rule his family instilled in him: “everything in its place. To this day I paint in one part of my house, write in another, read . . . in fact, in two others . . . frivolous and delicious reading . . . in one room, scholarship in another.” Davenport’s dedication to and sheer passion for art is typified by such a passage, which is also an example of his folksy appeal.
The afterword by his former student and now literary executor, Erik Reece, is a wonderful portrait of the writer with little sugared sentimentality. He was a tough soul, but he cared about art, as Reece says, “The greatest compliment I ever heard Guy pay another artist was when he said, ‘When [British filmmaker] Mike Leigh gets to heaven, Chekhov will want to shake his hand.’” The man put his soul into action through his words, collages, studies, and dialogues with the classics—though he lived in the middle of Kentucky he certainly would have fit better into a toga and the world of words and lesser egos in ancient times. As Reece says:
He hated everything related to the notion of self. I don’t mean that he hated himself, but rather that he hated the American cult of self and he especially hated the role of the writer as prophet. He found it all unseemly and would quote Menander as saying, “Talking about one-self is a feast that starves the guest.”
Davenport’s effect is anchored and weighted because his stories and critiques come in the spirit of sharing wisdom, like a Socrates. He sees the world as he imagines Heraclitus saw it two thousand some years ago, while keeping modern lenses in his pocket to detect other details. His interest is to instruct, to speak bluntly at times—“A writer’s own sense of influences is spurious and frequently preposterous”—and to celebrate aspects of culture that display great beauty. He died eight years ago, but his imagination lives in print, a wellspring to notables from the likes of William H. Gass to John Jeremiah Sullivan. It’s a joy to get acquainted with him.
Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. His website is GregGerke.com
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- More Notes Towards an Ideal Reader: A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel Alberto Manguel's new book, A Reader on Reading, is actually a collection of older works—lectures, newspaper pieces, the occasional New York Review of Books essay—gathered here under the twin assumptions that a) most readers won't have seen all of this stuff in its original appearance, and b) more books by...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Greg Gerke