Short version: Why are you reading this, when there’s a new Guy Davenport anthology?
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Longer version: Guy Davenport died in 2005, a victim of chain-smoking, that most writerly of habits. The last piece of his I read before his death was a review of The Library of America edition of Ezra Pound’s “Poems and Translations,” which contains this passage:
Unfortunately, the Library of America text, which students will assume to be authoritative, displays the usual ineptitude with words in Greek. The tag from 'The Odyssey' so neatly tucked into 'Mauberley' has been set properly once, to my knowledge; here a hyperopic printer has seen an omicron with a soft-breathing above it as a delta. Polyphloisboio is misspelled on page 525. The Chinese characters are all set right side up; even so, a Chinese calligrapher might have been employed for an hour to graph them elegantly. What we have instead are Dorothy Pound's laborious tracings.
Of course no other reviewer noticed these errors. I read this casual display of preternatural erudition with astonishment, envy and something stronger than admiration — something like love — as I read almost every review or essay Davenport ever wrote. Who else could make poetry out of an erratum — "A hyperopic printer has seen an omicron with a soft-breathing above it as a delta"? (Actually, Paul Muldoon has done so.) Who else would so craftily note with approval the setting of Chinese characters right side up?
Davenport was not a writer's writer; he was the writer writer's writers read to learn their art. His student Erik Reece, editor of the "The Guy Davenport Reader," calls him "the greatest prose stylist of his generation." He was. But this is like calling the Beatles the best band ever to come out of Liverpool. Davenport — essayist, scholar, fiction writer, translator (his "7 Greeks" and "Logia of Yeshua" are as good as translations get) — was a force (an appropriately Heraclitean word). He seems to have read everything and retained it all. As John Jeremiah Sullivan said of him recently, "There were things, having to do with writing and history, that you could only call Guy about. Now that he's dead, you won't ever call anybody about them."
"The Geography of the Imagination," reprinted here, might be his finest essay, which means it might be the finest essay written in the last half-century or so. Davenport's free-range mind discovers patterns and archetypes where others have seen only discontinuities or, at best, dim resemblances, tracing arabesques of thought that connect Edgar Allan Poe to Alaric the Visigoth, Helen of Troy, Jupiter, Thomas Moore, Thomas Jefferson, Oswald Spengler; Spengler to James Joyce; O. Henry to Persephone; Carlo Collodi's "Pinocchio" to Ovid and Gnosticism and Pygmalion and the Book of Jonah; Thoreau to Diogenes; Eudora Welty to Ovid; Mark Twain to "a fifth-century Athenian mime." And all of these to Grant Wood's "American Gothic," which Davenport reads as a symbolic mosaic of the Industrial Revolution, European Protestantism, Egyptian history, Netherlandish painting, Mediterranean iconography and a dozen other cultural complexes.
"The difference," he writes,
between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.
Davenport saw further into this difference than most — his Herakleitos says that "Eyes are better informers than ears." He was wide awake. He alone explained the mystery of Thoreau's passage in "Walden" about losing a dog, a horse and a dove, which had puzzled scholars for generations (he tracked down its source in Mencius). It doesn't matter what he's writing about; he's worth reading on subjects that don't interest you (he has a way of interesting his reader in what interests him). Wherever you find him, he is ranging across the continuities of human culture, discovering the missing links between prehistoric tools and the poetry of Charles Olson or Russian Futurism, Abbeville County and Lascaux. And always, the discovery is related in sentences that knock other writers dead with envy:
Four years ago there was discovered near Sarlat in the Dordogne the rib of an ox on which some hunter engraved with a flint burin seventy lines depicting we know not what: some god, some animal schematically drawn, a map, the turning of the seasons, the mensurations of the moon…. It is man's oldest known work of art, or plat of hunting rights, tax receipt, star map, or whatever it is.
Davenport could be, in his writings, unlikable and ridiculous. His solitary nature and unworldliness led him to produce sentences like "No one can imagine that there are any American cities left" and complain of "automobiles with their hind ends up like the butts of hemorrhoidal jackrabbits that squawl with their tires and are driven by a hunnish horde of young who have been taught nothing, can do nothing, and exhibit a lemming restlessness" (these examples appear in an essay on Charles Olson not included here). He was the kind of apolitical thinker — not conservative, despite his writings for National Review — who would inform his cat with outrage (as Reece tells it) that "George Bush just started another f— war" and then scream at the kids to get off his lawn.
The "Reader" is likewise imperfect — do we need 10 pages of Davenport's poetry (he had the imagination but not the talent for verse)? And while Reece has chosen some fine stories (but not my favorite, "Fifty-seven Views of Fujiyama"), the book would be better with less of Davenport's fiction and even more of his essays and translations (at least one, for instance, of his several unequaled considerations of Ezra Pound). His stories never lost a certain affectation; in his essays, he wears his brilliance more lightly, more bravely.
And I feel compelled to point out, because Davenport would have, that the book is typo-ridden. Reece's afterword alone contains such solecisms as "arts poetica"; "Friendship is really the dominate theme winding throughout his fiction"; and "de Vinci." Where are the copy editors of yesteryear?
These are minor misgivings. Davenport used to joke that he had only 13 readers. Most readers, he knew, are bad readers. "The real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one's mind in the workings of another sensibility." Such a suspension, in such workings, requires intelligence and perception.
Here's hoping "The Guy Davenport Reader" finds, if not the readership he deserves, then the one that deserves him.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism.
"The Guy Davenport Reader"
By Guy Davenport, edited by Erik Reece, 400 pages, Counterpoint, $30